Mano a Mano in Barcelona: A Personal Perspective on an Epic 25K Race

Editor's Note: the 25K (16-mile) open water race at the Barcelona World Championships was the closest — and one of the most exciting — open water races in history. Here Steve Munatones, himself a world-ranked open water swimmer, presents his eye-witness, lead-boat account of the event, blow-by-blow. — Phil Whitten

By Steven Munatones

BARCELONA. FROM the blast of the starting gun to an unprecedented photo finish, the 25-kilometer race at the World Swimming Championships in Barcelona was something to cherish.

The men’s race was won by Yury Kudinov of Russia in 5 hours 2 minutes, a mere 4 tenths of a second ahead of Spain’s David Meca who himself finished only 2 tenths ahead of the bronze medalist, Petar Stoichev of Bulgaria.

25,000 meters in the Mediterranean Sea and the 3 medalists were separated by a total of 6 tenths of a second.

Even the next group of 4 swimmers finished only 9 seconds behind, Kudinov with Christof Wandratsch of Germany finishing in 5:02:25.6, Igor Majcen of Slovakia and Stephane Gomez of France both finishing in 5:02:29.0, and Evgueni Kochkarov of Russia finishing in 5:02:29.5.

To put this finish in perspective: Ian Thorpe finished 9 seconds ahead of the 8th place finisher in the 400-meter pool final. The top 7 men finished within 9 seconds of each other after over 5 hours in the ocean.

The organizing committee looked wise in hindsight: Omega Swiss Timing touch pads were installed upon floats at the finish. But it still took the judges over 15 minutes to sort out the order of the finish.

“(The race) was very hard. I didn’t know whether I had come first or second,” said Kudinov whose obvious tan and deeply etched goggle marks gave hints of the effort he expended under beautifully clear Barcelona skies. “I didn’t think I’d be able to win such a long event.

“Whether I’m first or second is not what matters most to me. The three of us deserve to win after these five long hours,” commented Meca. Meca’s Spanish fans earnestly cheered from the Port of Barcelona waterfront near the finish and from the spectator boats along the course. “It’s a shame that an event like this is decided by a photo finish.”

Right from the start, a lead group of 18 swimmers took off at a strong pace out the Port of Barcelona to the relatively calm Mediterranean at 8:00 am.

After the first turn buoy at 2.5 kilometers, the swimmers were joined by a flotilla of escort boats. The escort boats were identical, small rubber lifeboats with the swimmer’s coach, a FINA official, a Spanish boat driver and the flag of the swimmer’s country. Throughout the race, each crew attempted to always position themselves in the ideal location to provide drinks and the best navigational line for their swimmer.

The lead group exited the port and headed north along the Spanish coast, surrounded by their escort boats, a variety of safety boats and spectator boats, and a helicopter flying overhead. The course was a double loop along the popular beaches of Barcelona.

Thirty minutes after the men’s start, the women’s race began – and ended — in similar fashion.

Edith Van Dijk of the Netherlands won in 5 hours 35 minutes and 43 seconds, closely edging out her two German rivals, Britta Kamrau and Angela Mauer, who finished 4 tenths apart in 5 hours 35 minutes and 46 seconds. The three medalists were only able to slightly pull away from others in the lead group over the last kilometer.

Just like their male counterparts, the medalists were engaged in a tough battle throughout the 25K course, constantly surrounded by a large group of competitors and their escort boats.

The leading group of men rounded the second buoy at 7.5 kilometers, anchored 50 meters outside one of the Barcelona beach piers. Caution whistles from judge’s boats, directions from coaches in a variety of languages, and cheers from spectators along piers repeatedly punctuated the constant splash of the swimmers’ arms and legs.

Kilometer after kilometer, the group swam together, each athlete attempting to push the pace at different times to test each other’s endurance.

Around the 11K mark, Gomez of France took the first major strategic move when he chose to swim extremely close to a breakwater near the Olympic Village harbor. The rest of the lead group remained together about 150 meters off the breakwater. Gomez took this course even though it was not the most direct straight-line to the next turn buoy. But, his move paid off big-time when the rapid currents along the breakwater provided him with a significant advantage. At the 12.5K buoy, Gomez had built a sizable 200-meter lead.

But, like breakaway cyclists in the Tour de France, Gomez found his 200-meter lead was difficult to maintain with the main group in pursuit.

Over the next 5 kilometers until the 17.5K turn buoy, the pace increasingly picked up, only momentarily slowed for drink breaks. Majcen of Slovakia, Wandratsch of Germany and Kochkarov of Russia each made various moves in attempts to reel in Gomez. But, each move was monitored by Kudinov, Meca and Stoichev’s coaches – and matched by the others. Still Gomez hung on.

Andy Bray of the US, the oldest competitor in the field at 44 years who finished nineteenth, summed up the superhuman efforts of his competitors. “I could not believe the pace these guys were going. They were flying!”

By the 17.5K mark, the calm early-morning conditions were replaced by steady winds and heavy surface chop. Battling waves, winds, currents and each other for the third straight hour, the lead group steadily came up on Gomez.

Sitting low against the surface chop, all the escort boats were taking on water. Yet, the coaches and officials did not worry for they knew a special race was coming to a climax.

At the 20K mark, the lead group caught Gomez and was whittled down to seven men: Kudinov, Kochkarov, Meca, Stoichev, Wandratsch, Majcen, Gomez and Kochkarov. Kudinov wisely never took the unilateral lead, spending most of his time darting in and about the feet and hips of the lead swimmer.

During the second loop, the move near the breakwater by Gomez was no longer a surprise to the group. This time, all the coaches directed their swimmer along the breakwater.

20K down and 5K to go, but no one could yet call this race.

Who still had something left in his tank: Kudinov or his countryman, Kochkarov? The Spanish hometown favorite, Meca or the 37-year-old German, Wandratsch? Or, would Stoichev, Majcen or Gomez be able to pull off an unexpected upset?

The last hour would soon tell.

The thousands who gathered at the finish to cheer on their countryman, Meca, anxiously waited for each announcement by the officials. Meca was in the lead…sometimes. Now, it was Kudinov. Still other announcements had Stoichev or others in the lead.

Meanwhile, the winds and surface chop continued unabated.

The group of seven finally reached the 22.5K buoy and entered the calmer waters of the port. It was obvious that no swimmer or coach was leaving anything to chance. Everyone had broken into their sprint mode. 22,500 meters in the open ocean, going up, down and across waves and against currents, and the swimmers were still able to pick up the pace.

“Amazing. These guys are just incredible,” commented USA Assistant Coach, Rick Graves of Huntington Beach, California.

The final buoy was anchored 500 meters from the finish and within eyesight of thousands of cheering fans.

Kudinov or Meca? Wandratsch or Stoichev?

At the final buoy, all escort boats were directed away from the swimmers. The last 500 meters were played out for all to enjoy.

Stroke for stroke, Kudinov, Meca and Stoichev swam together. Each swimmer equidistant to the goal, sprinting with a 6-beat kick.

300 meters to go. 8-beat kicks. 200 meters to go. Shoulder to shoulder, the race was still up for grabs.

100 meters. 50 meters. Still together. 20 meters, 10 meters. The 3 swimmers reached the touch pads together in an apparent dead heat. Each reached up and made a final lunge.

The crowd cheered and then hushed. Who won? The fans and announcer had no idea.

15 long minutes later, after the judges reviewed photographs of the finish, Kudinov was declared the winner in 5:02:20.0 followed by Meca in 5:02:20.4 and Stoichev in 5:02:20.6. Kudinov had remarkably defended his World Championship title in truly memorable style.

In the women's event, Edith Van Dijk was one of the leaders for nearly the entire race. But Van Dijk was frequently joined in the front by her German, Italian and American competitors.

Van Dijk was certainly the swimmer everyone was watching as she gets better the longer the race. Days before, Van Dijk finished eighth in the 5K event, and third in the 10K. "The last 5K was very hard, but in the end I kept to my strategy. I took advantage of the current and often would pick up the pace to escape from my competitors, and only the Germans were able to keep up with me."

To observers of both races, the lead group of women seemed even more closely packed than the men for the first 22.5 kilometers.

“When we arrived in the port (2.5 kilometers from the finish), the (lead) group divided,” said Esther Nunez of Spain who finished ninth, 5 tenths of a second out of seventh place.

When the lead group of nine swimmers divided, the Germans went with Van Dijk, a wise move considering her gold medal was her tenth overall since the 1998 World Championships.

“I distanced myself to one side because I breathe better on my right,” said Van Dijk. With her German rivals in clear view, and six others in close pursuit, Van Dijk positioned herself well in the most critical stage of the race.

With the announcer describing the final sprint in characteristically emotional detail, and thousands cheering another incredible finish, Van Dijk beat Kamrau and Mauer by less than 3 seconds.

Silver medalist Kamrau said "I knew that if the finish was a sprint, that I would be in a good position for a medal, and today we finished in a sprint."

Teammate Maurer won her second medal of the week after her silver-medal performance in the 10K race. “The contest was very tough because we only had a few days to recover from the previous race. I am very happy for Britta (Kamrau), although I feel very proud of my performance too.”

The performance of all open-water athletes at the World Championships was something for swimming fans to be very proud of.

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