Not Just a Swim: Open-Water Olympic Race Is an Aquatic Marathon

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The swimming action at the Aquatics Centre (also known as the House of Michael Phelps) wrapped up a couple of days ago, but we're right in the thick of what could be called the biggest swimming event of all. The 10K open-water marathon — or what I call "madness" is being held at The Serpentine in London's Hyde Park, where Hungarian Eva Risztov held off American Haley Anderson to win gold in the women's swim on Aug. 9 and the men's event will be held tomorrow.

That is not a typo — it is supposed to read 10K, as in 10 kilometers straight of swimming. In comparison, the swimming leg in the Triathlon, which for the London Games was also held at The Serpentine, was just 1.5K. Recreational swimmers need not apply.

This event was formally introduced to the Olympics in Beijing four years ago, although the swimming events held at the first Games in 1896 were also swum outside. The 10K takes approximately two hours — a long time, physically and mentally, for the athletes. Swimming in a controlled environment like the Aquatics Centre, competitors tend to focus on how fast the water is and how loud the crowd is. In the Open Water event, swimmers have to worry about the temperature of the water and what might be lurking a few feet beneath them, all while keeping an eye out for errant limbs nailing their noggins.

Most importantly, they need to think about keeping their heads in the game. When the average swimmer's mind tends to wander after the third length of free-breaststroke-fly-splash at a local pool, how on earth do these athletes do it?

In an interview, sport psychologist Rob Robson, who has swum and worked with elite swimmers for many years, said the event definitely isn't for the faint of heart.

"Aside from the conditions, there are many differences [from pool swimming], physically, technically, tactically and mentally," Robson said. "It takes great levels of mental toughness to compete in the 10K. Tactics have to be considered, such as staying at the front out of trouble, which has the caveat of not being able to draft (take advantage of a slip stream) from your opponents. You have to take on fuel at the right time. You also have to think about your opponents, making it much more dynamic than pool swimming. Even when underhand or underwater tactics are not employed, such as tugging your opponents' legs, you can expend a lot of energy simply bumping into each other."

Some of the event's best swimmers are British: Daniel Fogg swims for Team GB in the men's event. Britain's Keri-Anne Payne, looking to improve on her silver medal from four years ago, was favored to win the Women's Olympic title this year but finished a disappointing fourth.

Britain's David Davies won silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 10K Swim, even though he faced medical concerns at the end of the grueling event. Robson's take: "Davies won the silver medal despite literally going mentally astray; losing your concentration can literally cost you metres and a medal. The essential technique of 'sighting' is something that pool swimmers have to adapt to — lifting your head slightly after breathing to glance at the buoys that mark the course."

At least the athletes swimming the Serpentine circuit need not worry about what lurks beneath, as there are likely not any sharks or jellyfish in the lake. The most the 25 or so swimmers might have to deal with will be one of the Queen's swans on a rogue preening mission or the odd cormorant looking for supper. It will take more than large birds to detract the medal favorites from the task at hand.

If the Triathlon is anything to go by, the fans will be out in the thousands to lend support on the banks of the lake, helping the swimmers focus and guiding them through almost 120 minutes of physical and mental pain (and, possibly, swan avoidance).

by Matt Goff

Top: Swimmers compete in the Women's 10K open-water swim at the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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