By Steven Munatones, Swimming World open water correspondent
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, December 12. TOP pro Poliana Okimoto and 3-time Olympian Djan Madruga finished first and third overall at the 2K King of the Sea Challenge on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro today.
The new 2K race, held at the site of the proposed Olympic 10K Marathon Swim for the 2016 Rio Olympics, was the first of a three-race event that will culminate in tomorrow's special 10K match race pitting five of Brazil's top male swimmers against five of the world's best from Africa, Oceania, the Americas, Europe and Asia.
Okimoto, coming off her 2009 FINA Marathon Swimming World Cup championship, elected to swim with the men's heat. Separating herself from the lead pack after the first turn buoy, Okimoto won in 25:07. "It was rough, especially in the middle with the waves. But it was good. I am training for Santos [the first pro 10K race of the 2010 FINA World Cup circuit in January]. The Santos race will be Brazil's qualification for the 2010 World Championships in Canada."
The first-year race kicked off the Brazilian open water swimming season in a major way with live television coverage in Brazil with seven cameras along the course, including three on the water. Huge three-meter turn buoys – each in different colors with the names of different sponsors – dotted the course with pulsating music and a band entertaining the thousands who lined the shoreline.
The affable Okimoto has the open water hopes of Brazil riding on her shoulders. Madruga observed, "Poliana is fantastic for Brazil. She is our first female swimmer to be on top [of the open water swimming world]. She will really help our sport and our female athletes."
Rafael Goncalves, who won a close men's race that was not decided until the run up the beach, said, "It was a great race and tough. I managed to stay in the front pack, but after the first buoy, Poliana really took off. I trained with her before and I know how fast she is." Madruga agreed, "After the first buoy, she showed how good she is."
After the 800+ swimmers finished the 2K race, a special 400-meter sprint race was also televised live on Globo TV, the largest broadcaster in Brazil. The sprint race was held between representatives of five continents (Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe and the Americas) and five top Brazilian swimmers (see photo of start above). The outcome determined the starting positions of the 10K race tomorrow.
With only 200 meters out and 200 meters back from Copacabana Beach, there was barely enough room and time to separate the charging pack of ten men. World championship silver medalist Trent Grimsey of Australia just edged out world championship bronze medalist Chad Ho, Brazilian Filipe Alcantara and former FINA Grand Prix race winner Ivan Lopez of Mexico to capture the pole position for tomorrow's 10K race.