Explaining the Chaotic Open Water Finishes at the 2016 Olympic Games


U.S. National Team open water swimmer Emily Brunemann didn’t swim in the open water races in Rio, but she still is one of the most experienced elite open water swimmers in the United States. After crazy finishes to both the men’s and women’s marathon swimming races earlier this week, we tapped her knowledge to give an insider’s perspective on what happened in the race, and what you might’ve missed while watching from home.

Over the last two days, we witnessed two incredible, very different, and very tactical open water races.  Honestly, the men’s race was the most exciting open water race I have seen in a long time.  

Both races ended with a fury and controversy, with Frenchwoman Aurelie Muller earning a disqualification after finishing in silver medal position; and British swimmer Jack Burnell earning the same after touching in a flurry of finishers in the men’s race.

What doesn’t always show up well on TV during open water races, however, is the mental and physical demands these athletes undertake during the race.   Watching many will say “well why didn’t this person just do this or make that move, feed differently, take a better line, etc.”  It is easy as an observer to say these comments however when in the race, in the thick of things, these decisions feel very different.  That’s what makes open water a different challenge than pool swimming, and that’s what makes us love it so much – the unpredictability, the strategy, and the cerebral part of the race where the obvious move isn’t always the right one.

1. The Start

The majority of elite open water athletes go into a race with an idea of a strategy; however, this strategy must remain flexible.  In pool swimming, they say “swim your own race, stay in your lane, nobody can come in your lane and mess with you while you’re competing.” This thought process goes out the door in open water.  As we saw in the men’s 10k, Jarrod Poort from Australia took off from the beginning – a rare tactic at a major open water race.  When Jarrod made this decision he threw off the rest of the pack.   Everyone else’s strategies shifted from what they planned on doing to chasing Jarrod.   Many who might have conserved energy and drafted wound up staying towards the front, pushing the pace in order to try and close the gap.  Some, like eventual champion Ferry Weertman, stuck with their tactic of letting others do the work to try and catch Jarrod.   This change in mentality happened at the start of the men’s race, which could have created more anxiety, which increases exhaustion.  In the women’s race, the start was more typical to other major international races.   The starts themselves tend to be very aggressive; people fighting for a position, funneling from 25 across to anywhere between 2 to 5 across.  Swimmers get pushed out, squeezed, hit and jostled.  This goes on for a while until the lead swimmer settles into a pace.  

2. The Pack

The pack is brutal, very brutal.  The higher the stakes (e.g Olympics, World Championships) the more contact, and the rougher the water the more contact. Rio was a perfect storm of both rough water and the highest of stakes.  People have earned broken ribs, fat lips, black eyes and everything else in between while fighting through the pack.  Whenever I talk about open water, I say it is a combination of water polo and swimming.  So much more goes on under the water than people can understand, and the officials cannot see it all.  These two 10K races had more yellow cards than a race in a while, which means there was more contact.  Being in the pack is extremely exhausting.  

Speed changes are the most difficult part of being in a pack when the leader goes faster it takes each line of swimmers a little longer to pick up their speed causing small gaps.  When the leader slows down the same thing happens, it takes the rows of swimmers behind longer to react to the slower pace therefore you have people swimming up your legs.  If you are stuck in the back or sandwiched between swimmers it doesn’t matter if you are the faster swimmer in the field you have to get around all the other swimmers in order to make a push to catch the leader and at that point the leader most likely has a lead. It’s very much like driving a car in traffic.

3. Drafting

When it comes to decision making in open water, drafting and conserving energy is vital.  When you look at the finishes in this week’s races, the veterans stayed in the pack and drafted and made their move when they were ready.   For the first 2.5K women’s champion Sharon van Rouwendaal was right around 10th place, moved up to 4th at the 5k mark while still drafting and conserving energy. She made her move midway through the 3rd loop.  In most major international women’s races, the three medalists stay in the top 10 the entire race.  For the men, it tends to be different and that was seen today.  The three medalists from the men’s race at 2.5k were sitting in 17, 18, and 19 positions and at the halfway mark. 

Many ask why didn’t the fast pool swimmers like Ous Mellouli or Jordan Wilimosvky make a stronger push to catch Jarrod at the beginning.  In an open water race, especially one at the Olympics, 90% of the athletes are great open water swimmers, making it hard to get away or make a break.  Ous was trying to catch Jarrod but he was pulling the rest of the field along with him.  Being the athlete that tries to catch the person who made a break is incredibly exhausting because you wind up pulling everyone.  

4. The Middle

This point in the race has changed significantly in the past couple years.  It use to be conserve, conserve, conserve until the end and then whoever could sprint the last 50-100m won.  Now athletes are taking off earlier and earlier.  

Last year at World Championships, Jordan Wilimovsky took off with about 3k to go. Before that race, the men would wait until the last bit and battle to the finish.  On Tuesday, Jarrod took off at the start, and while it did not pan out for him it forced the rest of the field to swim faster for longer than they otherwise would have.  Ferry then pushed the pace to catch Jarrod with about 1500 to go.  The end of the men’s race was incredible at one point having 8 across.  Previously the men’s races would start out fast, settle into an easier speed and the end would be incredibly fast.  The women’s race tends to be different, starting fast, someone taking off around 6k and then the pack working to stay with or catch that person.  Athletes have to know the tendencies of their opponents to judge their moves.  Some like to lead and dictate the pace; some like to sit in the 2-5 position and will not move from that until they sprint to the finish; and some like to sit in the back conserving energy and working their way up the pack as the race goes.  

But something like what Jarrod did in the men’s race, which nobody expected, ends up changing the dynamic of the race.

5. The Other Factors

Boats, waves, rain, animals, surface chop, or currents all play a major role in strategy, tactics and outcome in races.  These 10k races were in a bay, and while part was protected from the open ocean it could not all be protected, meaning there were waves, wind, and surface chop that added to the dynamic.   Open water swimmers get into the venue multiple times before the race in order to get a feel for what the conditions can be and how to manage them, but this is only a guide because on any given day the conditions can be different.  The dynamic within the pack is largely affected by the waves, the stronger the current, the more surface chop, and the visibility in the water. The more waves the more contact, and the more exhaustion, that comes over the course of the race.  As we watched in these races, there were a huge number of boats on the course (which drew complaints from some competitors).  While it is important to have boats for safety the boats can get in the way of competitors seeing one another, the exhaust from the boats is not fun to swim with, and it can be scary when boats get too close.

6. Feeding

Feeding is very important during a 10k, especially if the race is in hot salt-water conditions.  Each athlete has there own concoction for their feeds and they will practice taking their feeds before using them in a competition.  We have to get our stomachs used to putting a good amount of gel-like liquid mush into our bodies and then getting right back to swimming fast.  Feeding stations are also places where some competitors will make moves and try to break away.   While most of the competitors go in for a feed, one may stay out and try to break away.   We have to not only try to get as much feed in as possible for energy but also have to watch our competitors so nobody gets away.  

7. Turn Buoys

Feeding stations and turn buoys are typically the spots when others try to make moves and break from the field.  Many races have just tall buoys that you can almost dive under and get around (as long as it is clear you go around the rope and bottom buoy) these buoys make breakaways harder.   The buoys used in the Olympics were long and much harder to navigate.  If you are on the inside you are getting pushed into the buoy and your technique changes significantly. If you are on the outside you have to work harder to get around.  If you are swimming by yourself around these buoys it is easier to pick up your pace while others are fighting to get around them.  

8. The Finish

On top of everything else you are thinking about during an open water race you have to plan for the finish, which is the most difficult part.  We feel like we are sprinting forever and the touch pad isn’t getting any closer.  When there are multiple other swimmers around the anxiety is incredibly high just trying to get into a position for the touch while already exhausted.  The finish of an open water race is more about guts and what you are telling yourself will happen, which even then may not pan out.  I have had many races where I started sprinting too early and lost; as well as times when I started sprinting too late and lost.  I feel for Aurelie. From my perspective they were both (her and Rachele Bruni) so far to the left of the touch pad that when she hit that buoy coming in she had no where to go.  In her mind, she was just trying to touch the pad and get there by all means necessary, which meant going over Bruni.  I remember at the 2010 World Championships the finish was contested for a similar reason, and it’s usually unintentional contact while trying to touch the pad.  While you never want to impede another swimmer you are so tired and all you want to do is get to the touch pad.  The men’s finish was crazy too – the group started sprinting early and at one point there were 8 across.  When this happens, so much is going on above and below the water; elbows to ribs and faces, swimmers squeezing in to box others out, grabbing feet or pushing down on feet to slow down kicking.  

As you can see there is so much more to open water races than one might expect.  We put everything we have into each race and if the race does not go as planned we learn something to help for the next.  I hope this helps in understanding the different aspects of an open water race to the uninitiated. Every race is different.  I have swum in the same venues many times, but every time I swim the race is significantly different than the time before.  We make the best decisions we can when tired and some times those decisions are wrong and sometimes they are right.  As observers we watch and say oh if only they had done this or that yet during a race we make the best decisions we can while tired, filled with anxiety, and thinking of so many components.   

Congratulations to all the open water competitors in Rio!  

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Donna Thompson
7 years ago

Just happened on this and was glad for the refocus away from the drink, fair penalty, owning of responsib and well spoken ,,like to hope, genuine apologies. Back to swim accomplishments, challenges of men and yes women , of course. Marathonning moves out of the swim events and into the 4 US swimmers recent conundrum and Brazil , a gracious host who should know how hard it is to come to a new country and compete.. Tsk tsk on the lie boys!!. Brazil , i hope will not make them an example because they are so high profile, please, and all of this got so loud. Do the guys from the pool know how to repair a door not just… Read more »

Emily Brunemann
7 years ago

For this quote about the finish I meant to say its often unintentional contact… “I remember at the 2010 World Championships the finish was contested for a similar reason, and it’s usually intentional contact while trying to touch the pad.”

Human Ambition
Reply to  Emily Brunemann
7 years ago

Thanks Emily. Very Appreciated! I will share it with my National Team

7 years ago

Great article, Emily. Doing my first 10K race this weekend. Not as intense as the Olympics or Worlds, so maybe I can minimize the bruising.

Michael Lawrence
7 years ago

Great, very helpful first hand analysis. You never swim in the same water twice.

7 years ago

Nice article Bruno

About Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann

Emily Brunemann  Emily Brunemann is an American open water swimmer from Crescent Springs, Ky. Born Sept. 19, 1986 Brunemann was born into an extremely athletic family in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her parents, James and Mary Lynn, were both both student-athletes at Xavier, and her brother, Christopher, played football at Western Kentucky. Brunemann is …

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