Updated July 23
By Steven Munatones, Swimming World Open Water correspondent
ROME, Italy, July 22. IN one of the most tactical and exciting races in recent open water history, Germany's Thomas Lurz captured his second gold in the FINA 10K World Championship race. As the world's open water swimming elite looked on with surprise, Andrew Gemmell and Fran Crippen put on a pair of fast finishes over the last 650 meters to take the silver and bronze for the U.S.
The race had everything.
It featured speed. The first half of the 5K race was nearly a minute faster than the 5K race previously where Gemmell had taken fifth and Crippen seventh. The lead pack was nearly 40 strong for the first 7 kilometers with swimmers struggling and battling at every turn and feeding station.
It featured tactics. Gemmell said that he felt that he used too much energy in the 5K swimming towards the front, so he settled back towards the rear of the lead pack.
"I felt relaxed and comfortable, using hardly any effort so I could save something for the end," Gemmell said.
It featured lead changes. During the last 2.5-kilometer loop, there were dozens of lead changes, although Lurz was a constant in the top pack. Swimmers from Belgium, Italy, Australia, Russia and Germany made surges towards the front, trying to knock Lurz from his perch.
Gemmell, who had moved from about 35th in the pack to about 5th in a matter of one loop, had positioned himself well, by tactics and conserving energy, to make a valiant run at Lurz.
"During the last 1000 meters, we really pushed the pace and I was right on Lurz's feet," Gemmell said. "We went right past Valerio Cleri [of Italy] in the last 150-200 meters."
It featured controversy. Crippen, who appeared to be at least equal to Lurz down the final 650-meter straightaway, ran straight into the turn buoy and went outside the final finish chute. Seeing that he was outside the chute, Crippen ducked under the lane lines and scrambled to catch Lurz, Gemmell and the 3-4 other swimmers, who temporarily passed him. Using a Jason Lezak-type finish, Crippen went into overdrive to finish third.
However, Italy and Greece immediately filed a protest that Crippen had swum outside the finish chute. The USA delegation filed an appeal that was adjudicated in Crippen's favor today in Rome.
Traditionally in open water, swimmers are able to swim anywhere on the course as long as they swim around the designated turn buoys. The issue heard by the FINA Bureau was if Crippen was outside the field of play because he went outside the finish chute. After hours of deliberation at the seaside venue and later at the FINA Bureau, FINA ruled in his favor.
The race featured changing conditions. The men started the race under flat conditions with minimal wind. But as the field swam four loops of the 10K course, the winds picked up and the surface chop increased.
The race featured an exciting finish. Even with the fast pace of the race, few swimmers fell off the back of the lead pack and the crowd waited in anticipation of the sprint in the last loop. Around the last buoy, there were as many as 20 men who had a shot at medaling. Around the final buoy, the men spread out across the sea and took different lines to the finish. While Lurz was in control and a clear leader down the stretch, there were between 6-10 swimmers who had a decent shot of capturing the second and third positions.
Lurz finished in 1:52:06 with Gemmell in 1:52:08 and Crippen in 1:52:10. It was the first time since the 1991 World Swimming Championships that the U.S. had won two medals in the same open water race.
"I think it means that we are improving. We haven't had this type of performance on the Worlds stage since 2005," Crippen said. "To have two guys in the top three was a very good showing yesterday. I think that our country is improving in open water. I think that we are the dominant country in swimming in general and it was my goal yesterday to carry that through for open water swimming."
After the men's performance, USA leads in the open water team standings with 50 points. Russia, the traditional open water swimming powerhouse, is second with 48.5 points. Germany (46 points) and Italy (45 points) are in third and fourth with the men's and women's 25K race coming up on Saturday.