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Understanding Friday's Big 10K

4/25/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

When attempting to understand the Olympic qualification process for the Open Water 10K event, only now do I regret my college major, “Radio-TV-Film.” I feel as though astrophysics or “math” (Is that a major? Or is it more specific?) would have been a better major to assist my understanding. There are two Olympic Qualification Competitions? And swimmers have to compete internationally to determine a national Olympic roster spot? And only up to 25 swimmers get selected for the Olympics in each gender, but only the top 10 at the “First Qualification Competition”? And two swimmers per country can qualify in the First Qualification Competition, but only one swimmer per country in the “Final Qualification Competition”? And….

(Brain explodes.)

To simplify, here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s Open Water National Championships in Ft. Myers, Florida. The storylines, the women’s 10K analyzed, and some of the swimmers who have a shot at London 2012. (Or, if you’re like me, and you also took an equally non-math non-intellectual non-“smart” collegiate major that did not prepare you down the road when you’d write/read a swimming blog about way-too-complicated Olympic qualification procedures, then maybe a few questions will be answered.)

Here we go:

Why doesn’t this particular 10K matter for the men?
Any National Championships obviously “matters” – but this year, for the men, it’s not relevant in terms of Olympic qualification. Alex Meyer has already been named the first 2012 Olympian for Team USA (congratulations, Alex!) selected last year at the First Olympic Qualification Competition (which was the 2011 World Championships). Meyer finished 4th, solidifying his Olympic roster spot. So, the men’s 10K this Friday has no official bearing on the Olympic-selection process. (It matters choosing our Open Water National Teams, though.) Have no fear, swim fans: Alex Meyer is going to kick butt in London.

So, why have no U.S. women qualified?
No U.S. woman qualified at the First Qualification Competition. Simple as that. The highest finisher at the First Qualification Race was Christine Jennings, who finished 13th. (You had to finish in the top 10 to qualify.) Which means for the U.S. women, there’s one more Olympic Qualifying Competition, known as the “Final Olympic Qualifying Competition.” (Duh.) The top two finishers at the 10K this Friday will compete in the “Final Olympic Qualifying Competition”, held this coming June.

Why can two swimmers per country qualify in the First Qualification Competition, but only one swimmer per country can qualify at the Final Qualification Competition?
The first qualification meet was technically 2011 World Championships, so that race featured the best swimmers in the world. Competition was tougher. Only countries with no qualifiers can compete in the Final Qualification. So, while to me it’s a bit silly that you have to compete in a “mini-Olympics” to make the Olympics, that’s currently the best way to gauge if you are one of the best marathon swimmers in the world. (Marathon swimming can’t use plain old Olympic qualification times, since every venue, location, and race is different.)

In terms of the Olympics, what matters at this weekend’s Open Water Nationals?
Women’s 10K = finish in top two = swim at Final Olympic Qualifier this June.

Anything else at stake?
National Team and Junior National Team selections, which is huge financially and resume-building/confidence. Making the National Team has its perks. Travel expenses, Athlete Partnership Agreement, etc.. Many swimmers will be vying for a spot on one of those rosters.

In the women’s 10K, who is a swimmer to watch?
Christine Jennings, who was 13th at the first Olympic Qualification Meet, was the closest to making an Olympic U.S. spot. However, last December, Jennings broke her leg sprinting on the beach at the end of an open water race in Brazil. It was a freak accident. But Jennings is tough as nails (as are most open water swimmers – it’s in the blood.) Jennings is now back in the water, and aiming to overcome the injury that would have deterred others. She’s like Rocky.

Who else has some momentum?
Ashley Twichell, a Duke graduate, was the 2011 U.S. Open Water Swimmer of the Year and she received the Fran Crippen Foundation Award. The Duke graduate could take some of that momentum heading into this Friday. She recently relocated to California to train at the Mission Viejo Nadadores under coach Bill Rose, and is thriving training alongside Chloe Sutton. Look for her to be near the head of the pack, into that final turn with 432 meters to go. 

Do you have to be a monster of a swimmer to compete in open water events?
No way. Check out Eva Fabian. She’s one of the smallest open water swimmers in the world. To me, she’s the Mighty Mouse of Swimming. Fabian also competed at the First Qualification Competition last year, but did not finish in the placement needed to make an Olympic roster spot. She could have another shot, provided she can finish in the top two this coming Friday. Many of you might remember Fabian as the fantastic violinist who played the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 2010 ConocoPhillips USA Swimming National Championships. She’s taken a year off from Yale to focus on her training. (The race could end up being a Duke grad vs. a Yale future undergrad, for you smarty-pants keeping score at home.)

Who are some other names that could be in the “Top Two”?
Haley Anderson was 4th place at the 2010 World Championships 25K race, so you know she has the distance ability to combat the field. Emily Brunemann was a Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships bronze medalist in the 10K in 2010. Both of these swimmers have a shot. And you can’t discount Claire Thompson. She placed 5th at the 2011 National Open Water Championships. Remember – this meet is similar to the Olympic Trials, with a little bit of “Survivor” thrown in. Finish in the Top 2, and you move on. It’ll get intense in that final stretch.

What else?
No matter how seemingly “complicated” the procedures are, what is very un-complicated about the process is that two female swimmers this Friday will move on. After an entire lifetime of competition, training, morning swims, two-a-days, and open water races, it culminates this Friday. Expect a close race. Expect drafting strategies. Expect a wild sprint-to-the-finish.

You don’t have to wait 60 days (are the Trials really that soon?!) for the start of the Olympic Trials to see swimmers battling for London. For female open water swimmers competing at this Friday’s 10K, finish in the top two, and the dream is alive. If anything, the relatively complicated procedures only add to the intrigue of open water swimming. Instead of one grand exciting qualifying race ahead, there are multiple races that matter.

Not a bad season to be a swim fan, if you ask me.

Despite my aversion to “math.”