Open Water Test Event: History in the Making for Open Water

By Steven Munatones, Swimming World Special Correspondent

BEIJING, China, June 1. NORY Krutchen, the FINA Bureau Vice President, officially closed the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim qualification races last night in a final dinner with the open water swimmers, their coaches and Chinese hosts.

"You are all part of this historic moment. All of you did a fantastic job, competing fairly. The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim will be a special experience that we will live together in August."

For many, the qualification races at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park will be remembered the rest of their lives. With only one available spot per country, the competition between teammates of various countries was as exciting as the overall race itself. On the men's side, Spain's Jose Francisco Hervas just touched out his fellow countryman, Diego Nogueira, by 4 tenths of a second, to qualify. Same with Erwin Maldonado of Venezuela over his teammate, Rolando Salas. On the women's side, Teja Zupan battled stroke-for-stroke down the finish and became her country's representative over Slovakian teammate, Nika Kozamernik. Mexico, in particular, had two fierce battles. In Beijing, Imelda Martinez became her country's second Olympic 10K qualifier by beating her teammate, Alejandra Gonzalez, by two strokes. In Seville at the first qualification race, Luis Escobar beat his teammate, Ivan Lopez, by 2 tenths of a second.

In terms of feel-good stories, South Africa is hard to beat. Not only did Natalie du Toit qualify for the 10K despite the lost of her leg, but her countryman, Chad Ho, had a come-back story of note. 17-year-old Ho, the youngest male competitor, was in excellent position to qualify in Seville, sitting in the top 10 and swimming well until he was inadvertently kicked in the eye by the heel of a competitor.

"Everyone was swimming so close together," recalled Ho.

The kick was so hard that his goggles ripped across his face, causing a cornea tear. Ho's dreams of making the Olympics evaporated in one swift moment.

"I couldn't see and my eye swelled up. I finished 35th, disappointed. It was such a tough race."

But Ho went back home and like du Toit, never gave up on himself.

"I went to go see a doctor and he gave me an eye patch that I wore for three days. I put in eye drops and waited. The doctor told me the eye was the fastest healing part of the body."

Fortunately, the doctor's prognosis was right, but Ho had only a few more weeks to mentally and physically prepare for the second qualification swim in Beijing. Ho knew that second chances do not come around often, especially when an Olympic berth is at stake.

"For the first three laps, I felt good and was ready to go. But I was 13th coming around the last turn buoy [with 900 meters to go]."

Ho knew a 13th-place finish was not going to get him into the Olympics. With 500 meters to go, the leader and eventual winner Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria veered way off-course, causing the lead pack to splinter. 15 men, 3 packs and 10 Olympic spots. There was not a lot of time to make a decision. Ho went with his gut and sprinted down the straightaway, splitting his competitors to his right and left. Ho captured fourth to secure his spot.

"Chad showed his courage today," said Neville Smith, the long-time South African FINA representative. "I am just so proud of him and Natalie."

In August at the beautiful and well-designed Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, Ho and all his fellow open water competitors will have another chance to show their courage.