Double Dutch joy in Rio 2016 marathon swimming

The Netherlands completed a golden 10km open water double off Copacabana Beach, with Sharon Van Rouwendaal producing a superb solo swim to win the women’s race by a distance and compatriot Ferry Weertman edging a photo finish to land the men’s title 24 hours later.

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The 22-year-old van Rouwendaal displayed all her speed, stamina and versatility to score an outstanding victory in the women’s 10km open water event, breaking away from the leading group around the 6km mark and going on to win by the huge margin of 17.4 seconds. The Dutch swimmer touched home in a time of 1:56:32.1, with Italy’s Rachele Bruni taking the silver and Brazil’s Poliana Okimoto the bronze.

“If you’d have asked me before the race, I’d have never dreamed I’d win by 17 seconds,” said Van Rouwendaal. “I knew the last 100m I could finish strong, but I don’t like the feeling of being in front. I was swimming so easily at the beginning. There were six of us swimming together, watching each other. I was watching all the time to see if they were going to catch me.”

Van Rouwendaal has enjoyed plenty of success since deciding to focus on longer distances and open water competitions, winning the European 10km title in 2014 and picking up a silver in the event at the World Championships a year later. Prior to her gold medal-winning swim off the Copacabana, she competed in the 400m freestyle event, missing out on a place in the final before then pulling out of the 800m event.

“Five years ago I got bronze at the world championships, but in the 200m backstroke,” she said. “The last three years I’ve been swimming freestyle, trying open water in 2014. This year I wanted to go fast in the 400, but I knew with the problems I had with the shoulders, I missed a lot of power to go fast. I knew I could do something in the 10km, but after this year I was thinking it’s going to be really hard. I surprised myself with how easily I managed to swim in the race.”

In a repeat of their extraordinary duel at the 2016 European Championships, which ended with them tying for gold, Bruni and France’s Aurelie Muller went stroke for stroke for the silver, with Muller getting the touch. The judges ruled, however, that the French swimmer had pushed Bruni’s arm down to ensure she got the touch first, and subsequently disqualified her.

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As well as giving Bruni silver, that decision also saw Okimoto promoted from fourth to third. Reacting to the news, the Brazilian swimmer said: “I wasn’t frustrated, but the fourth place is not a very rewarding one. This was everything to me. And I left in the sea the last drop of sweat that I had. When I heard that I’d actually come third I was very moved because winning a medal in Brazil was everything that I wanted. It was a dream come true.”

Weertman raises the Dutch flag again

Twenty-four hours after Van Rouwendaal’s victory in the women’s race, Ferry Weertman secured a second open water swimming gold for the Netherlands, albeit in markedly different fashion. While Van Rouwendaal won with plenty to spare, the 24-year-old Weertman took gold by the narrowest of margins in a mass sprint finish, getting the touch fractionally ahead of Greece’s Spiros Gianniotis, the former double world champion. The pair were so close, in fact, that they were given the same finishing time of 1:52:59.8.

“Even after touching the board, I wasn’t sure if I’d won it,” said Weertman, who added Olympic gold to his European title. “It’s going to take a little while for it to sink in. I called my friends at home and they said to me: ‘You’ve won. You’ve won’. And I was like: ‘Oh yes, really?’. I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.” 

It was 36-year-old Gianniotis’ last competitive race. After five Olympics as a pool and open water competitor, he is bowing out of the sport. “Every metre in training, every hour and every day have led me to this perfect moment,” said the Greek silver medallist. “It was my last race and I think it’s the best way to retire. I said to myself after Barcelona 2013: ‘If I qualify for the Olympics and swim the Olympics, that will be my last race’. So a dream come true today.”

There was an equally tight call for the bronze medal, with France’s Marc-Antoine Olivier just beating China’s Zu Lijun to the touch, with both men also being given the same time, less than two seconds behind the gold and silver medallists. “It’s incredible, because we got prepared the whole season,” commented a delighted Olivier after making the podium. “It was a wonderful result for us.”

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Favourite and reigning world champion Jordan Wilimovsky of the USA came home fifth, a further 1.2 seconds behind, with just five seconds separating the first 11 swimmers home. The race will also be remembered for a heroic swim by Australia’s Jarrod Poort, who made a noble solo bid for gold.  Heading the race for an hour and 39 minutes, Poort pulled out a lead of over one minute by the halfway stage. The young Australian began to show inevitable signs of fatigue on the third lap, however, and was overhauled on the final lap, eventually coming home in 21st place. Defending Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli led the chase behind Poort and was right in contention on the last lap before fading and finishing 12th.