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

Florian wellbrock open water Budapest, Tokyo Olympics
Germany's Florian Wellbrock is the reigning world champion in the 10K -- Photo Courtesy: 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. In the women’s race, Sharon van Rouwendaal pulled away form the field at the end to win gold by 17 seconds, while Ferry Weertman got his hand on the pad first by seven tenths over Greece’s Spyridon Gianniotis.

The open water competitions will again conclude the swimming at the Tokyo Olympics, with the races taking place at Odaiba Olympic Park, the same site as the triathlon competition early in the Games. Both van Rouwendaal and Weertman will be back to try to defend their gold medals, 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.


2016 10K Olympic gold medalist Ferry Weertman — Photo Courtesy: LaPresse/ Fabio Ferrari

Qualification for the open water Olympic races is complicated, with the top 10 finishers from the women’s and 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.

For the women, the United States and Germany each have two swimmers in the field. The Americans have three-time Olympian and 2012 silver medalist Haley Anderson and also Ashley Twichell, the former Duke swimmer competing in her first Olympics at age 32, while Germany will be represented with Finnia Wumram and Leonie Beck. Anderson was the silver medalist at the 2019 Worlds, finishing less than a second behind China’s Xin Xin.

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.

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 — Anderson just missed a spot on the U.S. team in the 800 free by 0.15, and van Rouwendaal competed in the 200 backstroke at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing 16th in both prelims and semifinals — 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?


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. In the women’s race, France’s Aurelie Mueller touched the wall second, but she was shown to have pulled the arm of third-place finisher Rachele Bruni of Italy at the finish. So Mueller was disqualified, Bruni was elevated to silver, and host nation Brazil earned its only medal in any swimming event in Rio with Poliana Okimoto’s bronze.

If that sounds like a lot, the men’s race was even more wild. 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, neither Mueller or Burnell will get their shot at redemption. Burnell took 12th in the 10K at the 2019 World Championships and then retired earlier this year, while Mueller was 11th, just a tenth of a second behind van Rouwendaal — and with French teammate Lara Grangeon finishing fifth, Mueller had no means of qualifying later on for Tokyo, either.

When and Where to Watch

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

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