FUKUOKA, Japan, July 16. ITALY won gold medals today in both the men's and women's 5K open water swims, the only two events contested on the first day of the FINA World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. Luca Baldini and Viola Valli had little difficulty in winning the men's and women's races, respectively, though the battles for second and third were fierce in both events.
Valli won the first gold medal of the championships as she powered away over the second half of the women's race to win ahead of Germany's Peggy Buchse. The bronze medalist at the FINA Open Water World Championships in Hawaii last November, took the lead for good at the one mile mark and held on comfortably to cross the finish line in one hour, 23 seconds.
Buchse, who took gold in Hawaii, clocked 1:00:49 to take the silver medal, edging out Australian Hayley Lewis by just three seconds in a tight finish. Germany's Angela Maurer was just two seconds behind Lewis in fourth.
Valli, who won a 25-kilometre race over the same Fukuoka course last year, had stretched her lead to 30 meters by the 4K mark as Buchse, Lewis and Maurer began to fade. Afterwards, Valli said she was
"stunned" to defeat such a strong field.
"I knew I had a chance, but I didn't expect to actually win. My plan was to go out quick from the start and everything worked out perfectly," she said. "It's an honor to win Italy's first gold medal of the Championships."
Lewis, meanwhile, said she was satisfied to come away with the bronze medal in her latest comeback.
"At this stage of my career, any medal feels like a gold," said the 27-year-old, who returned to competitive swimming at last year's Sydney Olympics after retiring in 1996.
Lewis, a former world champion in the 200m freestyle, will also race in Wednesday's 10-K race as well as the 1,500 meter freestyle in the pool competition.
The USA's Erica Rose, gold medalist in this event at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, was seventh, only 19 seconds outside of the medals. Kalyn Keller, who was the silver medalist in this event in Hawaii – and the only American to medal in that meet – did not compete here today.
Baldini completed the impressive Italian double with a convincing victory in the men's competition, crossing the finish line at Momochihama Beach in 55 minutes, 37 seconds to beat Russian Evgueni Bezroutchenko by almost a minute.
Baldini, bronze medalist in Perth in 1998 and in Hawaii last year, clocked 55 minutes, 37 seconds – exactly the same time he swam in Perth three years ago – only this time it was good for the gold.
Like his countrywoman, Valli, Baldini stayed in the lead pack for a while before making his move at the 2K mark. "I really didn't have any set strategy today," said Baldini. "I just tried to open a gap after the first buoy. I think I caught the other swimmers by surprise," said Baldini.
Despite claiming he had won on adrenaline alone, Baldini also used his smarts. Taking advantage of a favorable current, he steered away from the pack after taking the lead and opened up a 12-second lead halfway through the race.
Bezroutchenko, who took gold in Hawaii, admitted he had no answer to Baldini's surge after the 24-year-old Italian broke away from the leading pack.
"He did what I wanted to do. I wanted to up the pace over the second half of the race, but he caught me by surprise," said the Russian, who finished some 80 meter behind Baldini.
Marco Formentini gave the Italians more to shout about by edging out American Mark Leonard by one second to take the bronze medal in 56:42. New Zealand's Scott Shephard finished only a second behind Leonard.
The USA's other swimmer, John Flanagan, was tenth in 56:59, as only 17 seconds separated third and tenth place.
5-K Open Water Swim
1. Viola Valli (ITA) 1:00:23
2. Peggy Buchse (GER) 1:00:49
3. Hayley Lewis (AUS) 1:00:52
4. Angela Maurer (GER) 1:00:54
5. Valeria Casprini (ITA) 1:01:06
6. Edith Van Dijk (NED) 1:01:08
7. Erica Rose (USA) 1:01:11
8. Olga Gousseva (RUS) 1:01:57
9. Hanna Miluska (SUI) 1:02:05
10.Andrey Boitte (FRA) 1:02:06
1. Luca Baldini (ITA) 55:37
2. Evgueni Bezroutchenko (RUS) 56:31
3. Marco Formentini (ITA) 56:42
4. Mark Leonard (USA) 56:43
5. Scott Shephard (NZL) 56:44
6. Anton Sanatchev (RUS) 56:54
7. Emmanuel Poissier (FRA) 56:55
8. Gilles Rondy (FRA) 56:57
9. Petar Stoychev (BUL) 56:58
10.John Flanagan (USA) 56:59