MONTREAL, July 17. SOMETIMES, a little attention is a good thing. Sometimes, it's not. That may be the lesson learned the hard way Sunday by Russian teenager Larisa Ilchenko as she fought for and won the first gold medal of the FINA World Championships. Ilchenko earned her gold medal in the 5K open-water swimming competition.
"In 2004, it was easy for me. I was unknown and the strong swimmers let me go ahead thinking it was due to my inexperience," Ilchenko said.
In November, at the 2004 FINA Open Water World Championships in Dubai (UAE), Ilchenko was able to get so far ahead of the field that the veterans never caught up. It was unlikely that her presence would be overlooked in the future. It was just last year as a newcomer to the sport that no one knew what to expect from the 16 year old, "but today everyone paid attention to me."
Perhaps not all that attention was such a good thing. "They pushed me under at the start and I felt people holding my legs and doing everything that they could to prevent me from going ahead,” Ilchenko said.
Ilchenko won the 5K anyway, by covering the distance in 55:40.01, a margin of 4.2 seconds ahead of Margy Keefe of the USA. The young Russian was told by her coach to swim with the group for as long as possible and to try to blend in with the others.
The first swimming events of the World Championships were conducted in the rowing basin of the man-made Ile Notre-Dame. Although there was a heavy rain in the hour lead-up to the start, the rain stopped as if on cue for the start of the race. Only a light breeze was evident during the two-lap, 2.5-kilometer loop. The venue at Park Jean Drapeau was built for the 1976 Olympic Games and is one of the few venues that has been in continuous use since those games ended nearly 30 years ago.
Sunday, the site was filled with hundreds of swimming fans and supporters who lined both sides of the basin to witness the rematch of the medal winners from the 2004 Open Water World Championships. Ilchenko’s teammate, Ksenia Popova (Russia) took home a silver medal in Dubai but was only able to finish in eighth place Sunday. The American bronze medalist in Dubai, Sara McLarty was in third place at the 2.5K mark but was overtaken by the more experienced Edith Van Dyk during the second lap.
Keefe, the silver medalist from the USA, was the leader at the halfway point of the race. "I was getting killed on the buoys and I was leading just so I could get away from the other swimmers. I am a pool swimmer, competing in my first World Championships and although I was prepared with all the speed work we do in training, I was worried about how physical the race would be. I do have a black eye so I now think I know what to expect for the next time."
The endurance and longevity of Van Dyk (Netherlands) was evident from her bronze medal performance, just 6.5 seconds behind the winner. Van Dyk is 31 years old and offered a surprise announcement: “This was the last 5K I will ever swim and I am competing in my final FINA World Championship as well. My advice to the younger swimmers is to keep on training hard and having fun. I am sure that I will miss the adrenaline and the energy and even the nervousness on the days before a race.”
For the men, the calm surface of the waters at the Park Jean Drapeau venue were first disturbed by the steady rainfall that marked the first day. Next came the propellers and engines of the 32 men who entered the water at 12:30 p.m. to execute the two 2.5 laps between the buoys marking the start and the finish of the 5K course.
The swords were drawn early in the 5K battle. Chip Peterson of the USA took command of the lead shortly after losing his swim cap at the 1K but his blonde hair was the one sure indicator to his coaches that he was among the leaders. At times he allowed up to four others to swim in a tight pack with him. For the longest time it appeared that he could shake them off any time he wanted to.
Australian Ky Hurst thought he would try his hand at leadership by pulling ahead at the 2.5K mark. Hurst was second in the 1998 Perth World Championships while swimming before home crowds. Today's rally by the 24-year-old veteran was thought to be both tactical and logical. The Australian's spot at the head of the pack was short lived, disappearing at the 3K point.
Peterson emerged as the leader again but never with the authority of more than a body length lead over Thomas Lurz of Germany. Lurz has a bronze medal under his belt from the 2002 FINA Open Water World Championships in Egypt. Lurz was also the winner of the 10K event at the 2004 FINA Open Water World Championships in Dubai.
Confident of his international experience and his recent success Lurz decided that he would challenge Peterson for the lead. He made his move at the 4K mark and pushed Peterson aside. Although Lurz was never comfortable with the margin of his lead, he would never relinquish it. Just after the final turn and only 25 meters from the finish, Peterson made his move to the inside and was drawing closer to Lurz.
The German held off his challengers and posted a time of 51:17.02, allowing Peterson to finish in second place, 1.6 seconds behind. Exactly one tenth of a second separated the third place Italian Simone Ercoli from Peterson's silver medal result.
Speaking at the press conference after receiving his gold medal, the German said: "I wanted to go fast for the last 1,500 and it worked perfect. I tried to swim away but the last 300 was very hard because the American didn't give up. This race, the circuit is perfect, and the water temperature also. My finish was not so perfect because everyone tries to be inside and not outside. It’s normal you lose meters when you swim outside so everyone tries to be inside. I was not in a perfect position. The American fought and fought but I am happy that I won."
The team results (the addition of the three fastest times) of the combined men's and women's 5K event are: Russia, 2:39.13.8; USA, 2:39.14.4; Italy, 2:39.17.5.