Coach to chair open water safety committee

By Aaron Graff

There are several swimming committees across the nation, and it is the chairman’s job to lead every committee into keeping the sport as safe as possible going forward.

Saluki Swimming Coach Rick Walker has once again been named chairman of one of those organizations, the Open Water Development Committee, for 2014.

Walker was the first member selected to the committee and has been named the chairman every year the committee has been in place.


The committee was put in place when former University of Virginia swimmer, Francis Crippen drowned in an open water swim meet 500 meters from the finish Oct. 23, 2010 in the United Arab Emirates. Walker said everyone involved wanted to make sure that would not happen again.

“The committee was implemented after the death of Fran Crippen,” Walker said. “He was someone who I admired and cared for deeply and worked with before.”

According to an article that anounced Crippen’s death, the temperature of the water was mid-to-high 80’s and several swimmers were treated for heat exhaustion after the race.

The article also said swimmers were the first ones to respond when Crippen did not show up on the shore. The swimmers went back in the water before everyone else arrived to search for him.

The committee currently consists of nine members and Walker said every year the President of USA Swimming, Bruce Stratton, appoints the chairman of every swimming committee across the nation.

Walker said the committee is tremendously important to open water swimming.

“I think it means the world to the sport,” Walker said. “Our biggest issue is that we can make everything really safe here in the U.S, but the second our national team swimmers leave the borders, what are other federations doing to keep the sport safe?”

Walker’s goal as chairman is to spread awareness and make sure the same rules USA Swimming use are spread across the world to make things safer elsewhere.

“Part of what we try to do within our committee is to apply pressure to other federations around the world to implement the same safety guidelines to look after the athletes,” Walker said.

Open water differs from pool swimming in several ways. Not only is nature unable to be regulated, but swimmers do not have their own lane. Graduate Assistant Coach Michael Firth said there are more things that can go wrong in open water meets.

“With open water events there are a lot of things that can happen,” Firth said. “With open water stuff, if something does happen, there has to be protocols for quick and efficient safety procedures.”

Firth has never competed in a strictly open water swim race, but he has swum open water in triathlons. He said it is completely different than lane swimming because swimmers have to make sure they are on route and avoid other swimmers’ kicks.

Senior Pamela Benitez has swum in both pool and open water events and said the committee plays a role in keeping the sport safe. She said each swimmer should do a warm up and test the body of water beforehand and be alert of the environment at all times.

“They have to check the temperature of the water,” Benitez said. “They have to make a recognition of the area and measure certain things like the wind.”

Benitez said she is honored Walker is her coach, and she is proud that he is the chairman of the committee.

“I did not know before coming here he was such a great coach,” Benitez said. “Being a part of USA Swimming is such an amazing thing in the swimming world. I know he knows a lot about open water, and I respect that a lot.”

Aaron Graff can be contacted at

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