While the 10km marathon swim has become something of a flagship event since its inclusion in the Olympics, the FINA World Championships have long featured a race that makes 10km look like little more than a sprint. That event is the brutal 25km, an almost inconceivable distance over which to race and still find the energy for a powerful finish.
While the 5km and 10km open water swims almost invariably end in a mass sprint finish, the 25km is different. The need to focus and maintain your pace for five hours or more means the field often splits, with the leaders able to open up gaps measured in minutes rather than seconds over the opposition. But in both the men’s and women’s races at this year’s World Championships in Budapest, the podium places were determined by sprint finishes.
In the women’s race, the top three rounded the final buoy in a tight bunch, having pulled away from the rest of the field at about the four-hour mark. Defending champion, Anna Marcela Cunha of Brazil had the inside line and came out slightly ahead of Olympic gold medallist Sharon van Rouwendaal from Holland, in her first attempt at the distance. Italy’s Arianna Bridi was close behind. Bridi and Rouwendaal then pulled alongside Cunha and the three swam shoulder to shoulder. With the finish chute in sight, the pace picked up. Then, with about 150 metres to go, Cunha surged ahead in what proved to be a decisive move. Van Rouwendaal stayed in her wake but never threatened to pull back in front, while Bridi dropped back quickly. From this point on, Cunha’s win wasn’t in doubt and she slapped the board in a time of 5:21:58.4, adding gold to the two bronze medals she won in the 5k and 10k events. Van Rouwendaal was 2.4s behind and Bridi a further 7s back. Two minutes later, Italy’s Martina Grimaldi and Hungary’s Anna Olasz contested another sprint finish for fourth place, with Grimaldi touching just ahead.
The men’s race was even closer, with four competitors battling it out over the final stages for the three podium places. France’s Axel Reymond spent much of the time leading the race, with defending champion Simone Ruffini of Italy content to draft. With about 10 minutes of the race remaining, Ruffini pushed forwards but his move was tracked by Russia's Evgenii Drattcev who moved into clear water. Ruffini and Reymond then collided, which brought Reymond to a brief standstill. The Frenchman responded with a sprint of his own and regained the lead with 300m to go, with Ruffini in second place and Drattcev in third. But Ruffini and Drattcev were then passed by the other Italian in the race, Matteo Furlan, whose late surge earned him a silver medal and almost snatched the gold, eventually finishing just 0.6s behind Reymond. Drattcev came through for bronze with a final gap over Ruffini of 3s. Less than 7 seconds separated the top four.