By David Rieder.
Haley Anderson arrived in Rio as the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the 10k open water swim, and Jordan Wilimovsky was the reigning World Champion in the event, but no American finished on the podium in either of the marathon swim events.
Anderson and Wilimovsky each finished fifth in their respective 10k races, while Sean Ryan placed 13th in the men’s event. Still, USA Swimming National Team Open Water Program Director Bryce Elser won’t call what happened in Rio a setback.
Medal count has definitely always been in the back of our minds, but looking at overall team performance is crucial,” Elser said. “It’s tough to put medals behind an event where so many things can go wrong in a race.”
Such is the nature of a sport where one can’t simply swim his or her own race, as coaches constantly emphasize for pool racing. In Rio, both 10k events were extremely physical affairs, and a top-three finisher in each race—France’s Aurélie Muller and Great Britain’s Jack Burnell—ended up getting disqualified for unnecessary physical contact.
In fact, Elser believes that if not for the incident that led to Burnell’s disqualification, Wilimovsky might have been in position to win a medal.
“Jordan was in a medal-contention spot, and then basically the domino effect happened where one athlete got physical with another athlete,” Elser said. “That caused another athlete to get physical with another athlete. It was kind of a domino effect where he found himself in a spot where he was boxed out, and he couldn’t get on the podium.”
Wilimovsky ended up finishing just over a second behind French bronze medalist Marc-Antoine Olivier.
Still, despite the Rio 0-fer, the American open water program has turned into one of the deepest in the world—in no small part due to the lack of turnover on the National Team.
“I thought that was a huge strength for us at World Championships (in 2015) when we won the team title because we were able to show our depth through our entire program,” Elser said. “It wasn’t one particular race. It wasn’t a 10k—we were able to show our depth event by event, and I’m still confident thinking that our six best athletes are the best athletes in the world.”
But just as in pool swimming, success is best perceived in the medal tally. And based on what happened in Rio, USA Swimming has developed a strategy aimed at not coming home empty from Tokyo.
The plan involves sending strong representative teams to four FINA World Cup races per year to practice race strategy among elite-level competition. The main goal: Be ready for the finishing stretch.
“The athletes that were able to prevail through that finishing group in Rio were athletes that learned that (skill) through multiple races. They know what to do when they get boxed out. That’s something that we can expand on with our athletes, just trying to get our athletes to as many of these good races,” Elser said.
“We’re going to show up to these races and compete and learn something from each race that we go to so that by the time we get to Tokyo, we get into those situations where the domino effect happens, where we’re boxed out, our athletes are going to know instinctively what to do in that race and move around and move into a spot where they can get back on the podium.”
The plan for the next four years might have changed slightly, but don’t be surprised to see some familiar faces at the forefront.
Wilimovsky remains the best medal hope for the U.S. men. He has not competed in an open water race since Rio, but he proved at the NCAA championships that he’s in some of the best shape of his life, finishing fourth in the epic 1650 free final in Indy.
Anderson, on the other hand, took a hiatus from training after her second Olympic Games, but her longtime coach, Catherine Vogt, thinks that Anderson’s extensive experience could help her book another ticket to the World Championships.
“She definitely took a little bit of a step back in the fall and probably into March and April, which (USC head coach) Dave (Salo) and I totally support,” Vogt said. “The Olympic year can be intense, so I think just mentally having a break and realizing what’s important. I think she just enjoyed getting back into shape gradually, and I think she’s excited to race.”
It’s hard to call Anderson the pre-race favorite, but that has as much to do with the nature of open water racing as it does her relative lack of preparation.
“It’s like horse racing—I guess you can kind of have a favorite, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen and what each race is going to look like,” Vogt said.