Ana Marcela Cunha and Gregorio Paltrinieri Crowned Swimming World’s Open Water Swimmers of the Year

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Ana Marcela Cunha and Gregorio Paltrinieri Crowned Swimming World’s Open Water Swimmers of the Year

In a year full of spectacular races and finishes, two swimmers stood alone in their conquests of open water swimming: Three-time Swimmer of the Year Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil and Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri.

Ana Marcela Cunha

Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha continued her spectacular legacy as the most decorated open water swimmer in history. Last year’s Olympic 10K champion claimed world titles this year in two of the three women’s open water events (5K and 25K) at the 2022 FINA Open Water Championships in June—and she won a bronze medal in her third race (10K).

It all added up to her being named Swimming World’s Women’s Open Water Swimmer of the Year for the second straight year and her third title overall (2019, 2021, 2022).

Swimming World November 2021 - Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year - Ana Marcela Cunha 2In the 25K in Budapest, Cunha claimed gold for the fifth time (2011, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2022). It was the first time an open water swimmer had won the same event five times at Worlds. She also won the 5K for the second time (2019, 2022) and has captured seven other open water medals (two silver, five bronze), bringing her career medal total at the World Championships to a record 14.

This year, she won the 25K in 5:24:15.00 in a blanket finish with only 3-tenths of a second separating the top three swimmers. Cunha clocked 5:24:15.00, 2-tenths ahead of Germany’s Lea Boy and 3-tenths in front of Sharon Van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands, who claimed the bronze after winning the 10K gold medal earlier in the week.

“It was a very hard 25 kilometers,” Cunha said after the meet. “I did my best in the past few days mentally and physically, too. For me (in the 25K), it was very important how I was able to go around the buoy because you have to position yourself to the right side and in the right way—thus, you can save a lot of energy. I did that well in this race, so I’m happy and satisfied that I had enough power left until the end. This was my best result and my strongest overall World Championships.”

The 30-year-old also defended her world championship title in the 5K earlier in the meet. The finish was a near repeat of the 5K at the 2019 World Championships, where Cunha touched out France’s Aurelie Muller by one second. This time, they repeated their 1-2 finish, with Cunha winning by 9-tenths of a second with a time of 57:52.90. It was one of the closest finishes in open water history—not just the top two swimmers, but the entire 5K field: Less than 10 seconds separated the top eight, while the top 10 were all within 16 seconds of each other.

In addition to her dominance in the sport, Cunha has added to her legacy with her longevity. Her breakout meet came in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, where she finished fifth in the inaugural women’s 10K marathon. Only one other swimmer at this year’s World Championships has remained a competitor on the world stage as long—but not nearly as dominant.

Cunha’s coach, Fernando Possenti, told FINA at the World Championships that the key to longevity is keeping things fresh.

“Two parts: One, I change my program every single year. People ask: Why do you change, change, change? I hear so many managers say, ‘The team is winning, so don’t change anything; if we do the same thing, we will get the same result.’ That’s a REAL big mistake. We don’t believe in that. I want to test things every single year, and give her the impression that we keep improving. For sure, we’re not going to do the same altitude camp or the exact same competitions next year.

“The second part is her hunger for big goals. In 2013, I said, ‘If we’re going to work together again, I want three medals at the Worlds.’ And she loved it. She loves high goals—always.”

And her mentality allows her to continue to shoot for those goals—and reach them.

“Her powerful mind, for sure, is an unbelievable weapon,” said Possenti. “To compete 25K at 30 years old? She wins that race mentally because we are not training for it. We train for the 10K because it’s the Olympic distance. Since she’s been training with me, she wins the 25 just with her head, her mindset. It’s crazy!”

And regarding her future, Possenti shared that his star swimmer told him: “In open water, no one ever won two gold medals in two Olympic Games…so why not?” Possenti answered, “OK…let’s go to the pool. Let’s start again!”

Gregorio Paltrinieri

Just as Cunha continues to dominate on the women’s side, so does Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri among the men. Paltrinieri was named Swimming World’s Male Open Water Swimmer of the Year for the first time.

He won the 10K gold medal at the World Championships in June with a time of 1:50:56.8, and added a silver medal in the 5K, just 3.9 seconds behind Germany’s Florian Wellbrock’s winning time of 52:48.80. And all of this took place just a couple of days after winning the 1500 meter freestyle in the pool.

It was quite the switch from swimming in the pool to competing in open water with high temperatures.

“I have won four medals (at this meet),” Paltrinieri said. “In every event I have swum, I got a medal (he also captured a bronze medal as part of Italy’s mixed 4 x 1500 open water relay). I am really happy with this (World) Championships—it’s been really cool. (During the 10K), it’s been so hot—much worse than two days ago (during the 5K)—but I told my coach that I wanted to get to feed and get a drink every single lap, and that’s what we did…so probably that was the key to winning—(the fact that) I got properly hydrated.

“I wanted to win…I wanted to do my best…I pushed. Also, being on a podium with a friend of mine, Domenico (Acerenza, who finished second in the 10K)—we live together, we swim together, we’ve been together for 10 years now—it’s beautiful. In the first half (of the race), I was looking for drag, just swimming behind someone else, then I improved in the last 2,000 meters, and I saw a chance and I took it. After 10 days of competition, one after another, it has been challenging mentally, but it’s cool—we have prepared for this.”

His 1500 at Worlds was his third title in the event. Paltrinieri touched the wall in 14:32.80, a European record and the second-fastest swim in history.

“It was pure pain for the entire 1500,” Paltrinieri said. “I knew I was swimming very fast, but during the swim, I didn’t think I was so close to the world record. The plan was to try to win this race, not more, so I’m extremely happy with this time. I was watching my teammates in the stands during the race, and they were pushing me so hard. That meant a lot to me.”

Paltrinieri also won the 800 freestyle at the 2022 European Championships, solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest swimmers to excel in both the pool and open water on the biggest stages.

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