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Open Water Nationals Wrap

5/20/2013

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

If watching the 50m freestyle is like watching a July 4th fireworks display, then watching the men’s and women’sOpen Water Nationals (medium) 10K races is like watching a long, strategic chess match. Over the course of the grueling distance marathon, swimmers jockey and position themselves for the best possible “line” to the finish. Since there are no lanes dictating where swimmers should go, they must formulate their own course. They are in charge of their swimming, and that is partially why open water races are so exciting: It’s as much about chess-like strategy as the swimming itself.

And sometimes, small decisions – to angle right or to angle left – can result in a national championship.

This was evident last weekend at the 2013 Open Water National Championships. What we’ll take away from this weekend is that, even in open water races, it’s all about the finish.

In the women’s 10K, five women had a shot to win in the final 500 meters. Races that last more than two hours oftentimes don’t come down to the final strokes, which is why open water swimming is so exciting. After Christine Jennings veered towards a line that allowed a better angle, she conquered the event over the four competitors.

The men’s 5K was even closer. A photo finish. Hands reaching, scratching, and clawing to touch the finish pad. The last few strokes were so close that you had to use a photograph to accurately assess who won and who lost. It was a blurred series of arms and splashes. Ultimately, just six tenths (!) of a second separated first from second (and one tenth between second and third) as Andrew Gemmell got his hand on the pad before anyone else.

By the end of the weekend’s four races, Alex Meyer (who is now healthy after breaking his collar bone) and Jennings were the 10K champions. Haley Anderson (who bounced back after a disappointing 10K) and Gemmell conquered the 5K. They will now head to Barcelona to battle international open water swimmers – athletes who hail from regions where open water swimming is even more popular than here – at the 2013 World Championships. They’ll be joined by second-place 10K finishers Club Wolverine’s Sean Ryan and 15-year-old phenom Becca Mann.

Some other things we learned along the way:

1. Becca Mann is the real deal.
Who said 15-year-olds can’t be as tough as veteran counterparts? In an extremely close and volatile 10K race, Mann proved that she can hang with open water veterans. Her second-place accomplishment should not be overlooked. This was a race in which Mann beat out a world champion (Eva Fabian in the 5K) and an Olympic silver medalist (Haley Anderson) in a tight race that came down to the final few hundred meters. To do this requires mental toughness and a willingness to put it all on the line. How will this success – and momentum – translate into the pool? Time will tell, but this is a very exciting development for USA distance swimming. It’s not every day that a 15-year-old ascends the ranks so quickly.

2. Sean Ryan continues the NCAA momentum.
Club Wolverine is one of the training hubs of U.S. distance swimming. If there’s something in the water, the recipe for success in Ann Arbor is a commitment to tradition and a willingness to put in the work. Michigan swimmers Sean Ryan and Ryan Feeley ventured out to California last weekend looking to represent their distance program – which was just highlighted on USASwimming.org – and Ryan brought home a World Championship roster spot. A few months after winning the Wolverines’ first NCAA Championship since 1995, it appears as though they will be represented abroad as well.

3. Haley Anderson bounces back.
Imagine how difficult it is to lose a race that takes over two hours to complete. Then imagine, just two days later, getting back into the arena and competing in another long distance event. Mentally, that’s tough. You’re thinking about the previous race (or trying not to.) You know you have one last shot to make the World Championship team. The Olympic silver medalist in the 10K last summer didn’t qualify on Friday, so she had one last chance in the 5K to do it. She did. Her ability to rebound from a disappointing 10K just days earlier proved Anderson’s mental fortitude.

4. It’s all about the finish.
As stated above, sometimes it’s bitter irony that a race like the 5 or 10K will come down to a photo finish. But last weekend, we saw races where that was exactly the case. Which proves the next point: Swimming – whether it be in the splash ‘n’ dash 50m free or the grueling marathon 10K – is all about the details. Turns. Starts. Reaches. Finishes. You can log miles upon miles for decades, but if you haven’t practiced your turns and finishes, forget about it.

Congratulations to all competitors in last weekend’s Open Water Nationals, and here’s to a great summer season of open water swimming ahead!