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A Big Year For Swimrun! Review Of 2023 + Predictions For The Future

Swimrun becomes an adult next year as the sport celebrates its 17th birthday, and what a journey it has been from a totally obscure first race in 2006 which had 4 finishers to an estimated participation rate of circa 25,000 athletes in 2023.

There is a phrase ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ and how swimrun has flourished over the years from those humble beginnings to a sport enjoyed in over 30 countries.

2023 has been the year of the big, small and a swimrun evolution. ÖTILLÖ Swimrun has expanded substantially but don’t ignore the small guy, there are more organisers than ever before building up the base of the sport and getting people to try swimrun through accessible races. Race formats have evolved and the ‘identity’ of swimrun challenged as it becomes a mass market sport. 

ÖTILLÖ Swimrun

ÖTILLÖ Swimrun is the biggest and most well known brand in swimrun and in a surprise move acquired America’s biggest brand Ödyssey Swimrun. There are rumours that further acquisitions and new races are on the cards as ÖTILLÖ grows. Comparisons have been made with the Ironman Group (who also own the UTMB World Series). And one might imagine that one day ÖTILLÖ Swimrun could be a part of this group. 

ÖTILLÖ’s growth is a really good thing for the sport of swimrun: a successful and vibrant ÖTILLÖ will bring more awareness and participation across the board. We spoke to Dominik Leu, a partner at ÖTILLÖ Swimrun for his thoughts:

Swimrun will continue to grow in all corners of the world and we are very excited to drive this development. This year we have seen more new people come to the sport than ever before and the swimrun community welcomed them with open arms. It was really great to see the anticipation and excitement of those who did their first swimrun. We (ÖTILLÖ) are very eager to carry this momentum into 2024 and we are working hard to further enhance the event experience at all ÖTILLÖ races. We especially see a lot of growth potential for Swimrun in North America, where we will have at least five ÖTILLÖ races in 2024.

Where and how will the sport of swimrun grow?

Currently Sweden, France, Great Britain & the USA have the most number of swimrun events. There are also thriving swimrun communities in Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece & Scandinavia along with trail blazing individual races which fly the flag in their countries (such as Torpedo Swimrun in South Africa). Access to swimrun locations and the high cost per athlete of putting these events on, continues to be a challenge. That being said, there are more races than ever before and on an upward curve.

The biggest triathlon markets are the USA, Germany, France & Great Britain. It would seem a logical conclusion that these could all become the biggest swimrun markets of the future – albeit Sweden as the birthplace of swimrun will always have a central place and role to play within the sport. 

The largest (known to us) field this year was in France with 1100+ participants at Swimrun Côte Vermeille. And for the first time ever, fields of 600+participants have been seen at multiple of races.

At this critical juncture, swimrun still needs more participation. Nick Bailey (on the left), Race Director of As Keen As Mustard Events summarises: 

The future of swimrun depends on introducing new people to this amazing sport. Without new participants the sport won’t grow. We need to share how inclusive, exciting, adventurous and soul feeding the whole experience is. Help this sport grow by sharing your experiences, talk, chat online and next time you enter…bring a friend!

ÖTILLÖ’s Dominik agrees with Nicky:

First and foremost it is about communication. We need to keep communicating to reach new audiences and then convince them to try swimrun and participate in an event. Secondly, it is about having a well organised and very safe event.

The development of new races 

2023 has been an excellent year for new races and putting on a first event is hard. New races are essential for serving the existing community of swimrunners and bringing in new people to the sport. Here are some of the new races from this year: 

Swimrun Tróia, Portugal

As Keen As Mustard Survivor, UK 

Swimrun Valras, France

EcoSwimRun Butgenbach, Belgium 

Finnhamn Swimrun, Sweden 

Mad Hatter Gribbin, UK 

Southeast Swimrun Thames Young Mariners, UK 

Swimrun Coniston, UK 

Sydney North Swimrun, Australia

And worth highlighting a new race to look forward too in 2024: Studland Swimrun 

The dark knight rises: the rise of the solo swimrunner 

With growth comes change and evolution. Individual swimrun participation is very much on the rise and teams on the decline – only five races (that we know about) limit their races to pairs only: Cancaven Swimrun, Troll Enez Swimrun, Swimrun Côte Vermeille, Swimrun Hydra and the ÖTILLÖ, Swimrun World Championship

Is this an issue? Well yes it is. 

Racing with a partner is a unique part of swimrun, and one of the core pillars in which the sport was founded. There are two elements of being part of a team which are worth discussion: 

First: sharing an adventure and experience with a friend. That companionship was central to the first ever swimrun journey between four friends and indeed many of the early races. Racing as a team is a wonderful and unique experience which is just not replicated as a solo athlete. 

Secondly, and in a team, there is a practical safety reason for being as a pair. As swimrun races are more exposed than most events and your partner can help you if needed. Imagine getting cramp on an exposed 1 mile sea swim? Swimrun doesn’t have the same water safety cover as say triathlon, it is a sport created from adventure racing after all. You (as a solo athlete) have a much higher risk profile than in a team. Rockman Swimrun which is arguably the hardest race in the world, and is a pairs only for the 2024 edition pairs only edition which is in part driven by athlete safety in the mountains.

On the other side of the coin, it is difficult to train on someone else’s schedule and match your abilities, goals and diaries. Therefore solo participation allows the sport to reach more people and encourage more participation and therefore growth. Solo swimrun participation is clearly here to stay, but we must keep teams as an integral part of the sport. It would be a very sad day indeed, if teams become a relic of the past. 

Discussion point: swimrun national federations

Will swimrun ever be an Olympic sport? Well actually it just might. There is a clear shift away from conventional track and field to making the Olympics a spectacle, surfing was introduced in the last Olympics. Why not swimrun? 

Swimrun should absolutely be in the Olympics. It is a sport which shares many values of the Olympic Games. And a format which could work as shown by EX Swimrun, Yotta XP & As Keen As Mustard Survivor. Fast and accessible courses which are very spectator friendly for friends, family and the media.  

We can expect swimrun to become more professional. According to Dominik Leu: 

Swimrun events and Swimrun athletes will become more and more professional. There will be new and different race formats and distances, all of which we think is very good as it attracts new audiences to the sport.

A question which divides opinion on the formation of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) to help steer the growth of swimrun. There are compelling arguments on both sides, swimrun is a sport of free expression and interpretation thus any NGB which adds layers of bureaucracy are unlikely to be popular with people who organise swimrun races. 

We asked ÖTILLÖ if they would support a NGB: 

National Federations should first and foremost serve the athletes and that we would very much support. We have amazing athletes at our races who get no support at all from any national federation.

An example where a National Federation could help is standardising of race distances into categories. Swimrun has adopted a hybrid approach to describing races loosely based on triathlon’s categorisation: Sprint, Full etc but it seems organiser’s struggle with a consistent categorisation which in turn is confusing for an athlete who might complete a Sprint Race which is 10km or 21km long.

Swimrun values 

At the heart of the sport is inclusivity and friendship. People get hooked on swimrun as it goes far beyond just hammering out a PB. New people are welcomed with open arms. Old faces look forward to reconnecting with each other. Swimrun is the focal point. Dominik Leu summarises ‘the open-minded and welcoming spirit that has become a trademark of the swimrun community’.

Another key component of swimrun is protecting and respecting nature and sharing positive environmental messages. Two organisations which we think are really flying the flag for eco-friendly races and messaging: LoveSwimRun & Immeln Swimrun.

What role does swimrun.com play? 

Our mission is to promote and help grow the sport of swimrun. We do that by creating content that spreads the word, highlights races and people and shares some of the best things which are going on in the sport. Readership of the website has grown from a monthly readership of 300 when we launched two years ago to 8000+ per month with about 20% returning each month. 

Ideas, thoughts, contributions and partnerships discussions are always welcome, please get in touch with us here to chat!

And with 2024 looming, there really never has never been a better time to sign up to an event…

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Fred Newton

Fred is the Editor and co-founder of swimrun.com. He has actively been involved with the sport of swimrun as an enthusiastic participant, race director, volunteer and journalist.

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