Sunday, January 20, 2008

Top American Male Open Water Swimmers

Hold On. Hold Fast. Hold Out.

Before Mark Warkentin, 27 of Santa Barbara Swim Club, out-dueled Chip Peterson of North Carolina, to win the World Championship Open Water Trials in Miromar Lake today, he had to overcome his natural instincts to take the lead...until the very end.

Like Micha Burden, the women's 10K winner yesterday, Mark settled himself comfortably behind his competitors throughout the majority of the race, using positioning to his optimal advantage.

The weather (89°F) was slightly cooler than yesterday's women's race due to the drop in humidity from 74% to 60%, a lower water temperature (84°F to 82°F) and a slightly greater wind. As the group of 22 men lined up in their positions, it was clear this race included the Who's Who of American open water swimming:

• Chip Peterson, the 2005 World 10K Champion, and multi-time national 5K and 10K champion.
• Noa Sakamoto and John Flanagan, former Waikiki Roughwater Swim winners and top Grand Prix finishers, both representing their home state of Hawaii.
• Mark Warkentin, a World Cup winner, two-time 25K national champion and multiple California ocean swim winner.
• Fran Crippen, a Pan American Games and Pan Pacific Swimming 10K champion.
• Scott Kaufmann, a highly regarded competitor who has represented the US at the 2005 and 2007 World Swimming Championships
• Chad La Tourette of Mission Viejo and Josef Kinderwater of WSY Swimming who both attended recent Open Water Select Camps and are tough up-and-coming young competitors.
• John Kenny, a multiple National Open Water Team member and top 25K swimmer.

Before the race, there was significant tension in the air. The usual more laid-back atmosphere of open water swims gave way to a level of seriousness and focus more typical of Olympic Trials, pool-style. The swimmers checked out their navigational lines in their warm-ups and walked down the lakeside to the race start. Everyone knew, based on the results of the women's race, that the race was up for grabs...for those who were patient and tactical enough to outwit and out-sprint their competitors.

The field started off strong, heading straight into a slight surface chop and slight morning sun's glare.

Swimming past numerous multi-million-dollar mansions surrounding Lake Como, the field immediately formed into a classic European pack with everyone jockeying into position, hitting each other's feet and hands, muscling their way around or away from others. Many of the pre-race favorites quickly found themselves in the front of the pack: Fran Crippen, Chip Peterson, Chad La Tourett and Noa Sakamoto.

But, there was one conspicuous absence: Mark Warkentin.

Where was Mark? Pulling up the rear.

Was this the same Mark who likes to lead? Sure was...swimming calmly and smoothly at the caboose.

Despite Mark's position, he was still no more than 10 meters away from the leader. Fran was frequently joined in the front by 3-4 other competitors in a classic "4-wide" (4 swimmers swimming stroke-for-stroke and side-by-side to one another), followed by another 6-wide and yet another 7-wide. The spectacular stack of athletes was similar to the packs that are so often found at European or FINA open water races.

Around the athletes went the first set of 3 large turn buoys, along with audible grunts and groans heard by observers on the head referee's boat and media boat.

By the latter half of the first 2.K loop, Indiana's John Koehler had taken the lead from Fran, Noa, Chip and Chad...followed immediately by 20 competitors, all swimming aggressively and all who were not about to let John get too far away.

Then, John let loose with a large splash of his kick...he didn't appreciate those behind him tapping, tapping, tapping on his feet.

Gradually, one of one, swim caps started to come off and the pack of closely shaven heads were all swimming and eyeballing each other under the surface.

A whistle was called before the end of the first loop by Sid Cassidy, the head referee, as the competitors continued to swim in close proximity to one another, frequently invading each other's space.

Before the end of the first loop, John was overcome by yet another quickly formed 4-wide and the ever-present 6-wide along the second line behind the leaders.
And, where was Mark Warkentin lurking? In the back, patiently bidding his time.
Stroke counts during the course of first 2.K loop were Fran at 36 and 37, Chip at 40 and 42, Chad at 34 and 34, and Noa at 40 and 40.

Throughout the second loop, the field continued to surge and lay back at different times and in various formations of 4-wides, 6-wides and an occasionally impressive 8-wide. It was still early and still anyone's ball game...and all of the swimmers seemed to know their relative positions and the need to continue drafting.

A little over 3K, Noa decided to temporarily take the lead after getting heavily jostled around in the middle of a 6-wide. With a swimmer willing to take the lead, a Mission Viejo duo, Fran and Chad, comfortably settled in behind Noa, thankful for being able to ride in his wake.

Then, just as soon as Noa was in the lead, did another 5-wide form right behind him, followed by another 5-wide. Some observers thought the group looked like an overcrowded warm-up pool during an age-group meet. Others likened the race to a heavyweight boxing match where the swimmers would occasionally throw a jab, only to glance off the shoulder of his competitors.

Then, Noa was on his back, slowing down to let others pull the train. Fran, Chip, Chad, Noa...each was taking his turn to shake the group and fight for some clear water. Meanwhile, competitors like John Flanagan, John Kenny and Scott Kaufmann remained right in the middle of the Mark...just bidding their time.
3K...4K...5K...back-and-forth...surge and slow...lead, draft, fall-back.

Chip was wisely swimming towards the front, always at the fringes, generally with only one swimmer at his side. Less-experienced swimmers would battle competitors on both their left and right shoulders.

Before the 5K turn buoys, the Mission Viejo duo of Fran and Chad sprinted out ahead to get some clear water and round the buoys smoothly without danger of getting their goggles knocked off or getting kicked.

Around the 5K turn buoys went the entire group, each lining themselves up for an important feed. More grunts and groans were heard amid warning whistles from the referees.

Through the 5K mark, Fran continued at a 37 strokes per minute pace, while Chad held at 36 and Fran at 39. At one point, when the group slowed and Chip refused to take the lead, his stroke count dropped to 30.

Around the 6K point, Chip moved unexpectedly into the lead with a strong kick...was this his break? Was this the time for Chip to break away from the pack and take control of the race, while Mark was still sitting back in 15th place? No. Chip simply moved into position to roll-over on his back, calmly take a gel pack from his swim suit and down it in one quick gulp. Without missing a stroke, Chip was back swimming freestyle, settling comfortably in second place. It was another classic move that is so often seen by more experienced European professional open water swimmers.

At 7K, the pack was still swimming relatively slowly, knowing that the last loop was looming ahead of them. The more experienced swimmers like John Flanagan and Scott Kaufmann were stealthily moving into prime was Mark Warkentin.
Around the 7.5K turn buoys, the tension shown on the swimmers' faces before the race was mirrored by the concern shown by the coaches on the 3 feeding stations. This last all-important feeding was going to be a zoo, with everyone wanting to get a good feed.

Feeding sticks of all lengths and styles were ready for the oncoming group of fast-moving swimmers. There was no holding back now, the pace had quickened. Mark has moved up behind Fran, but the distance from Fran to the end of the pack was still only 15 meters.

Closer and closer the swimmers came to the feeding pontoons. Cheers were heard from the teammates, parents and fans along the lake. As the swimmers came into feed, bodies slammed into one another, cups were lost, feeding sticks were overturned by swimmer's arms...and yet a majority of swimmers got in and out with at least a decent gulp or two.

"Good feed!", said a smiling John Dussliere, coach of Mark Warkentin, who had devised a well-engineered special feeding stick.

"GO, CHIP, GO!" encouraged Catherine Vogt, long-time coach of Chip Peterson.
"$8q!%$*#" yelled another coach whose cup was accidentally overturned by the arm stroke of another swimmer.

By the 8K, Mark had moved into the lead with strong powerful strokes and Chip at his heels, following by another 4-wide and 5-wide. Although Mark and Chip had dropped a few swimmers by the last set of turn buoys, it was still anyone's race.

Around the last set of buoys, Fran and Chad seemed to slam into others and lost a bit of ground, but Mark and Chip were both within a body's length.

With less than 1000 meters to go, Mark swung out wide from the small white navigational buoy to take a great line to the 400-meter straightaway finish. Chip followed with Noa, Fran, Chad and the rest of the group all kicking and giving it everything they had.

800 meters to go and Mark had clearly established himself as the front-runner. Only Chip was within spitting distance.

600 meters to go and Chip was kicking in high gear. He came up along Mark and it was mano-a-mano. The rest of the field was fighting for 3rd and 4th.

Down the straightaway, Mark and Chip went at each other: stroke-for-stroke, side-by-side. West Coast vs. East Coast. College grad vs. college underclassman.
400 meters. 300 meters.

Onshore, the crowd was waiting in anticipation. They could see two swimmers in the lead, but who was on the left...who was on the right? And the second pack was a 5-wide with everyone taking a different line.

200 meters. 150. 100. Race announcers, Erica Rose and Dave Thompson called the race as it reached its climax.

Chip surged. Mark surged. Chip got a tad in front. Then, Mark went back at him. Chip's kick was the same strong 6-beat that won him a World Championship. But, today was Mark's day. He bid his time and prepared himself well for this last sprint.

Towards the end, Mark got the jump on Chip and just edged out Chip 1:57:01.84 to Chip's 1:57:03.64. Josef Kinderwater put on the after-burners to place an unexpected third.

Both Mark and Chip now join Micha Burden and Kirsten Groome at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships in hopes of grabbing a top 10 spot as one of the finalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics 10K Marathon Swim.

"I thought how everyone was going to make a move (at the end)," recalled Mark who was still shaking 10 minutes after the race ended. "When Chip came up on me, I was so nervous that someone else was on the other side who I couldn't see. I was scared that a herd of swimmers where right at our feet and were going to bear down on us." Considering the frequency of having 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-wides during the race, Mark's fears were understandable.

Mark continued, "I have never won another big race before. I knew the big push would come, and I was waiting and waiting because I knew it would come. I didn't think I was one of the race favorites. Honestly, I thought I was just going to get third or fourth, but I was patient in this race...and I have been inpatient in other races before."

Chip later remarked, "I felt the entire race was like Seville's 10K race earlier this year. I felt comfortable in the pack. This is almost a dream come true. The next step is to qualify for the Olympics and get some more World Cup races in before Seville."

"In a race like this, it really doesn't matter if you get first or second," said Mark as he commented on his and Chip's automatic selection as America's male representatives. "It's shocking (to me). I've gone to every practice and my shot finally came. I can't describe what this win feels like, but I have been away from home for 12 of the last 14 weeks training at altitude in either Colorado Springs or Mexico..."

As Warkentin said, "At 27 and at the end of my career, this probably would have been the last race."

Not quite yet.

With the Seville 10K team now set, USA Swimming's next goal is to help prepare these athletes for the all-important 10K race in a Seville river. The top 10 swimmers in Seville will automatically qualify for the Olympic 10K finals in the Olympic rowing basin on either August 20th (female) or August 21st (male).

Submitted from the lead boat.

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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