The men’s and women’s 10km marathon swimming races at the Rio Olympics take place on 15 and 16 August. It will be the third time marathon swimming has featured at an Olympic Games. The setting is the world-famous Copacabana Beach, where swimmers will fight it out over four laps in the bay.
The race is limited to 25 men and 25 women who earned their right to compete through two events. The first to qualify were the top 10 from each gender at last year’s FINA World Championships. A second qualification race took place in Setúbal, Portugal, in June for the remaining places.
Predicting winners in the confusion of open water is a lot more difficult than the orderly environment of the pool. Marathon races are often decided over the final few hundred metres and the times swimmers post in a pool don’t necessarily correspond to what they can do in a sprint after they’ve already been racing for 9.9km. Still, we thought it would be fun to give it a go and share our opinion on who we think has a chance to stand on the podium in Rio.
Given that we’re talking about open water, there’s always a chance of an upset. Despite the drafting and pack swimming, the same swimmers often seem to come through at or near the front but every now and then there’s a surprise winner, or the leaders make a tactical or navigational error. It all adds to the excitement. The races might last for two hours but every second will be compelling viewing.
Ana Marcela Cunha
Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha has been one of the top female open water swimmers on the FINA circuit since as far back as 2006 when, as a 14-year-old, she won two gold medals in the South American Games. She has since won multiple medals in FINA World Cup races and has twice been 25km World Champion. She finished fifth in the 2008 Olympics but missed out in 2012. Having qualified in third place at last year’s World Championships she will be looking to improve on that in front of her home crowd.
The second Brazilian woman in the field, Poliana Okimoto also qualified directly, through a sixth place finish at the 2015 World Championships. She will be one of the few women to have competed in the marathon swim in three Olympic Games. She was seventh in Beijing but was unable to finish in London and will no doubt want to put that behind her. She was world champion over 10km in 2013 in Barcelona.
Britain’s Keri-anne Payne is another of the competitors with two previous Olympic Marathon swimming experiences to call on. She finished second in 2008 and fourth in front of her home crowd in 2012. She then took some time out of competitive marathon swimming before embarking on a three-year journey with Rio as her goal. She secured her place with a convincing second place performance at the final qualifying event in Setúbal, Portugal. She recently told H2Open that, “I’m not just going [to Rio] to get the t-shirt.”
After retiring from pool swimming in 2005, Hungarian swimmer Éva Risztov made a comeback in 2009 as an open water swimmer. Three years later she struck gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Between then and now she’s made little impact on the FINA circuit but at the 2015 World Championships she did enough to secure the final qualifying place for Rio. Probably not one of the favourites this time around but it would be short-sighted to rule out someone with gold medal credentials.
Based on winning the 2015 World Championships and hence being top qualifier, Aurélie Muller is nominally the top seed for gold in Rio. She has considerable open water swimming experience to back up this claim too having competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she finished twenty-first. However, she was unable to qualify for the 2012 event as her 800m pool time was too slow at the French national trials.
Sharon Van Rouwendaal
Sharon Van Rouwendaal was the only swimmer to stay with Aurélie Muller to the finish at last year’s World Championships with the pair finishing more than 20 seconds ahead of the rest of the field. At the same championships she also finished second (behind Katie Ledecky) in the pool in the women’s 400m freestyle so we know she has a good turn of pace, which could be a factor if the race comes down to a sprint finish.
The final contender from our list is American Haley Anderson, who qualified in ninth place at Kazan. Having won the silver medal in the 2012 Olympics she will definitely be looking to go one better in Rio. She certainly has gold medal potential as she showed in winning the 5k open water swim at the same World Championships, retaining the title she won two years previously in Barcelona.
Allan do Carmo
We start with local favourite, Brazilian Allan do Carmo, who secured his place by taking the ninth slot at the 2015 World Championships. He is another very experienced swimmer and took part in the Beijing Olympics (where he finished fourteenth) although he didn’t qualify for London. A regular on the FINA marathon swimming circuit and was the 2014 men’s champion in the 10km world cup series.
This will be Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli’s fifth Olympic appearance. In 2012 he became the first person to win medals in both the pool and open water in the same Games. After finishing third in the 1500m he went on to the win the marathon swim. Rumours of retirement due to shoulder injury didn’t stick and he was back with a solid fifth place in the recent Setúbal qualifying event. However, a question mark remains over how well he can perform in the expected rough waters of the ocean.
British swimmer Jack Burnell is brimming with self-confidence and known for his laid-back approach. He once missed the start of a race because he was happily lazing on the beach, but he still went on to win. Having picked up a couple of gold medals on the FINA world cup circuit, Burnell secured his spot with a fifth place finish at the World Championships in Kazan
American Jordan Wilimovsky stormed to the finish at Kazan 12 seconds ahead of his nearest rival thus securing both a World Championships gold medal and a berth in Rio. He was voted FINA open water swimmer of the year 2015 and at the recent US Olympic trials he swam 14:49.19 for 1500m, earning himself a spot in the pool team too. The big question for Wilimovsky is, if he qualifies for the 1500m final, will three days be sufficient to recover for the marathon swim?
Dutch athlete Ferry Weertman will be looking to emulate his compatriot Maarten van der Weijden who won the first Olympic marathon swim in Beijing. Weertman qualified through finishing in second place at last year’s World Championships and he is also the 2014 European 10km champion.
How could anyone not want Spyridon Gianniotis to win an Olympic Gold? The Greek swimmer with a Liverpudlian mother has been at every Olympics since 2000 and, at 36, must be one of the oldest competitors at Rio. In open water, experience can overcome youth and speed, and Gianniotis showed this by becoming world champion both in 2011 and 2013. He secured his place with a bronze medal finish at the 2015 World Championships.