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Chris Guesdon: Mastermind behind the Olympic 10km marathon swim

Chris Guesdon explains his role in making the 10km marathon swim a fixture on the Olympic Games schedule.

Although Chris Guesdon is a name you may not recognise, this proud Tasmanian has played a significant role in the international sport of open-water swimming. The esteemed open-water swimming administrator, member of the FINA Open Water Technical Committee, FINA-accredited Open Water Swimming Referee, coach, and swimmer is the visionary behind introducing the 10-kilometre Marathon Swim into the Olympic Games.

Mr. Guesdon’s passion for marathon swimming and unwavering vision reshaped the sport’s history when he successfully campaigned to include the 10-kilometre Marathon Swim in the Olympic program at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Before pioneering the 10-kilometre Marathon Swim, Mr Guesdon was a distinguished marathon swimmer. In the lead-up to the Paris Olympics, Suzie Ryan spoke with Mr Guesdon about his journey into marathon swimming, his idea for the 10-kilometre event, and his triumph in securing its place as an official Olympic event.

The start of a life-long marathon swimming journey

Mr Guesdon grew up with a deep love for the water, competing as a pool swimmer and surf lifesaver. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that he competed in his first marathon swim, a moment that sparked a lifelong passion for the sport.

“Growing up, I was a long-distance swimmer in the pool, a water polo player, and a surf swimmer—like most marathon swimmers start as,” Mr Guesdon recalled.

“In 1968, someone asked me if I wanted to do the Port Phillip Bay Swim, from Portarlington to Frankston. I said, sure, why not? Let’s see if we can get a start, and we did.

“Before that, we attempted what is now called the Duel of the Crown, the River Derwent Big Swim. I was eager to tackle the 34-kilometre swim, so I asked my fellow surf lifesavers, and they were all enthusiastic, saying, ‘Let’s get up there and do it now.’

“I had to tell them to slow down, explaining that it would be better to wait a week so we could arrange safety crafts and escorts.

“But that’s how it all started, and since then, I’ve competed in over 20 marathon swims worldwide.”

The start of a history-making change in the marathon swimming world

Mr Guesdon was on a boat with a friend during the Trans Derwent Swim, a 1500m, 100-year-old event, when a simple conversation set the gears in motion for him to pursue the 10-kilometre marathon swim distance concept.

“I was on a colleague’s boat as an escort for the event. At the time, he was the Vice President of FINA, and he said to me, ‘Chris, one day you might end up on the FINA Technical Committee if you keep going the way you are,’” said Mr Guesdon.

“I replied, ‘Maybe I will, maybe I won’t, but it would be great if I did, and I could make a difference.’

“He then said, ‘Chris, if you do make the committee, you have to develop a competition program for an open water swimming event for the Olympic Games.’ I suggested we could use the 25-kilometre distance.

“He responded, ‘Forget it. 25-kilometre is far too long for the Olympics, and the Olympic Committee won’t want to hear about it.’ I asked if he was sure, and he confirmed, ‘Sure am.’

“At that moment, I began to think seriously about how we could get open water swimming included in the Olympic Games.”

Shortly after joining the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee, Mr. Guesdon began researching options to make a compelling open-water competition program for the Olympic Games.

“I started by looking into what other sports were doing, such as triathlon, athletics, and cycling, since they all featured longer distance events,” Mr Guesdon explained.

“I discovered that these sports had events lasting around two hours: the 42km marathon run, the 20km and 50km Olympic walk, the 25km and 40km Cycling Time Trial Road, and the Olympic distance triathlon.

“I then consulted with some friends who were university professors, and they confirmed that two hours was the ideal duration to keep people engaged. They found that students would lose concentration if their lectures or presentations went over two hours.

“This made sense because two hours is the typical length of a movie or a football game—events that maintain audience attention.

“So, initially, it wasn’t the 10km distance that I came up with, but rather the two-hour timeframe.”

In 1998, Mr Guesdon had a pivotal moment while attending the FINA World Championships in Perth. Overlooking the Indian Ocean and having lunch with fellow committee members Dennis Miller and Sid Cassidy, as well as his wife Sue, he sketched the plan for the 10-kilometre marathon swim on a napkin.

“We were all just sitting around having lunch and chatting when I started to outline the plan for the 10-kilometre marathon swim,” said Mr Guesdon.

“I wrote that the race should last around two hours, be commercially viable, have a qualifying system to ensure only top-quality swimmers participate, be easy to manage, organize and stage, be simple to televise, and be inexpensive to set up.

“Leaving that lunch with my napkin, I began developing the concept and detailed strategy with Dennis Miller and Sid Cassidy.

“We then presented it to the Technical Open Water Swimming Committee at the full meeting in Italy that September.

“I also proposed changing the name from open-water swimming to marathon swimming because it was more popular, more easily understood, more powerful, and much better for marketing.”

Mr Guesdon’s official proposal to the FINA Bureau and IOC

Successfully adding Marathon Swimming to the Olympic program

Fast forward to 2000, the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee introduced the 10-kilometre marathon swim distance at the FINA World Championships in Honolulu, Hawaii, which previously featured only the 5-kilometre and 25-kilometre races.

“The committee and I believed that to apply to the International Olympic Committee successfully, we needed to include the event in the World Championships Program,” said Mr Guesdon.

“In 2000, we included it in the FINA World Championships, and it has been a part of every championship program since.

“In 2005, when baseball and softball were removed from the Summer Olympics program, marathon swimming got the call-up, and we debuted at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“For over 50 years, many within the open-water and marathon swimming community discussed getting the sport into the Olympic Games. However, it wasn’t until I came along and developed a strategic plan that we succeeded, and it has been a great success ever since.”

Sid Cassidy (USA), Chris Guesdon (AUS) and Dennis Miller (Fiji) who all proposed the 10-kilometre event to the IOC.

Marathon swimming in Paris 2024 and beyond

This year’s 2024 Olympic Games in Paris will mark a significant milestone since the inception of the 10-kilometre marathon swimming event.

For the first time, Australia will field a full team of four athletes, a thrilling development as we look forward to the home games in 2032.

“It’s very exciting to see that Australia will send a full team to Paris,” said Mr Guesdon.

“Although I haven’t observed their training and progress, I am optimistic. After Karena Lee’s bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, I am hopeful that the entire team will make Australia proud and perform well.

“The anticipation builds as we think about where the marathon swim will be held for our home games in Brisbane 2032. While I don’t have a preconceived notion of the venue, I can say that we have previously held the Australian Open Water Championships at the Broadwater Parklands on the Gold Coast.

“It was an excellent location for an open-water event, with picturesque views, good spectator access, and beautifully clean water.”

To watch Australia’s first full team of swimmers compete in the 10-kilometre marathon swim in the iconic Seine River, tune in on Thursday, August 8th, for the women’s event and Friday, August 9th, for the men’s event.

  • Written by Suzie Ryan on 2 July 2024
  • (Updated on 4 July 2024)

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