Thursday, January 31, 2008

Road to Beijing Begins in Brazil

The first major marathon swimming contest of the Olympic year got underway in Santos, Brazil at the first leg of the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup.

The world’s most dominant open water swimmer, Larisa Ilchenko of Russia caught high school senior American Kirsten Groome with 500 meters to go and sprinted to a 1.7-second victory with a final surge in the last 25 meters.

The teenage multi-time world marathon swimming champion played her well-worn card of tricks just perfectly as she let Karley Stutzel of Canada lead the first part of the race, followed by a large pack of tightly bound swimmers, including the top two German swimmers, Angela Maurer and Britta Kamrau Corestein.

Groome from Shreveport, Louisiana was caught in the middle of a large pack during the first loop of the 10K ocean course. Realizing her mistake, she sprinted along the outside of the pack of 15 women and gradually pulled herself up to fifth place by the feeding station at the 7.5K mark. As she quickly downed a cup of Gatorade, she pulled up to striking distance of Sutton, Ilchenko, Maurer and Corestein. “The pace wasn’t that fast, but I felt really good so I took the lead with about 2200 meters to go,” recalled Groome.

The top women must have been swimming pretty fast because they caught the trailing men who had left ten minutes before the women’s start. Gradually, Groome and Ilchenko made it a 2-person race over the next 2K. “With 500 (meters) to go, Larisa moved up even with me, but I had no idea where the finish was,” said Groome. “We kept on going back-and-forth with each, trying to outsprint each other. I breathe on both sides, and she was on my right. When I started to breathe to my left, she saw the finish and put her head down. With only 25 meters to go, I had no time to respond and she beat me by a second and a half.”

Meanwhile Groome’s other American teammate, Micha Burden, was injured by a flailing knee (or elbow) to the chest around the 6K mark, causing a bruised lung that could have led to a serious mishap in the Atlantic. Fortunately, the safety patrol was quick to offer assistance to Burden who stopped swimming momentarily and very slowly finished the race – where she was greeted by a paramedic and put on oxygen after being carried to the medical tent.

At the Olympic qualifying swim in Seville, Spain in May, it will be Groome and Burden who will represent the hopes of the American team…and they will both find themselves facing the same Ilchenko who has never lost either a 5K or a 10K race at the 2004, 2005, 2006 or 2007 World Championships.

On the men’s side, Italy's Valerio Cleri captured the men's race over 54 competitors. But, confusion reigned among the top 15 men who finished after Cleri. There were no standard FINA finish pads on floating pontoons and the finish procedures were not clearly defined. Volunteers were assigned to judge who finished in what place and lead the finishers up the beach.

When 11 men came charging to the finish together, splashing and thrashing, kicking and sprinting, in waist-high water, it was naturally difficult to clearly define the actual results. As it turned out, the top 10 men were timed within 10 seconds of one another, including Mark Warkentin of Santa Barbara and Fran Crippen of Mission Viejo.

One series of infractions that were caught by the referee were two pull-backs of Chip Peterson, the 2005 world 10K champion, by Sergey Bolshakov of Russia. Bolshakov twice yanked on Chip’s legs while Peterson was leading with 150 meters to go. He was red-carded and disqualified from the race, but it was enough to knock Peterson out of contention and open the door for Cleri to capture the gold.

Despite the confusion on the men’s side among the top finishers, Cleri clearly established himself as another favorite, alongside Australia’s Grant Hackett, Germany’s Thomas Lurz and Russia’s Vladimir Dyatchin, to win the first Olympic 10K marathon swimming gold medal in Beijing.

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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