10K Marathon Open Water Swimming Preview

What to watch for at the London Olympic 10K Marathon Open Water Swimming Event

Undoubtedly, the open water 10km marathon will take a new position on the world stage at the London 2012 Olympics.  The event will set new standards for elite open water swimming on a number of fronts.   First, the venue itself is amazing – the “Serpentine” in west London’s Hyde Park, a historic landmark created in 1730 by order of Queen Caroline, sits in the middle of the city within a short walk to several historic landmarks in the Westminster section.

The venue will be a fast (and perhaps even furious) 6 lap course with 6 buoy turns per lap.   I expect the athletes to take it out fast and keep the ‘peddle to the metal’; we’ll likely see a men’s race that is at or below the 1:50 mark (1:06’s/100m) and the women’s race should be near the 1:58 or better mark (1:11/100m).   Last year Richard Weinberger (CAN) won the men’s event in a 1:50.49.8 and Martina Grimaldi (ITA) took the top prize for the women with a 2:02.49.  The bottom line is – this is the Olympics and everyone will be going hard for the gold.

The water temperature is expected to be 68 degrees F/20 degrees C.   That’s near the bottom range of what most open water swimmers consider a good temperature.   By comparison the pool temperature is between 79 – 81 degrees F/ 26 – 27 degrees C.   At last year’s test event swimmers did have to contend with algae that was noticeable when they peeled off their suits.   Most did not seem to be affected by this and London 2012 organizers reported it was completely safe for the swimmers.

You’ll notice the swimmers wearing what appears to be the “old” banned tech suits – but these suits are textile only.   FINA rules allow open water swimmers to wear suits that cover the body more extensively than those suits worn in the pool (FINA By Law 8.4 From June 1, 2010 Open Water swimwear for both men and women shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor shall extend below the ankle. All Open Water swimsuits shall comply with the FINA Criteria for Materials and Approval Procedures).

Map courtesy of FINA.org

The venue will be ‘open’ meaning that outside of the grandstand area at the finish, spectators can watch the event without a ticket.   However, unlike other ‘open venues’ such as the running marathon or road cycling where the athletes merely pass by the spectators, open water swimming enthusiasts can watch the majority of the race from start to finish without paying for admission. I have no doubt that this will be a very festive event, and despite my bias for open water swimming, I’m prepared to say this is going to be the best event for spectators and athletes during London’s 16 days of glory. The atmosphere in London thus far has been electric at every venue, and with Brits in contention in this race, it should be no different.

Here’s my take on the best places to watch the races and what to watch for.

Watch it live online:

Both events will start at 12 noon in London.  The women’s event is on Thursday August 9th and the Men’s is on Friday August 10th. NBC will broadcast on their site live if you are a cable subscriber in the US.   The BBC has live streaming too (you may need some technical know-how to change your DNS settings for your internet connection to pull this off).

Watch it in London:

London has a one of the world’s best public transportation systems and it’s a very walkable city.   A top choice for getting to the venue is by subway or “The Tube” – a very easy system to navigate.   You’ll want to exit at the “Knightsbridge Station” which is on the Piccadilly (blue line).   It’s a short half mile walk.  From the station turn right and north east on A4, then take your first left on Brompton Road which will take a short jog to the left becoming Knghtsbridge Green then becoming Park Close.   When you get to South Carriage Road you’ll see the Hyde Park directly in front of you.  Cross the street – being mindful the the English drive on the left side so traffic may be coming from a different direction than you’re used to if you are from a country that drives on the right – and a short walk straight through the park will bring you to the bank of the Serpentine.   At this point you’ll be on the opposite shore from the start.   You can now easily walk around the venue and scout out a spot, spots to follow the action.

Other ways to get around London include the iconic black cabs – they’re seemingly everywhere and reasonably priced.   Despite their numbers there are times when getting a cab can be a challenge.    When scanning the distance for oncoming cabs, look for the orange lite “taxi” above the windshield.   If it’s not lit, then they have a passenger.  Also, don’t be shy when flagging down a ride, wave your hands high and be obvious.

Mike Lewis / OlaVistaPhotography.com

There’s still another great way to get around London – rent a bike.    The system is sponsored by Barclays and you can find the kiosks in numerous locations that allow you to pick up and drop off bikes throughout the city.

Simply swipe your credit card, specify the rental period (1 day or more) and the automated system issues you a code that will unlock a bike for you to use and take to where you want to go.  You’re charged a flat access fee for the rental period (1 pound per day) and then for the time you use the bike (first half hour is free).   The cool part is there’s a Barclay’s bike rental kiosk just outside of the gates for the paid spectator seating at the open water swimming venue.

OK, so now you’re there.  Where’s the best place to catch the action?   The answer is that there’s no ‘best place’; it’s dependent upon what you want to see and how you want to experience the race.  On the south side of the Serpentine, “the back stretch”, the spectators are closest to the swimmers.    This is a good place to wave the flag, banner or sign to support your favorite athletes.  Swimmers who breath to the left will have a good view of the spectators and will likely be buoyed by the enthusiasm of the crowds.


Mike Lewis / OlaVistaPhotography.com

It’s going to be crowded so moving around may be a challenge.   Nevertheless, walking and following the swimmers is another option.   For the most part you can walk the entire back stretch, aside from the area in front the Serpentine Lido (home of the Serpentine Swim Club (this is where the feeding pontoon is located).  If you’re around before or after the event you should check and see when the area is open and jump in for a swim (there’s a roped off area that’s a bit larger than a traditional 50m pool that is staffed with lifeguards and has a changing facility.  It costs about 4 British pounds).

The westernmost end of course is marked by the Serpentine Bridge.  This is a great vantage point that will likely be congested.  If you do score a spot on the bridge you will want to carry a set of binoculars – in fact, I’d say having ‘binos’ is a good call for wherever you end up watching this race.

On the northwest side of the course is where the closed access part of the venue is located.   Obviously you’ll need to purchase tickets to sit in the grandstands.   If you can get your hands on a ticket, and you typically will be able to get tickets depending on how much you’re willing to pay, you won’t be disappointed.   Inside this part of the venue spectators will have a great view of the start and finish.   Also, from this vantage point you’ll be able to see the swimmers as they walk from the ‘ready room’ to the starting pontoon.  Throughout the race there will be expert commentary and a giant screen display of the up close action on the course.  On top of this, the award ceremony will take place right in front of the grandstands.

Yet no ticket is still no problem on the north side of the venue.   Moving east on the north side of the Serpentine, just passed the ticketed access there are large open spaces and an elevated grassy knoll that make for a cool place to side down for a picnic and soak up the excitement of the venue.   There are some good vending spots on this side too – grab a tea an a panini sandwich from the snack bar next to the boat rental (obviously there will be no boat rental during this race) and enjoy the action on the front stretch of the course.   Walk a few steps farther and you’ll can grab some food at the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen.

Coaches will be be able to position themselves throughout the course and using handheld walkie talkies  and communicate with each other and give feedback to the athletes via hand signal or messages on whiteboards.   We wouldn’t be surprised to see coaches giving feedback and recommendations on feeding and their athletes pace and stroke rates at various points along the course.

If you’re looking to capture the best pictures you’re likely going to have a good shots and light throughout the venue.  The sun will be overhead which means there won’t be dominate shadows that affect the shots.   To get the best action shots you’ll need a good telephoto lens – at least 200mm.  Even if there’s cloud cover you should be able to pull off some fast shooting with mid range aperture settings.  That’s not to say you can’t get some fun shots with your ‘point and shoot’ – there will be so much to see along the shore you’ll definitely capture some nice memories.

Who will win?

Obviously no one can know who will win – but a big part of the fun is predicting what will happen.   All of the athletes in the relatively small fields (25 per race) are top flight competitors and can earn a spot on the podium.   The best part of these races is that it can literally come down to fractions of a second at the very end.

For the women, I am going with Keri Anne Payne – she’s 2011 World Champion, she won the silver in the 2008 Olympics and this is her “home” games.   The crowd will undoubtedly be to her favor.   With that said it’s important remember Italy’s Martina Grimaldi was right there with Payne in Shanghai (1.8 seconds back) and may be poised to take the gold.   Also, Melissa Gorman from Australia is a serious force along with Greece’s Marianna Lymperta (bronze at the 2011 worlds).   Don’t forget to watch the Brazilian Poliana Okimoto – following last year’s test event (placing 3rd) she said she needed to prepare better for the cooler temperatures and she’ll likely be right in the hunt. Although she’s not as experienced as some of the other competitors in the field,  USA’s Haley Anderson has experienced quantum leaps each time she swims this event and may show us all a new level of performance in London.  Anderson has shown she’s a racer  with great finishing speed and her underdog status may be the advantage that takes her to the podium. Without a doubt it’s going to be exciting, but with thousands of cheering fans on the banks of the Serpentine, Payne will be hard to beat.

Mike Lewis / OlaVistaPhotography.com

For the men I’ll go with Germany’s Thomas Lurz.   Lurz was the silver medalist at the 2011 World Champions, he won the bronze in Beijing Olympics, but this is perfect course for him (fast and tight).  At the press conference following the test event last August he touted the Serpentine as a great course.   But there are some other amazing contenders that will make this a true race; notable the 2011 world champion of Greece, Spyridon Gianniotis – fast with a great open water IQ.  Ky Hurst of Australia also is a very knowledgeable open water swimmer and has been acclimating himself to the cooler water with recent training in Southern California and Switzerland – as one of Australia’s top watermen he’s in the hunt for sure.  Another to watch will be Ous Mellouli – bronze in the 1500m in London and gold medalist in the 1500 free at the 2008 Olympics – if he can take his speed into the side by side racing of the open water he has a chance.  Of course, you should keep an eye on Team GB’s Daniel Fogg – he finished 8th in the 1500m final and, like Payne, will have the home crowd behind him.  I cannot rule out USA’s Alex Meyer who will be racing with the spirit of the great Fran Crippen behind him and perhaps he’ll overcome the training set back that resulted from his bicycle injury earlier in the year. The young Canadian, Richard Weinberger, won the test event last summer so I’m sure he’lll bring a high level of confidence to the men’s race. However, Lurz brings tremendous  experience and I think he’s going to be primed like none other for this event – likely this will be the  pinnacle race of his career.

What will it be like?

I think this is going to be the best event of the Olympics.  Following the 2011 Olympic test event Thomas Lurz called the course “perfect”.  The British will have a favorite in the women’s field – Keri-Anne Payne, and with other prominent European favorites there is going to be some high spirits from very colorful fans that add an electricity to the air.   It’s likely to be a cross between a Brazilian soccer match, Dutch speed skating, Tour de France, Austrian downhill skiing and American college football.   If you see no other event during the London games aside from the 10K marathon swim you’ll certainly have captured an Olympic experience.

Mike Lewis / OlaVistaPhotography.com

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About Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis

Mike Lewis is a freelance commercial, sport and lifestyle photographer based in San Diego.  Mike began making photos in the early 80’s and immersed himself in all aspects of the photographic arts.  Mike’s professional career in in photography began after 12 years working within the United States Olympic movement; he …

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