I met Steven Munatones in person for the first time at a Make-a-Splash event with Cullen Jones in Los Angeles in 2009, as one would expect our conversation went straight to Open Water. Since then I’ve run into Steven on beaches, at conventions, and on boats all over the country and we still cut straight to talking about salt water whenever we’re together. I don’t think I know anyone else who is as knowledgeable, passionate or connected within the Open Water world as Steve. He is one of those people who seems to have some kind of behind the scenes connection to just about every major Open Water event going on in the world. He is also constantly working to promote the sport and push our thinking as to what the sport is all about and what it could become in the future.
I’m sure most of you have seen the name and read some of his work, here’s our chance to get to know the man behind the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and Open Water Source a little bit better…
You probably know more about Open Water Swimming than anyone else on the planet, what is it about Open Water Swimming that fascinates you so much and sparked your passion for the sport?
Open water swimming is, at once, so natural and so unnatural. For people who can swim and enjoy the marine environment, it is natural to look across a lake or river or bay or seashore and imagine swimming from point A to point B. At the same time, we are land-based creatures and swimming across channels and lakes involves inherent risks. Open water swimming – especially marathon swimming – is not only a physical and mental challenge, but swimmers can face sharks, jellyfish, waves, winds, currents, tides, hypothermia and hyperthermia. That is the fascinating part – balancing what you want to do vs. what you shouldn’t do.
The passion that I have for the sport was born as a result of growing up in Southern California where I was impressed with the Catalina Channel swimming community of the 1970s – when swimmers like Lynne Cox, Penny Dean, John York, Cindy Cleveland, Siga Rose and several others were making their initial marks on the sport. Watching these swimmers start or finish and swim off into the horizon enthralled me.
A lot of people know you as the Daily News of Open Water Swimming and Open Water Source guy, but not everybody knows that you’re a pretty legit swimmer in your own right. Give us a quick tour of your personal swim background.
Between water polo seasons, which was my favorite sport, I trained pretty hard, doing all kinds of crazy sets and massive amounts of distances under renowned Olympic coaches Jim Montrella, Jon Urbanchek, Joe Bernal and Ed Spencer. But I always enjoyed swimming in the ocean and won many amateur swims including the 1982 World Long Distance Swimming Championships in Lake Windermere, England, but then ran into a swimmer named Paul Asmuth in the 1980s on the professional marathon swimming circuit. It was a lot easier doing unprecedented solo marathon swims than beat Paul at his peak. I still swim, but I prefer watching others compete and studying how and why they win rather than participate in competitions myself.
You are currently involved on a FINA Open Water committee, what is your position with FINA and what does it entail?
The FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee is a 14-member group of people from 14 different countries. My colleagues on the FINA Committee are experienced individuals who are appointed by their respective national swimming federations to share their passion and expertise on open water swimming for the benefit of the sport in general. From my perspective, we have two primary functions. The first responsibility is to make recommendations on how to improve the sport. To achieve this goal, we meet annually to discuss and make recommendations that are forwarded to the 22-member FINA Bureau and FINA Office to either accept, modify or reject. Our second responsibility is to serve as the referees and advisors for 20 or so FINA World Cup, FINA Grand Prix and FINA World Championship open water events around the world. Practically, this means that when a World Cup, Grand Prix or World Championship event is conducted, the FINA Committee members function as the officials and referees although the World Cup, Grand Prix and World Championship events all have the local race directors and staff.
All of the committee members are volunteers and are asked to attend one meeting a year to share our opinions and at least one FINA event per year. I was fortunate to be asked to attend the famous professional marathon swims in Quebec, Canada last year which are very well-run swims. This year, I will go to the World Championships in Shanghai. During these annual meetings, it is always educational to hear the perspectives of other committee members from Egypt, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Cuba, Lithuania.
Obviously due to the tragic death of Fran Crippen last year, some changes may be made. But those recommendations are determined by the FINA investigative committee that is a separate group of people and must be approved by the FINA Bureau and FINA Office. So, like others, I am anxious to learn what changes will be made – and how these changes may be the same or different than the changes to be implemented by USA Swimming.
I’ve also read that you will be working with US Masters Swimming this year, what are you working on for us in the Masters Swimming world?
The first project – a very interesting one – is the organization of the Open Water Swimming Safety Conference in San Francisco on March 18-20. While people in the open water swimming world have met for decades to improve the safety of open water swimming – from the days of the Channel Swimming Association in 1927 to the subsequent formation of British Long Distance Swimming Association – this will be the first time experienced people of different disciplines will get together to specifically talk about open water swimming safety. We have assembled race directors, life guard associations, long-time USMS open water swimming volunteers and some of the most distinguished aquatic safety experts in the world to come together to specifically talk about open water safety. I am hopeful our recommendations and findings will help provide valuable information to other administrators, race directors, coaches, athletes, parents, referees and governing bodies. We are going to cover everything from hypothermia and hyperthermia to equipment, tools and emergency procedures.
I am also planning to help establish open water swimming clinics in various parts of the country. I see a gap between the information provided to the top echelon of the sport – to those athletes who may qualify to the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim – and what is generally provided to age-group and masters swimmers. I am in the fortunate position to share information with some of the world’s most successful and experienced open water swimming coaches in the world, so information on the training methodologies, racing tactics and equipment that is used at the elite level will be provided at these clinics. While not everyone in the sport is necessarily interested in or capable of winning races, I think the information will be of interest to many.
Tell us about the new OpenWaterSource web site that you launched late last year – what is it all about? What is the goal of the site?
The goal of the site is to provide an informational infrastructure to the sport. There are many websites that focus on showcasing individual swimmers, promoting individual races, selling coaching services or offering products. But what I see as missing is objective, factual information – information on open water swimming records, technologies and personalities. There are so many outstanding feats, records and people in the sport that I want to share those facts and their stories with the greater global community. We will be rolling out Openwaterpedia, an expanded Open Water Wednesday, World Swimming Majors and a handful of other initiatives that are all information-based, including programs called “Creating Waves” and “Changing The Tide”. We are going to provide lists of information and a plethora of facts and features about the sport. We launched with 162 pages of information on Day 1 and have been feverishly adding information day-by-day.
Ultimately, we want to enable open water swimming to be seen as both entertainment and an athletic endeavor. The sport is so large and diverse – from Polar Bear Swims to the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim. There are charity swims and stage relays. There are ocean races and open water expeditions and orienteering. We want to cover it all in an entertaining and unique manner.
We will get there, but it just might take years of effort.
I know that you travel all over the world in support of open water swimming, where might we find you this year?
This year, I will go to Brazil, Greece, South Africa, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cayman Islands, China and lots of places from coast to coast in the United States including San Francisco, San Diego, Atlanta, Ft. Myers, New York and several other cities. As a kid growing up in Southern California, I always wanted to travel. I am achieving that dream.
In personal conversations I’ve had with you I know that you’re always looking forward to the future of the sport. What do you think the next big thing for open water swimming is going to be?
The great thing about open water swimming is that there will always be surprises, but some of the things that I am looking forward to include the continued growth in the number of people doing the sport of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. For example, the number of people in the Half Century Club (those who have swum a major marathon swim over the age of 50) is increasing year by year. So is the number of Triple Crown swimmers. This increased number of open water swimmers is going to demand that safety protocols and procedures are enhanced. Split timing and improved timing systems at events is another exciting area, as is our knowledge of feeding, pacing and navigation. The expansion of relays will definitely very interesting to observe and be a part of. This includes Team Pursuit relays, marathon swimming relays in oceans, lakes and rivers. Stage swims will also continue as will swims of extreme distances and … many, many, many, many unprecedented swims.
We are in the Age of Discovery in the open water swimming world. There are so many places that have not been swum before. It is wonderful to be the first person in history to swim a particular waterway – like you did with the Pismo Polar Bear Swim. That experience of being a pioneer – an adventurer – will be experienced by thousands of people around the world over the next decade. Open Water Source wants to recognize all these people, if possible.
The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Hyde Park at the 2012 London Olympics will be absolutely fantastic, perhaps only to be overshadowed by the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Copacabana Beach at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The sport will look nothing like it does now in 2016. I always say that the sport of open water swimming in 2009 is like the sport of triathlon in 1979. We have not seen anything yet.
And, of course, perhaps one of the toughest competitions in all of human endurance sports is the race to be the first to achieve the Ocean’s Seven. To be able to successfully swim the English Channel, North Channel, Molokai Channel, Strait of Gibraltar, Tsugaru Channel, Cook Strait and Catalina Channel will require so many years of sacrifice and effort – it will truly be a superhuman feat. From what I have confidentially heard, there are at least 14 people on their way to be the first.
check out this video of Steven running a workout with some SoCal Open Water Swimmers