Saturday, August 23. 2008
Things are happening at warp speed right now. I'll write about it in a future post but I thought I'd share my thoughts on the race today and then tell you about the craziness since the race in a couple of days.
I havenít seen a replay of the race on television but Iíll do my best to recount what I thought happened.
The story of the day starts about 5 minutes before the announcer said ďTake your markÖĒ Unfortunately, athlete family members and other 10k swimming fans were relegated to seating areas far from the start location and so the 25 athletes stood on the waters edge waiting to get introduced to the members of the media. The excitement of being announced to an Olympic crowd was thus diminished greatly but we were all preoccupied with the task at hand. That task was not the upcoming race, but rather the need to relive ourselves of a full morning of hydration.
Prior to the introductions the athletes had been sequestered in a ready room, then herded to the starting location, and then told to stand at attention in front of the cameras in the media section. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time the athletes were finally introduced the only thing we really wanted to do was find the restroom, which of course was not an option. Thus, there was quite a bit of eagerness to get into the water as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the historic race, levity triumphed over tension at the starting dock.
Nothing of significance happened in the first lap of the race and all I really remember was trying to establish a good drafting position, which I believe I did. The race was physical from the start with a lot of jostling for position within the pack for the entire first lap. At the start of the second lap I was the unfortunate recipient of an elbow to my shoulder blade that, now 2 days later, still hurts. I donít know who it was that got me, but I must have made an aggressive retaliation move because I was given a Yellow Card a few moments later. The race official blew his whistle at me, held up a yellow flag and produced a board with #18, my number, written on it. I was a bit confused about what I had done to get a Yellow Card, but there really isnít any time to get an explanation from the official. The only thing you can really do is adjust your race strategy accordingly, knowing that a second infraction will result in a disqualification from the race.
At first I didnít think that the Yellow Card would really affect my race strategy. Every 10K swimmer believes that he swims a docile race, but the reality is that there are times when the situation demands that you get a bit physical. A Yellow Card makes the athlete more apprehensive at the critical moments, and there was one critical moment where I had to back down when I normally would have stood firm.
Going into a turn on the third lap the Russian and I were battling for position. 25 meters until the turn buoy we were side by side. I had an inside position (technically the better position) but the Russian was making it clear that he was going to try and angle me inside the course. His goal was to try and slam me into the buoy instead of going around it cleanly. I knew what he was trying to do and, under normal circumstances without a Yellow Card, I would have held my position. However, holding position would have required a lot of physical contact, and I didnít want to draw the attention of the race officials. So, I backed down, lost my position, and had to try and scramble to get back into the thick of the pack.
(I realize that the previous paragraph was gibberish to a lot of you, but it was necessary for me to explain it to the 10K swimming enthusiasts.)
Up until I got cut off at the buoy on the 3rd lap I was in the hunt, or so I thought. The upside of my position was that I was drafting really well, but the big downside of my position was that I was taking a physical beating. In retrospect I should have abandoned the desire to draft in favor of getting clean water, but I didnít know this at the time.
At the start of the 4th lap the pace picked up tremendously, and this is when I knew that I was in trouble. My heart rate shot up, my technique started to flag, and my mind lost a bit of coherency. This isnít abnormal to 10K races, in fact it happens every time, but in good races I can usually keep my composure at least until the 9,000 meter mark. I fought like crazy from the 7,500 to the 9,500 to stay in the race but I kept getting tangled with the Dutchman (the eventual winner) the Russian (previous world champion) and a whole bunch of other swimmers.
At around the 9,200 I saw the red flag go up right next to me and for a split second I was worried that I was going to be kicked out of the race. It turned out that the race officials gave a Red Card to the Russian world champion Vladimir Dyachin for his physical contact on me but I wasnít carded for similar contact. I donít know why he was carded and I wasnít, but I do know that the physical contact took itís toll on me because with 800 meters to go Ė when I needed to make a surge to the front Ė I didnít have the energy.
I scrapped my way through the last very painful 800 meters, and the closer I got the more it became apparent that I wasnít going to win a medal. I won a small battle by out-touching a few of the other competitors at the finish line, but my 8th place finish was about 20 seconds behind the winner. I put my hand on the touchpad 1 hour 52 minutes and 13 seconds after the start of the race.
The winner of the race, Martin VanderWeijden from the Netherlands, is a great guy. It would have been unfortunate for the sport of Open Water swimming if the Russian (who was the odds on favorite to win the race) had won. He doesnít speak English and he isnít friendly at all. Martin, on the other hand, is without a doubt the most popular guy in the sport. Heís funny, very well-spoken, and he has a great story before he became the Olympic champion.
Hereís a good story. This past May Martin and I raced to a photo finish in the 25K in Seville. (He beat me by 4 tenths of a second in a 5 hour race.) At the 20,000 meter mark of the race Martin and I happened to be next to each other and breathing towards each other. We made eye contact through our goggles and Martin smiled at me. It was a really funny gesture considering the circumstance of our location.
Now, fast forward to the race here in Beijing. Just before the pace picked up at the 7,500 meter mark I happened to be next to Martin when the guy did the same thing. It was only a split second of a grin this time, but it was noticeable, and it made me shake my head and laugh a little. That moment, just before the pain really increased, was one of the highlights of the race.
Looking back on it now I feel good about my race experience. No I didnít win a medal, but I was in the race the entire time and I gave it my best effort. To wrap up the race analysis I thought Iíd share the Olympic Creed: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as in life the most important thing is not the triumph but the struggle,. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.
I have a lot more to write about but I'm working on some frayed emotions. Here's the teaser: I was at the police station in Beijing 3 hours after my race worried that Diana might get deported. Everything's fine now but it'll make for a good story once I sit down to write it.
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