Thursday, March 6, 2008

Will the Streak Continue?

Similar to Grant Hackett on the men’s side, Russia’s Larisa Ilchenko looms large over her competition and is considered to be the overwhelming favorite in the women’s Olympic 10km Marathon Swim.

Since Ilchenko burst on the open water swimming scene in 2004, she has established the most impressive track record of success of anyone in the sport.

Her versatility has been evident in numerous venues and in every possible body of water. From a flowing river in Dubai in 2004 to a flat-water rowing basin in Montreal in 2005, the warm Mediterranean Sea in Naples in 2006 and the cold Pacific Ocean in Melbourne in 2007, Ilchenko’s world championship victories are a testament to her endurance, closing sprint speed, navigational IQ and savvy racing tactics.

Her strategy is simple and classic…and it ultimately leads to exciting, made-for-TV close finishes. For the first 5-7K, Ilchenko lurks around in the lead pack, jabbing and fading like a skilled boxer. She never leads and always drafts inches from her competitors in front of her. She rarely lifts her head to look forward and has mastered fast, efficient feedings at the feeding stations or while taking gel packs from her swim suit.

Once the lead pack starts to thin out and separate itself from the rest of the competitors, Ilchenko generally moves up to the second, third or fourth position, never much more than a body distance from the leader.

After the 8K, if any swimmer makes a break, or tries to, Ilchenko instinctively follows, hanging on right behind her competitor’s feet or immediately somewhere off to the side between their hips and feet. Generally, as the remaining lead swimmers approach the last turn buoy, Ilchenko moves into position towards the lead. Either right before or immediately after the last turn buoy, she steps up her pace and catapults herself into the lead or a dead tie with the leader. Then, because she has conserved more energy than her competitors throughout the race with her classic drafting technique, she begins her final kick, often brushes up against her foe until her last move within 25-50 meters from the finish.

From 2004 when she played out her strategy to perfection over Florida’s Sara McLarty in the 5K World Championships to 2007 when she mowed down Cassandra Patten of the U.K. Ilchenko has constantly demonstrated her patience and sense of the dramatic in all her 5K and 10K world championship victories.

However, with an Olympic gold medal on the line in Beijing, Patten, Melissa Gorman of Australia, Edith van Dijk of the Netherlands, Britta Kamrau-Corestein of Germany and Kirsten Groome of Shreveport, Louisiana are only a few of the top swimmers who are going to push Ilchenko to her limits.

These swimmers, all top pool swimmers in their respective countries, have the speed and endurance to upset the gold medal favorite.

Come August 20th 2008, we’ll see if Ilchenko finishes this Olympic quadrennial like the Miami Dolphins in their undefeated 1972 season – or like the New England Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl.

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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