Just for the Fin of It

Swimmers in the U.S. are discovering a new sport: racing while wearing fins
November 16, 1992

Jane Katz is all wet. Well, much of the time she is. A professor of physical education and athletics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, the winner of a dozen masters national swimming titles at distances from 200 meters to a mile, the author of five books on swimming (including Swimming for Total Fitness and Swimming Through Your Pregnancy) and a self-styled "aquatic and fitness expert," Katz figures she spends up to eight hours a day in and around the pool.

In addition to writing and teaching, the 49-year-old Katz—ever eager to spread the word on water—conducts swimming seminars and clinics across the country and continues to "bubble up," as she puts it, in every aquatic endeavor from long-distance open-water racing to synchronized swimming. These days Katz is into swim fins. To most people swim fins are what snorkelers and scuba divers use, or what the kids splash around with in the shallow end of the pool. For Katz and the other members of the Underwater Society of America, fins are the basis for a new and esoteric sport known as fin swimming.

It originated some 20 years ago in Europe and was introduced into the U.S. in the early '80s. The sport actually encompasses three categories of swimming events. The first category, surface events, includes races at distances from 100 to 1,500 meters, usually swum freestyle with small fins on the feet. Races in the second category, the immersion events, are swum underwater—at distances from 100 to 800 meters—with fins and a small scuba tank. There is only a single event, the apnea, in the third category. In a 50-meter sprint swum underwater, competitors propel themselves with both feet strapped into a giant monofin.

While there are probably fewer than 200 competitive fin swimmers in the U.S. today, their number is growing. "To say fin swimming has caught on in this country is overstating the situation, so far," says Mike Gower, president of the Underwater Society, the ruling body of the sport. "But clubs are starting up in the Fast and on the West Coast." For the past five years the Underwater Society has conducted a national championship meet in the summer or fall, and in 1991 the Swatch watch company plunged in with some much-needed sponsorship money.

"It's the next wave of swimming," says Katz, who in 1990 was named the Underwater Society's Female Fin Swimmer of the Year. "Regular swimmers try it, and they get hooked."

Just ask Greg Kincheloe, a butterflyer during his days at Lehman College in New York and now, at 40, the holder of the national record for the 1,500-meter surface event. Kincheloe looks forward to the emergence of younger fin swimmers straight out of college. "I just can't wait for them to blow us all away," he says with the selfless glow of the proselytizer. Right now fin swimming is much more established internationally than in the U.S. More than 40 nations competed in the sport at this year's World Games, in Athens, Greece. The best fin swimmers come from Russia and, lately, from China. "The Chinese program is only about 10 years old," Kincheloe says, "but already they're making a dent in the world-record list." Both the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee recognize fin swimming as an "emerging sport," which means that perhaps someday we all may be holding our breath in anticipation of the Olympic apnea final.

Katz, of course, would be delighted. "I hope I see it in my lifetime," she says with a laugh. "But I don't want it to become just another elite sport. After all, fins are great for training, for water exercise, for instruction." She holds up a particularly radical-looking pair of bright-pink, V-shaped fins. "I've always said that water is democratic; it offers something for everybody. If fins can bring more people into the pool, then I'm happy."

Emily Dickinson wrote, " 'Hope' is the thing with feathers." Jane Katz, one imagines, would say it is the thing with fins.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOKatz, who was named 1990's Female Fin Swimmer of the Year, holds a number of national titles.