Marathon swimmers fight heat and bacteria in Tokyo

TOKYO – They are among the Games’ first lifters and some of their toughest competitors, waking up long before dawn for a 6.30am race start that requires diving into a hot and polluted bay that a competitor has compared to a “hot puddle”.

For nearly two hours, they draw a ragged line in the murky water and sometimes get hit by fish, until the end, when they struggle furiously until a finale that belies the languid rhythm of the swims 10 kilometers and often just seconds from the gold. and money.

Marathon swimming is very different from pool competitions which attract more attention during games. And it’s not just because of the longer distance. It still takes place in open water and all over the world, which means low temperatures, high temperatures, wrecks and jetsam, sea creatures, currents and waves.

It’s an accepted part of the challenge, and on Thursday Germany’s Florian Wellbrock tackled it best, winning the men’s race in 1 hour 48 minutes 33.7 seconds.

“Today’s temperature was the biggest competitor,” he said. “I beat him, and I beat everything in this race.”

He beat Kristof Rasovszky of Hungary, who finished in 1:48:59, and Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy, who won the bronze medal with a time of 1: 49: 01.1.

In the women’s race on Wednesday, Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil won in 1: 59: 30.8, beating Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands in 1: 59: 31.7 in a blow-for-blow final, while Kareena Lee of Australia won won bronze at 1: 59: 32.5.

“It was tough conditions at the end,” van Rouwendaal said. “It got hotter and hotter as we went faster and faster.”

In Tokyo, the heat and pollution posed challenges beyond the norm.

Despite the early morning departure, the air temperature hovered around 81 degrees at Odaiba Marine Park and it was much warmer. The water temperature, 84 degrees, was not far from the 88-degree limit set by the sport’s governing body for safe swimming, a step taken especially seriously after the heatstroke death of Fran Crippen, an American long distance swimmer, in an open water race in the United Arab Emirates in 2010.

Swimmers at an event in the bay before the Olympics loved the water in a toilet bowl, but Tokyo officials insisted that a high-tech filtration system would maintain the level of E bacteria. dangerous coli at a low level. And they installed a water circulation system that brings cooler water from the bottom to the surface.

On Wednesday, most swimmers recognized the challenges, but ignored them as just part of the sport. They are entitled to occasional sips of bottled liquids handed to them on long poles by boaters following them, and several said they made sure to take advantage of these opportunities.

But churning at the pace of the race for nearly two hours is still wreaking havoc.

Ferry Weertman, a Dutch swimmer, trained in Curaçao. Still, heat was still a factor as he passed a group of swimmers who “got gassed” halfway through the race, chasing the leaders.

“Florian had a big gap at the start, and I was just a little behind, and I just couldn’t really catch up,” said Weertman, who was seventh in 1: 51: 30.8.

Not everyone was impressed by the heat. Rasovszky, the silver medalist, said he trained in a lake in his native Hungary where the temperature exceeded 90 degrees.

“So that,” he said, “that was really cool for me.”

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