Tokyo Olympic team shoot-out awaits Aussie boys Hayden Cotter and Bailey Armstrong in Fukuoka

Hayden Cotter Doha 2020
HEAD ABOVE WATER: Aussie teenager Hayden Cotter has his sights on Tokyo. Photo Courtesy Qatar Swimming Association.

Two South East Queensland surf lifesavers will go head-to-head in a 10km Open Water shoot-out in May and the prize will be a place on the 2020 Australian Olympic Team.

Surf-swim stars Hayden Cotter (Belgravia Swim Club, Burpengary) and Bailey Armstrong (Kawana Waters Swim Club) were the two best performed of six Australians in the Fina Open Water Marathon World Series race in Doha.

THE TEST? The first two Australians home would qualify to contest the final Olympic Team qualifier in Fukuoka on May 30, 31 and the competitor who finishes higher in the top nine or first from the Oceania region there will secure the coveted Olympic spot alongside women’s qualifier, Kareena Lee, who was an impressive close up seventh in the women’s 10km.

Cotter powered home in 1:50:01.50 not far off the podium which saw Mark-Antonie Olivia (FRA) a clear winner in 1:49.46.60 followed by German pair Rob Muffels (1:49.59.20) and reigning World 1500m and 10km world champion Florian Wellbrock (1:49.59.30).

And in a nail-biting finish between Armstrong and Kai Edwards (TSS Aquatic), only 0.10 separated the two as they touched the gantry.

Bailey Armstrong thumbs up

LUCKY STAR: Bailey Armstrong lives to fight another day. Photo Courtesy: Bailey Armstrong.

Armstrong clocked 1:50:07.50, with the luckless Edwards a fingernail behind in 1:50:07.60; a bitterly disappointed reigning Australian champion Nick Sloman (Noosa) 25th in 1:50:09.50, followed by WA pair Nicholas Rollo (Perth City) 43rd in 1:50:21.20, while rising star Jack Wilson (North Coast WA) clocked 1:51:40.60 to finish 58th.

Three-time Pier-to-Pub winner, 19-year-old Cotter – who has open water victories over Olympic champions Mack Horton (AUS) and Gregorio Paltrinieri (ITA) in the iconic Victorian open water race – produced “the swim of his life.”

Cotter’s close up seventh also added another Olympic champion’s scalp, that of 2016 10km Olympic champion Ferry Weertman (NED) who was eighth in the helter skelter finish- and he was less than a second behind third-placed Wellbock.

The young Maroochydore lifesaver, an Australian under 17 and Under 19 surf race champion, who was third to Sloman in the prestigious National Open surf race title last season, has matured into an open water star over the past two years, carrying out his coach Harley Connolly’s race plan to perfection.

And they are both the ultimate quiet achievers – both going about their business with a minimum of fuss – both men of few words, preferring their swimming and coaching to do the talking.

“Hayden swam the race of his life, he sat, he was attentive and positioned himself well wide of the pack after the final buoy turn as they swam down the final straight,” said Greg Shaw, Swimming Australia Performance Director, Open Water.

“He did not want to get caught up in ‘the fight’ towards the end…it’s important to get clear water and deliver the speed you have…. it doesn’t matter how speedy you are in the pool…. you don’t want to get caught in the pack.

“Hayden made the right move, mixed it with the bigger names and overall it was really encouraging with the competitiveness of our male group…while Hayden and Bailey will now fight it out for Tokyo…we have a group that will all be primed for Paris.

“They are all in their 20s and our men are right in the mix, with Nick (Sloman), the Australian champion (25th) but still not far away.

“I hope Nick will now switch his attentions to still try to make the team for Tokyo in the 1500m…if he does then it would be a competitive race at Trials with Jack McLoughlin and Thomas Neill, with the qualifying time standing at 14:55.”

Shaw praised Cotter and Connolly, saying “they were a good package and they put together a good race, utilizing his speed and putting him into clear water…open water is all about racing.

“And if you haven’t got yourself positioned towards the end then you haven’t raced well, you can’t afford to be found wanting in the last 100 metres.

“You have to have the speed and the ability to back yourself and understand the environment and the conditions around you. We knew being a wetsuit swim there would be whole lot more people around at the finish and Hayden and Harley planned for that…there were a lot of people in that pack.”

It was important for Shaw to have all his coaches in Doha to continue to build the swimmer-coach relationships at major international meets and that’s what Cotter and coach Connolly and Armstrong and his experienced Kawana coach Michael Sage did to deliver the goods.

The final spot for Fukuoka was left to Cotter’s five team mates to battle it out for that second spot – and like a pack of sharks, a field of 30 wetsuit-clad swimmers, charged towards the finish shoot, all clambering to touch the board.

And it was Armstrong, one of Australia’s strongest surf lifesaving swimmers, who out-touched Gold Coaster Edwards by just 0.10 – after swimming 10km in just over 1 hour and 50 minutes.

While Cotter had qualified for the Doha race as one of four members of the official Australian team– receiving full funding – both Armstrong and Edwards had to pay their own way to the Middle East – the price they were both prepared to pay for a shot at making the Australian Olympic team.

Armstrong had finished 14th in the Australian championship at Brighton Beach, SA last month – the sixth fastest Australian in the field – but all was not lost.

Men's 10km Pack

CAUGHT IN THE WHITEWASH: Orange juice anyone? Photo Courtesy: Qatar Swimming Association.

Shaw revealed that Armstrong had also suffered gastric in the week leading up to Adelaide after it had been revealed by Swimming World at the time that Edwards had been in hospital just days before the race himself.

“Bailey was actually sick with gastric as was Kai Edwards the week before the Australian Championship in Adelaide,” confirmed Shaw, the former champion Australian butterflyer who went on to work as nutritionist for the Brisbane Lions AFL team before becoming a vital member of the Australian swim team staff.

“He is not the most talented swimmer but Bailey is a great open water swimmer, a hard worker and a tough racer, he becomes a different athlete in the ocean.

“A real racer in that respect, the quintessential open water swimmer; when he’s in the salt water he really comes into his own.

“That comes from his surf swimming background (with Northcliffe) and after the disappointment of Adelaide he and coach Michael Sage went back to Kawana to re-focus and re-set – you add his absolute desire to race and that makes the difference.

“Kai Edwards can certainly consider himself so unlucky, sick in Adelaide and missing the next stage of Olympic qualification by 0.10 behind his team mate Armstrong.

“That’s tough to swallow but it shows the kind of depth that we have in our program when they are pushing each other like that.”

Kareena Lee and JR in Doha

SCREEN SHOT: Tokyo-bound Kareena Lee adds sunscreen to her face before her race as coach John “JR” Rodgers talks about setting the pace. Photo Courtesy: Qatar Swimming Association.

Having already secured her ticket to Tokyo, Noosa’s Lee is making the most of every chance to race international competition as she prepares for her Olympic Games debut.

Fresh from her Australian Women’s 10km Open title last month, the 26-year-old fought hard in a “very tight” finish to place seventh overall in 1:56:43.90. After swimming 10km, amazingly, only 2.80 seconds separated the first seven athletes across the line.

Lee said she adapted to the conditions and followed her race plan throughout the swim.

“Definitely when we dived in it was cold, but it actually got quite hot towards the end with the sun on us,” she said.

“It was a good race and a very fast race from the start. It was very tight in the end; I don’t know how many of us were coming into the finish, but it was a crazy finish and I got a bit caught in the middle there.”

Lee’s fellow Australian competitors finished 23rd, 28th and 35th in a stacked field of 53, with Kawana Waters’ Madisyn Armstrong clocking 1:57:50.60, Bianca Crisp from TSS Aquatic recording 1:59:12.50 and Kawana Waters’ Chloe Gubecka coming home in 2:02:33.70.