For standard marathon swims such as the English Channel, Santa Barbara Channel, or Catalina Channel, swimmers need not concern themselves with “proving” they did the swim. For these swims, the authenticity of a swimmer’s claim is supported by the legitimacy of the local sanctioning organization - legitimacy derived from the marathon swimming community’s trust in the organization’s leaders and procedures.
A legitimate local sanctioning organization provides trained observers to document swims and verify adherence to the organization’s published swim rules. Although it’s difficult to “prove” an event witnessed by few, many miles out to sea, any swim ratified by trusted organizations such as the CS&PF, SBCSA, or CCSF is generally accepted without question by the marathon swimming community. A swim log completed by the official observer is viewed as the only “proof” needed (though ironically, these logs are almost never made public, and in some cases are held quite tightly by the organization).
But what about swims for which there is no well-established sanctioning organization? How do you make a swim “count” in ungoverned waters, without a trusted sanctioning organization to back up your claims?
(The phrase “making it count” in reference to marathon swimming derives from an upcoming book by Dr. Karen Throsby.)
This isn’t a new problem, of course. Marathon swimmers have been undertaking adventurous, independent swims since the beginning - indeed, even Captain Webb’s crossing was an “independent” swim, as were all English Channel swims before the formation of the CSA in 1927.
For most of our sport’s murky history, independent swims have been informally vetted on the basis of personal reputation — e.g., a well-established record of accomplishment on standard, sanctioned swims. If Kevin Murphy or Lynne Cox or David Yudovin (RIP) did a swim in some far-off land, it was simply accepted as truth. Lynne Cox swam; therefore Lynne Cox swam. Because Lynne and Kevin and David are known, trusted quantities.
In fairness, I believe many of the higher-profile independent swims of the past were observed, though much original documentation has been lost to the ages, apart from brief mentions in Wind, Waves, and Sunburn.
But recently there has been a paradigm shift in the standards and practices of documenting independent marathon swims. The shift may have been inspired at some level by certain high-profile, highly-doubted swim claims. But more fundamentally, the shift was made possible by advances in handheld technology and electronic communication, and the existence of an organization — the Marathon Swimmers Federation — specifically formed to serve independent swimmers.
Through my role as official observer on the first two successful Farallon Islands solo swims since 1967, I’ve given much thought in the past year to the challenges and opportunities of documenting independent swims. My report on Craig Lenning’s swim, published in April last year, eventually led to seven MSF Documented Swims. Multi-dimensional, multimedia reports that have helped make independent marathon swims more transparent to the community and more accessible to the public.
As we embark on the second year of MSF Documented Swims, I’m excited to find out what adventures my fellow swimmers will dream up, and to vicariously experience these adventures through their documentation.