The Tiburon Mile; Open Water Swimming’s Marquee Event

By P.H. Mullen

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., Oct. 24. FOUNDED in 1999 by an accomplished swimmer and avid open-water fan named Robert C. Placak, the RCP Tiburon Mile is an oddity in swimming: It draws the world’s best swimmers; it pays lucrative cash prizes; and it attracts lots of publicity.

This Sunday’s race, which runs a nautical mile between Angel Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay and affluent Tiburon across the water from San Francisco, boasts no fewer than eight Olympians from the 2000 Sydney Games, including gold medalists Brooke Bennett, Tom Malchow, and Scott Goldblatt.

In addition, three open water world champions are scheduled to compete. In effect, that makes the 2002 Tiburon Mile one of the first true head-to-head match- ups between the world’s best pool swimmers and the best ocean swimmers.

For an open water event, the prize money is simply astounding. The male and female winners walk away with $10,000 each. (Second place claims $2,000 and third places earns $1,000).

By comparison, athletes competing full time on the pro world marathon circuit rarely see more than $8,000 for any tour win, and all too often the women earn less than the men.

Finally, there is the publicity. In a sport that fights to televise its NCAA Championships, The Tiburon Mile has managed to secure a delayed airing on Fox Sports Net for the second year in a row. Olympic stars John Naber and Janet Evans will be commentators. The event will be televised later this autumn. Not only that, but Swimming World Magazine, one of the event’s sponsors, will cover the race in its December issue.

At the same time, The Tiburon Mile manages to rankle some in northern California’s small but close-knit open water community. There are complaints about high entry costs, $79.00 for adults ($175 for race-day entry), even though the entry fees basically equal to the Bay’s more popular but far less competitive Alcatraz Sharkfest.

There is a perception that The Tiburon Mile focuses too much on elite athletes and not enough on everyday swimmers, even though the race attracts several hundred participants and those same elite athletes will spend several hours after the race signing autographs at the post-race festival.

Incredibly, there are even grousings about Placak’s group trying too hard to seek publicity, even though race promotion arguably benefits the entire swimming community.

Like the world’s best triathlons, The Tiburon Mile on Sunday (Oct. 27) is really two simultaneous competitions.

First, there is the elite race, where nearly 40 athletes battle for $30,000 in prize money. They will throw elbows, wear no wetsuits, and maintain six-beat kicks the entire race. For the fastest swimmers, the race will take between 17 and 22 minutes. Almost certainly, one or two drafting packs will form, and the swimmers inside will spend most of the race jockeying for position and preparing for a furious 150-meter drive to the finish.

If history is any guide, in the seconds before the start, the elite will keep a close eye on each other. This is crucial. What color are two-time defending champion Ryk Neethling’s goggles? Where’s Olympic gold medalist Tom Malchow? What are the Russian world champions planning? Why is Olympian Cristina Teuscher inconspicuously inching her way up the beach?

To be successful in this race, the elite need to know where their competition is before the gun sounds. Otherwise, in the chaos of the start (any open water start) they could lose track of one another. Lose track and you lose the race.

Certainly, several darkhorses are betting their races on the start’s chaos and confusion. A wily racer who knows he can’t compete against Neethling’s powerful, Olympic-level finish, might recklessly sprint into the lead and try to slip away unnoticed in San Francisco’s dull morning haze. It could happen. The current forecast in the Bay Area is calling for morning fog.

But more likely, the race will unfold with several Olympic distance swimmers establishing the pace, and several accomplished ultra-distance marathoners taking risks with early breakaway moves. In 2001, Neethling won the race when Mark Leonard and Chris Thompson (who both train at the University of Michigan) made small navigational errors. They swam only a few feet off course, but in those precious half-seconds, Neethling blew through them. He claimed victory by four seconds. This year’s race may be even closer.

Meanwhile, a second race will be simultaneously taking place while the elites do battle.

The second race is the Tiburon Mile that attracts hundreds of amateur swimmers. They range in age from 13 to nearly 70, and are swimmers, triathletes, and adventurers. Most wear wetsuits to combat the frigid 59-degree water.

These amateur competitors will need anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour to finish the race. Beforehand, they will joke, ha-ha, about cold water and sharks. For the record, the water is indeed very, very cold. Also for the record, no shark attacks have been recorded inside the San Francisco Bay.

There will also be participants who would rather be home in bed. For example, the University of California at Berkeley requires that its men’s team perform the swim each year. When last year’s race started, Olympic 50-meter gold medalist Anthony Ervin reportedly refused to leave Angel Island as hundreds of swimmers swam away from him. After waiting in vain for a boat to pick him up, the pencil-thing Ervin reluctantly acknowledged his only way to get home was to swim. Once he began, he acquitted himself well and finished near the middle of the pack.

Inadvertently, Ervin’s undistinguished swim became one of the last year’s highlights. What did a white-haired wrinkled woman, bent by years and arthritis, have in common with a blue-lipped young boy and two overweight bald men? On one Sunday in late October, they stood in a circle and talked excitedly about beating the world’s fastest swimmer in a swim race.

The Tiburon Mile is neither a long race nor a particularly hard one. But it is rapidly becoming a great one. It’s the kind of thing swimming can only use more of.

Race-day entry is still available ($175). For more information, visit:

P.H. Mullen is author of “Gold in the Water.” Visit