2016 Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year: Sharon Van Rouwendaal
2016 was the perfect single-year redemption arc for Sharon van Rouwendaal.
The Dutch star of pool and open water swimming entered the year as the reigning European champ, van Rouwendaal was among the favorites to win every major race in the all-important Olympic year. On the other hand, she was coming off of a silver medal finish at the 2015 World Championships in the 10K, and had Italian rival Rachele Bruni to track down for gold.
Van Rouwendaal took care of business for about two hours of the European Championships 10K before disaster struck. A wrong turn at a buoy right at the end of the race took van Rouwendaal from leading comfortably all the way back to 4th, a drop she couldn’t recover from. Bruni won a share of the gold medal with France’s Aurelie Muller as van Rouwendaal missed the podium entirely.
But the 2016 Olympics were van Rouwendaal’s revenge. After missing finals of the 400 free in the pool and scratching the 800, van Rouwendaal entered the women’s 10K with nothing to lose. And in a wild battle that saw a lot of physical swimming and a controversial finish for silver, van Rouwendaal simply swam away from the field to win her first-ever Olympic medal. It also stood up as the Netherlands’ first swimming gold of Rio (though her teammate Ferry Weertman would win a matching gold one day later in the men’s 10K).
In no particular order
Rachele Bruni, Italy: Bruni was the chief rival to van Rouwendaal, racking up plenty of success in 2016. She tied for the European title in the main 10K event, plus won Olympic silver. And on top of that, Bruni won FINA’s 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup, winning 3 of 7 total races to top the points by 12 at the end of the series. She also won gold as part of Italy’s mixed team in the 5K at the European Championships.
- Aurelie Muller, France: It was a bummer of a finish for Muller at the Olympics, with a battle for silver and bronze ultimately winding up with Muller missing both medals. Coming down to the wire for silver with Bruni, Muller was disqualified for trying to go over the top of Bruni to hit the finish pad. That was a controversial call brought on by both swimmers being too far off-center heading into the finish, but doesn’t totally negate what was a great season for Muller. She tied with Bruni for gold at Euros and had a win on the World Cup series.
- Poliana Okimoto, Brazil: Benefiting from Muller’s disqualification to take Olympic bronze, Okimoto was a lifeline for Brazil, earning the host nation’s only swimming medal at their home Rio Olympics. She was also second on the World Cup tour, pushing Bruni right down to the final race and finishing 2nd twice and 3rd once in a stellar showing of consistency.