Florian Wellbrock: Marathon swimming is like an action movie in the last two kilometres
Florian Wellbrock will attempt to do something no other swimmer has ever managed to do later this year. The German is aiming to win Olympic gold medals in both pool swimming and 10km open water swimming at Tokyo 2020.
Given that he will be competing against specialists in both environments, that may have previously sounded like a far-fetched ambition. The closest any athlete has come was at London 2012, where Tunisia’s Oussama Mellouli won the 10km gold medal and bronze in the 1500m.
But at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, Wellbrock took out titles in the 1500m freestyle and the 10km open water to prove it could be done.
In an in-depth interview with Olympics.com, the double world champion reveals the secret to his versatility, what he learned from a disappointing Rio 2016 campaign, and why music plays such an important part in his race strategy.
The king of versatility
While most elite swimmers couldn’t comprehend the thought of competing in two such contrasting events, Wellbrock can actually do four.
On top of his world-beating exploits in the 1500m and 10km, he is a European Games bronze medallist over 800m, and recently set the world-leading 400m time at the German Olympic trials.
While he doesn’t plan to compete in the 400m at Tokyo 2020, the fact he was willing to swim it at the Olympic trials alone underlines his uniquely diverse talent.
But why doesn’t he want to focus on just one event, to potentially increase his chances of winning an Olympic gold medal?
“I think the different events are a good challenge for your mind and for your body,” the 23-year-old told Olympics.com. “If you are a very accomplished swimmer in one distance event, it’s good to challenge yourself wherever possible.”
“Most open water swimmers can only swin in open water, but I do a lot of fast metres in training. Maybe that's the key to why I'm so good at the moment! I'm one of the fastest and when it came to the sprint at the end of the race, it was not possible in Gwangju to beat me. That's my key.”
However, despite being a triple-medal threat at the Tokyo Olympics, he still favours one event above the others.
“It's the 1500m. The situation, you feel the pressure from the moment you leave the call room and the crowd is really loud. I really like that.”
Wellbrock also highlights another benefit from competing in so many events at one meet: if you underperform in one event, you have a chance to atone shortly after.
The Bremen-born swimmer’s theory was put into practice at the 2019 World Championships.
“My first final was the 10K, which went well and I won,” he continued. “But then I lost the 800m. But I finished on a high by winning the 1500m.
“For me, that is the really good thing. When you have a bad race, the competition isn't over.”
A disappointing Rio Olympics
Wellbrock’s concern that he may underperform can perhaps be traced back to the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The then 18-year-old was entered for one event in the 1500m, and there were high hopes for the German prodigy.
But his nerves got the better of him and a sub-par performance landed him in 32nd place in the heats, along with an early exit from the competition.
“It's not easy to swim on the big stage like the Olympic Games,” he said. “I was too nervous and couldn’t swim my best. I was really young then and have developed self-confidence since then, which is vital if you are to succeed at the biggest events.”
Altitude the secret to improvement
It was a watershed moment in Wellbrock's career. In 2017 he shot into the top 20 in the world over 1500m, and was crowned European champion a year later.
The secret to the rapid improvement? A change of scenery.
“We started doing high-altitude training camps in the south of Spain, in Sierra Nevada,” he said. “It's more than 2000 metres above sea level in the mountains.
“When you finish the training camp, you feel much better in the water, and it would benefit any athlete. We have two sessions per day in the water and after that session, we go for a quick run or cycling.
“We now do altitude camps three to four times a year, and I think that's the reason for my fast times now."
“It's like an action movie in the last two kilometres” - Florian Wellbrock to Olympics.com
Transitioning between pool events is relatively easy for an elite swimmer, such is the cross-over of skills needed.
But to become a marathon swimmer requires a total overhaul of mental and physical skill sets. For starters, when swimming in open water, athletes often kick each other by mistake due to their proximity at the start of the race.
“I think it's 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical,” Wellbrock continued. “It's important to be focused for the first eight kilometres, which can get physical. Then the speed builds up in the last two kilometres.
“In open water, you don't know what will happen, and that's why I really like it. You feel more pressure in the pool competitions where you can't make any mistakes. In the 10 K there is no pressure and I think it’s more fun.”
In a race that lasts just over one-and-three-quarter hours, the reigning world champ has a special trick to maintain his rhythm.
“I have a song in my head that gets repeated and repeated. It's boring in the first eight kilometers, and then it's like an action movie in the last two kilometers. Then you need the speed and the power. I think about German hip hop or rap songs.”
An unique rivalry with Gregorio Paltrinieri
Swimming rivalries are usually associated with the shorter events.
But at Tokyo 2020, one of the most exciting match-ups in the water take place in both the pool and in the sea.
After winning the 1500m freestyle Olympic gold medal in Rio, Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri has added the 10km open water swim to his repertoire in the past Olympic cycle. His goal is the same as Wellbrock’s: to become the first man to win Olympic gold in the pool and in marathon swimming at the same Olympics.
While Wellbrock is the current world champion over 1500m and 10km, Paltrinieri took the 800m crown at the 2019 world championships. Sharing such a unique ambition has seen the rivals become friends.
“I watch a lot of YouTube videos from big competitions like the Olympics or the world championships and watch every stroke of good swimmers like Gregorio Paltrinieri," Wellbrock said. “Sometimes we have contact on Instagram and we talk about our training and competitions.
"It's a really good rivalry. He's the Olympic champion and the European record holder. I will try to beat him in the Olympic Games this year.”
With two distance titans competing with each other across three events, there has never been a better opportunity to make the distance double dream come true.