Wetsuit Weenies 7

In the beginning, there were runners, there were cyclists and there were swimmers.  They revolved in separate spheres and rarely even saw each other, spending many hours a week honing their skills in their respective sports, seeking a shorter marathon time, a better cycling century or a faster 1500-meter swim.  The animals that today we call triathletes had not yet been created.

There came a day when some folks in beautiful Hawaii decided to do the unthinkable by marrying these three disciplines, calling this new creation a triathlon.  The runners, the cyclists and the swimmers were awed and attracted to this newest thing, this fresh challenge.  But now the swimmers would have to learn to ride a bicycle, the runners would have to keep from drowning, and so forth.  That is exactly how it was: there simply were no such things as triathletes.  But they all were recreating themselves from their original specialties into TA-DA!  Triathletes.  Thus were they born, attracted by the newness of the sport, and by the possibility of becoming ……. An IRONMAN.  (Oooooh!)  I know because that is what drew me in.

Bear in mind that the initial metamorphosis happened rapidly in the tropical climate of Hawaii, where the water is never too cold for swimmers, and the air is warm for cyclists and runners.  In the sea, there was no need to seek the thermal protection of the clumsy wetsuits that the divers and surfers used.  Swim, get out of the warm water, get on your bicycle and ride and run in the ever-present sunshine.

Then something happened.  The rest of the world found out about this new sport, triathlon.  Word spread like COVID, and the first place to fall victim to it was, as you might guess, California, both north and south.  But California is not Hawaii.  The temperature of San Francisco Bay in the warmest months hovers in the high fifties, and it only gets gradually warmer as you travel south toward San Diego.

Among the first people to embrace the sport was open water swimmers from the Dolphin Club and the South End Club.  (That is when and where the ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ TRIATHLON was born.)  “We can do that.”  Both of these San Francisco institutions had been putting swimmers in the Bay for over 100 years, and their tradition was to swim almost as close to naked as God made them.  Those things called wetsuits?  Wetsuits were for weenies.  There even were a few ultraconservatives among them who would not even wear swim goggles.  (That changed when a rugged retired Marine colonel swam goggle-less into a patch of diesel oil as he swam in from Alcatraz.)

These club swimmers had two advantages over the new open-water swimmers.  First, they had years of frolicking in the currents and cold waters of San Francisco Bay.  Second, no small number of them carried protective girth.  On the other hand, the best runners and cyclists were comparatively skinny, an important body type when you are carrying your weight in a marathon.  Still, in those days no one was wearing a wetsuit.  Not yet.

I recall seeing one of the new breed of “professional triathletes” finish his mandatory non-wetsuit swim, come out of the water, mount his bicycle, fall over, mount again and fall over again.  Mild hypothermia was common in those days, especially for the skinnies.

The skinny guys and gals got angry first, then smart.  They decided that for them to be able to compete, they would have to wear wetsuits.  The sport now had developed a governing body, and that body ruled that when water temperatures were low enough, wetsuits would be legal.  In some races, there were separate categories of competitors: those who wore wetsuits, and the unclad swimmers.  There were even two sets of awards, with and without wetsuits.  At that point, the club swimmers, the naked swimmers, lost their weight and experienced an advantage over the skinny guys, the runners, and cyclists, the ones they called wetsuit weenies.  That was the end of their dominance.  The weenies took over the sport.

Wetsuits provide advantages beyond thermal protection.  They give enough floatation so the swimmer rides higher in the water, with less friction, and faster times.  Energy is conserved by the layer of insulation, so the athlete comes out of the water fresher before the bike ride and running legs of the triathlon.  Wetsuits have taken over the sport, even in the Olympics.  A big economic side-effect was the creation of a profitable wetsuit industry, with a market for triathletes much larger than when the only folks wearing wetsuits were surfers.  Triathletes were now everywhere, often far from the sea.

Nobody dares to the term wetsuit weenie anymore, except maybe for a few of the troglodytes in the clubs in San Francisco.  Progress.

Me?  I have a confession.  Twice, in the past 40 years, have I worn wetsuits.  The first time was in 1994, in very cold water, and I might not be with you today without my thick wetsuit.  The second time was several years back at Haag Lake.  I hated it.  It took away my freedom, so I gave it away.  The thick wetsuit is still hanging in my closet, decades later.  It saved my skin, and I am indebted to it.  But I will never wear it again.  Maybe I should sell it….?

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7 thoughts on “Wetsuit Weenies

  • Anicia Criscione

    Great read!
    I’m actually allergic to neoprene, yet would love to swim open water. Are there other options for the “skinnies?”

    • Joseph Oakes

      Anicia There are plenty of options for “skinnies” to swim in open water. But it takes time and patience, like any other sport. May is a little too soon to start, but soon enough the water in the Columbia River will start to warm up.

      For many years we have had a tradition of a Labor Day swim in the Columbia, often in Hood River, but more recently in Portland at Broughton Beach (behind PDX). The river gets warmer after the snows have melted. If you are really interested think about giving it a start some time towards the end of July. After the initial immersion shock (the OH CRAP moment) just keep enjoying your swimming and you will forget about being uncomfortable.

      Lots of women brave the cold year-round. I do not have that much courage. I will start swimming in the Columbia when the temps are more inviting, later in the summer. Perhaps you might go to Broughton Beach on Saturday mornings just to see what is going on and meet the goo d folks there. Introduce yourself…. they do not bite.

  • Judy Ziemer

    I’m really sorry and disappointed to see this article in the Aqua Masters publication. The goal of Oregon Masters is to encourage swimming and welcome all swimmers – naked or not.
    The Wetsuit Weenies article discourages anyone from participating in open water events because they choose to wear a wetsuit.
    I am in my late 70’s and still challenge myself in open water events. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 60 and did not have the confidence to “swim naked” in open water.
    In the past I have swam a few events without a wetsuit but mostly with one. I get judged in a different category than those without wetsuits and that’s the way it should be as I realize I have an advantage with the wetsuit. Those of us who wear wetsuits pay club dues and entry fees just like those that swim naked.
    If Joe feels he is a weenie if he wears a wetsuit (that he admits possibly saved his life) that’s fine but Oregon Masters should not encourage a negative attitude regarding members who feel it necessary to wear one.

    • Joe Oakes


      I appreciate your position and your comments. You are entitled to them. I do not know what “zforceracing” is, but I hope that it is a profitable enterprise for you.

      Your comments about my own personal preference are, well, your opinion. I love the feel of water on my skin, and I love feeling the connection with the water and the sensation of the movement of the currents. That is not possible in a wetsuit. But I appreciate that some people need the protection and the advantage that comes from a wetsuit. We in this great country are free to make such choices.

      Regarding your ancient status as a septuagenarian, I applaud your longevity and wish you many more productive years. I was seventy years old almost two decades ago and am looking forward, with the help of God and nature, to move into the next decade, should I be so lucky.

      I do not advocate for or against wetsuits, nor did I in my article. Again, I was merely presenting the facts of history. I regret that you did not understand it as it was presented.

      Enjoy your swimming. Your comments are always appreciated.

      Joe Oakes

      • Michael Grant

        Well said, Judy, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have taught and coached a large number of new swimmers and my main goal is just for them to be comfortable and enjoy their swims, wherever they may be. This is especially an issue with the lean swimmers as Joe pointed out. Shouldn’t our objective just be to encourage as many folks as we can to just get in and swim (carefully). I have seen any number of otherwise accomplished swimmers pull out of the longer swims with hypothermia. Very dangerous, in my book.

        As far as I am concerned swimmers should not be “bullied” or otherwise looked down on for wearing a wetsuit. That macho approach should have been left back in high school lockers.

        So, just jump in with your wetsuit on do what you’re most comfortable with!