Provo’s Race for the Conch: An Intro to Open Water Swimming

open water swimming

In July, the annual Race for the Conch open-water swimming race will be held at Grace Bay, on the island of Providenciales. To help visitors to Turks and Caicos learn more about this sport, USA Swimming’s Mike Lewis provides an introduction to this fascinating and popular pursuit. 

What is open water swimming?

Open water swimming is, as the name suggests, swimming in water that is not confined by lane lines or walls. Although there are differences in strategy between “pure" open water swimming races and triathlons, they are actually quite similar. Both have mass starts, both require the swimmer to navigate not only the course but within the pack of swimmers.  

What is the attraction of open water swimming?

There are so many things that make open water swimming attractive, and many of these things are subjective. A few such aspects are that the freedom of swimming in open water is very liberating, there’s a lot of camaraderie amongst open water swimmers, and it’s great to explore new places via the water. For competitors, it’s very challenging and takes a lot of fortitude and strategy to succeed at the highest level. For most open water swimmers, the challenge and satisfaction are very attractive.

Can anyone do it? Do you need special training?

First of all, most anyone who commits themselves to open water can do it. But it’s not something to be taken lightly. Swimmers should be well conditioned and know the in’s and out’s of the water in which they are swimming. Safety is paramount. Swimmers should never swim alone and there should always be safety procedures in place. I always say, 'Swim within your limits and do it what it takes to prepare yourself to expand those limits over time.'

What are some misconceptions about the sport?

I’d say for ocean swims it’s being eaten by sharks - the reality is shark attacks are VERY uncommon. I guess the other misconception is that it’s too hard or you have to be the best swimmer in the pool to hit the open water.  No doubt you need to be prepared, but with proper preparation, open water swimming is very accessible and fun.

Where is the biggest open water swimming community?

Open water swimming is one of the fastest growing mass participation activities in the world. There are numerous races and swimming groups throughout the world. It’s very popular in Europe (Great Britain has big numbers), Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. It’s actually difficult to pinpoint a region that is the biggest - it’s truly world-wide.

Where is the best place for spectators to watch an open water swimming race?

The finish is the best place. But if you can watch the start that’s an exciting part of the race too. Much like bicycle road racing you can also see a lot of the strategy unfold in the middle of the race too.

What’s your connection to open water swimming?

I’ve been open water swimming for nearly 30 years. I started competing when I was in high school in some races in northern California. I do all the broadcast and venue announcing for USA Swimming’s open water events. I’m a photographer ( and do media for a number of big open water races including the Waikiki Roughwater Swim and the Tiburon Mile.

Nevin Thompson interviewed Mike Lewis on behalf of the Sands at Grace Bay, one of the recommended hotels for the Race for the Conch.