Tokyo Olympics: Men’s 10K Open Water Race to Conclude Swimming Action

WEERTMAN Ferry NED Gold Medal RASOVSZKY Kristof HUN Silver Medal MUFFELS Rob GER Bronze Medal 10km Men Glasgow 09/08/2018 Open Water Swimming Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park LEN European Aquatics Championships 2018 European Championships 2018 Photo Andrea Staccioli /Deepbluemedia /Insidefoto
Hungary's Kristof Rasovszky, the Netherlands' Ferry Weertman and Germany's Rob Muffels will all be contenders in the men's 10K in Tokyo -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli /Deepbluemedia /Insidefoto

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Tokyo Olympics: Who Will Capture Gold Medals in Unpredictable Open Water 10K Races?

In 2016, the final hurrah of the Olympic swimming competition in Rio saw the Netherlands emerge with gold medals in the women’s and men’s 10-kilometer races, held at Copacabana Beach. A day after Sharon van Rouwendaal pulled away from the women’s field at the end to win gold by 17 seconds, Ferry Weertman got his hand on the pad first by seven tenths over Greece’s Spyridon Gianniotis.

One day after Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha took gold in the women’s 10k and van Rouwendaal edged Australia’s Kareena Lee for silver, the men’s open water race will conclude the swimming at the Tokyo Olympics at Odaiba MarinePark, the same site as the triathlon competition early in the Games. Weertman will be back to try to defend his gold medal, but the very nature of open water makes these events so difficult to predict. The best swimmer often — or perhaps usually — does not touch first. Without lane lines, the swimmers race with each other, swimming in packs and drafting, pulling ahead and falling back. They cannot simply stick to their race strategy. Instead, they must race according to what the rest of the field is doing.

Qualification for the open water Olympic races is complicated, with the top 10 finishers from the men’s 10k at the 2019 World Championships qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics (even after the Games were pushed back one year) and an additional 15 swimmers qualifying at an event in June in Setubal, Portugal. The final field is 25 swimmers, but any country hoping for two representatives must have two in the top 10 at the World Championships. The final qualifier allows for a max of one apiece.

Florian wellbrock open water Budapest, Tokyo Olympics

Germany’s Florian Wellbrock, already the Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500 free in Tokyo, is the reigning world champion in the 10K — Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia/Insidefoto

Three countries have two apiece in the men’s field: Germany has World Championships gold and bronze medalists Florian Wellbrock and Rob Muffels, France got 2016 bronze medalist Marc-Antoine Olivier and David Aubry into the field and Italy will compete with Gregorio Paltrinieri and Mario Sanzullo. The lone American representative will be 27-year-old Jordan Wilomovsky, the 10K world champion back in 2015 and the silver medalist at Worlds in 2017.

If the names “Wellbrock” and “Paltrinieri” sound familiar, they should. Those two just competed in the pool competition in Tokyo in the 800 and 1500 free and earned one bronze medal apiece. Wellbrock actually led by races at the final turn before American Bobby Finke unleashed a sensational last lap on both occasions, but it was not just Finke who passed Wellbrock. The 23-year-old German fell all the way to fourth in the 800 free behind Finke, Paltrinieri and Mykhailo Romanchuk. Three days later, Wellbrock led by seven tenths at the 1450-meter mark of the 1500 but ended up with a bronze after not only Finke but also Romanchuk passed him. Wellbrock’s season-best 1500 time was far faster than Finke’s gold-medal winning time, but on that day, he swam more than four seconds slower.

It also was not a great meet for Paltrinieri, who battled mononucleosis in June but rebounded to take silver in the 800 free. However, he could not have been pleased with fourth place in the 1500 free (where he was the defending Olympic gold medalist).

Other open water swimmers compete in the pool, but no one aside from Wellbrock and Paltrinieri is truly elite in both venues. Thankfully for both Wellbrock and Paltrinieri, the 10K race does not commence until Thursday morning Tokyo time, giving them four days completely off in between.

Another Crazy Finish to Come?

rio-feed-open-water-crowded

The swimmers approach a feeding station during the 10K at the 2016 Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Eric Seals-USA TODAY Sports

The swimmers competing are certainly hoping for a clean race and nothing approximating the drama of the open water competition at the 2016 Olympics. First, Australia’s Jarrod Poort tried to sprint from the beginning and break away from the field, and he did — for about 8.5 kilometers. As in, not the full 10K. He led by over a minute at the halfway point, but the pace was too much and Poort fell apart. He fell all the way back to 25th.

Then, in a battle for places at the end, Great Britain’s Jack Burnell and Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli collided, which pushed Mellouli, the 2012 gold medalist in the 10K and the 2008 gold medalist in the pool 1500 free, out of contention. Burnell touched third but was disqualified for his role in the incident, and in the mixed zone following the race, Burnell and Mellouli took shots at each other for their conduct on the race course.

Mellouli, who no longer competes in the pool, will race the 10K in Tokyo in what will be his sixth appearance at an Olympics. Mellouli qualified in June for the race, but he said he would withdraw and retire because of a dispute with his national federation before the president of Tunisia’s Olympic committee stepped in to mediate the situation and convince Mellouli to swim. Meanwhile, Burnell took 12th in the 10K at the 2019 World Championships and then retired earlier this year.

When and Where to Watch

The men’s 10K race will each begin at 6:30 a.m. local time Thursday in Japan to avoid the extremely hot weather in the middle of the day. In the United States, that is 5:30 p.m. Wednesday evening. The race take around two hours to complete, and both it is scheduled to be shown live in the U.S. on NBCSN.

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