H2Open Magazine, February 2012
At London 2012 the 10km marathon swim will come into the Olympic spotlight once again. The growth of interest in open water swimming since the 2008 Beijing Olympics means the global attention the event receives second time around will be unprecedented.
The FINA World Championships in Shanghai in July – where the 10km races also served as Olympic qualifiers – intensified speculation about possible medallists in London, not least in the UK, whose Keri-Anne Payne finished first in the women’s race. But the increased profile of the sport is also having an effect at grassroots level, where it’s being taken up by growing numbers of young swimmers.
The question is, then, who will be the contenders in Rio 2016, and will the next generation of top-level open water swimmers break through even before then?
There have already been some clear pointers to what the future holds. Last summer London hosted an invitational swim, to test the Olympic course on the Serpentine. The field included Greece’s Spyros Giannotis and Germany’s Thomas Lurz – who in the men’s 10km race in Shanghai finished first and second respectively. The winner, though (by 26 seconds) was a 21-year old Canadian swimmer, Richard Weinberger.
“I don’t know if those athletes were excited about the race as he was but I know a lot of them don’t like to lose,” says Weinberger’s coach, Ron Jacks, who attributes the result to both Weinberger’s use of a new full-body swimsuit and his affinity for cold water (the water temperature in Shanghai was a sweltering 32 degrees).
Jacks adds that Weinberger’s 17th place in China was deceptively strong, since all the faster finishers were older. “The average age of the top ten was 27 or 28,” he says.
As he gains experience, Weinberger’s performances will surely improve, and the same can also be said for 21-year old Irish swimmer Chris Bryan, who fi nished 33rd in China and 9th in the Serpentine race.
“I’m expecting to come on loads this year,” says Bryan, who trains at Ireland’s high-performance swimming centre in Limerick. He is studying sport science at college but says swimming takes up the vast majority of his time, joking that the commitment is like “a full time job with constant overtime and terrible pay”.
His schedule incorporates up to 11 sessions a week, with long distances in the mornings – sometimes during morning sessions Bryan swims 17 or 18km, which can take up to 4.5 hours.
In the evenings comes speed work and gym sessions. Between September and December, meanwhile, he builds strength, covering 60-70km in the pool – where it’s easier to monitor performance – but his weekly distances will increase up to 120km this spring. Many ambitious young open water swimmers follow tough routines.
While the hard yards are important, Bryan believes the right mental conditioning is critical too. “The biggest differences between open water and the pool are mental,” he says, which is why he works regularly with a psychologist. “Swimmers need to maintain focus for long periods under pressure.”
He also recognizes how crucial it is to develop tactical awareness, which can only be learned through racing. “I do so many 10km events, and each is completely different – you need that knowledge,” he says.
For Bryan, the Shanghai race, in which over 60 swimmers competed, was a huge learning experience: “I was unsure how much the heat would take out of me, and so I hung back. By the time the kick came, I was too far behind the leading group to catch up,” he says.
He adapted his approach immediately, pushing ahead from the start in the 5km event, where he fi nished eighth. Like Weinberger, Bryan’s aim is now to qualify for London 2012. He wants to finish in the top three in the next qualification event, which is in Setuba, Portugal, in June.
Bryan first encountered open water swimming through surf lifesaving. He grew up by the sea and was influenced by Ireland’s strong tradition of outdoor swimming.
But the experience of Ashley Twichell, a 22-year old US swimmer,shows that it’s possible for talented swimmers to turn to open water relatively late in life. Twichell has always enjoyed ocean swimming, but didn’t compete in an open water race until 2010, at the US national championships. Her first 10km event was far from successful, because she was unaccustomed to the colder water and didn’t feed at all during the swim.
“I don’t remember the last 2.5km,” she says. “My parents and coaches encouraged me not to do the 5km two days later, but I knew that if I didn’t get right back in and do it then that would be the end of open water forever for me.”
Twichell now relishes the challenges of open water. “I love how the athletes must be able to face and adapt to any obstacle that comes their way,’ she says. “You may miss a feed, your goggles or cap may
be ripped off, and you may veer off course.” She came third in the women’s 5km in Shanghai last year, and in Portugal this year hopes to take the one available US women’s Olympic 10km place.
Her experience chimes with the views of US open water coach and writer Steven Munatones. “The best pool distance swimmers in the world cannot make the transition to the open water unless they really want to do so themselves,” he says.
Other swimmers Munatones expects to be competing for 10km medals at Rio 2016 are the New Zealanders Cara Baker and Kane Radford, Australian Danielle de Francesco, and Bethany Robertson, an Australian-born swimmer who recently expressed an interest in swimming for Cambodia. He also name-checks France’s Ophelie
Aspord, the Russian Sergey Bolshakov, Yasunari Hirai of Japan, and the US swimmers Sean Ryan and Eva Fabian. Of this group, Robertson is the youngest, at 16.
Munatones also thinks it’s crucial for young swimmers to continue to clock up fast times in the pool, even if their main focus is open water. “They don’t have to focus on the pool but their competitive juices are maintained by competing in the pool,” he says. Australian swimmer George O’Brien, 20, who set a record at the Waikiki Roughwater swim last year, has enjoyed the benefits of this approach; he swims both 1,500m and 10km, and says he finds open water “a refreshing change from the pool”.
“I think the win was mainly due to the speed work I had been doing,” says O’Brien of his Hawaii victory. “In the past I’ve struggled to keep up with a change of pace but focusing on the shorter pool events ensured I had the speed to stay in touch with the leaders.’
However swimmers reach the top, the training required inevitably limits the time they can devote to academic work and socialising.
“There are huge sacrifices,” admits Bryan. “But I’m happy to make them to achieve my goals. I’m well aware of what I’m doing.”
The positive side to this pressure is that it forces swimmers to develop excellent time management skills. Twichell, who studied at Duke University, says that swimming “has allowed me to be more disciplined in my academic life”. Eva Fabian, her 18-year old teammate, even finds time to play the violin, and performed the national anthem at the opening of the Pan-pacific games. “I find it very fun and relaxing,” she says of her music.
One thing young swimmers can be thankful for is the strength of the open water swimming community. Alex Panayides is a UK-based swimmer who won four of the five British Gas Great Swims in the amateur category last year, and has recently started swimming for Cyprus. “It’s much more of a family atmosphere,” says Panayides, when comparing the situation to that of pool swimming. At a recent swim in Cyprus she found Marianna Lymperta (a Greek swimmer who finished third in Shanghai) incredibly supportive. “She was always happy to help me and gave me really amazing tips,” says Panayides.
But Bryan says that the support can sometimes be fairly robust. “I went to one swim near my home for practice when it was freezing cold and there were millions of jellyfish. I’d always had a mental block about the sea, but all the old men there were saying, ‘Oh, look at you, man – the pool swimmer’. There was no way I wasn’t going to get in.” He is now glad to have developed his toughness, which helps him enjoy his “crazy” training routine. “Who wants to be normal?” Bryan says.
Such characters thrive in a sport whose hallmark is unpredictability, and where the best-laid plans can be rendered obsolete by conditions or events. “Afterwards it’s important to figure out what went well and what didn’t go well,” says Bryan, “but during the race it’s more about instinct.”
So what about London 2012? Does Bryan see any young swimmers landing a medal? “In the open water anything can happen,” he says. “That might be a daunting thought for young swimmers, but it’s also one from which they can draw hope.”
Eva Fabian won the 5km at the 2010 FINA World Open
Swim for Tri’s Dan Bullock also coaches youth open water swimmers in London, and says there’s increasing interest among young swimmers for the open water. Here he spells out what it takes to make it to the top.
Studies show if you’re not swimming four times a week aged 9-10, then your potential is somewhat limited. You won’t have the best feel for the water and technique. Specific open water skills can wait. You need skills like sighting and swimming close to others, but good swimmers are good swimmers – a lot of open water swimmers come to it quite late.
Learn to Love the Cold
Swimmers need to be happy with cooler temperatures. Racing in cold water needs some preparation. You can sense someone who doesn’t want to be there.
Eating sensibly and healthily is important, but young swimmers shouldn’t be obsessing about foods or counting calories.
Master Time Management
It’s rare you find a dedicated swimmer that isn’t doing well in school. Their social lives also tend to can be narrower – often other swimmers are their immediate circle of friends.