They tossed around elbows that would have made an NBA player proud. They whacked each other with wind-milling arms. They bumped into each other as if they were drivers at a NASCAR race, but it was just another day on the open water at the FINA Swimming World Championships.
Brazilians Poliana Okimoto and Ana Marcela Cunha claimed gold and silver respectively in the 10km race on Tuesday in the Barcelona tournament, a rough event that two-time winner Keri-Anne Payne described as “absolute carnage.”
Okimoto and Cunha pulled away from the pack after making the final turn on the palm tree-lined course set up in Barcelona’s Port Vell.
Okimoto, who narrowly lost her first event of the championships to the US’ Haley Anderson, reached up to slap the timing device just 0.3 seconds ahead of her countrywoman.
Germany’s Angela Maurer took third, one second behind the winner after a race that took nearly two hours to complete.
Payne, who was world champion in this event in both 2009 and 2011, faded to 14th. The British swimmer’s chances ended when she got mauled in a group trying to negotiate one of the tight turns around a buoy.
“I’m so disappointed that girls can be that rough during the race and get away with it,” said Payne, who wound up more than six seconds behind the winner. “It was absolutely brutal.”
With swimmers competing together in a pack, unlike the neatly divided lanes of pool events, open water can look more like roller derby in the water as competitors jostle for position.
Payne said things got out of control as 53 swimmers — more than twice as large as an Olympic field — competed on a narrow course roughly the shape of a “U” with a series of sharp turns.
“I got hit in the face. I got pushed over. I got swum over,” Payne said. “The referees calling the race said they were going to be really strict, but I don’t think they were strict enough, to be honest. I don’t think the race should be won by who’s got the biggest elbows or who can dunk somebody, you know what mean? It should be done on skill and agility. Maybe that’s just the part I’m not very good at. I’m not good at fighting people.”
The Brazilians had no complaints.
They are hoping to use the worlds as a springboard to a strong showing at their home Olympics, the 2016 Rio Games. Okimoto and Cunha have been on the podium in the first two women’s events, taking silver and bronze in the 5km.
“There are no secrets,” Okimoto said through a translator. “We’ve got support now from our sponsors and our federation, so all we have to do is keep training and training for 2016.”
The winning time was 1 hour, 58 minutes, 19.2 seconds on a day when the air temperature rose into the mid-30s, but the water measured about 25.5?C before the start, not a problem for a sport still dealing with the fallout from American Fran Crippen’s death nearly three years ago in a race held in the sweltering Middle East.
Elsewhere on Day 4 of the championships, China kept up its expected domination of diving with two more gold medals at the Piscina Municipal de Montjuic, which gives fans and competitors a stunning view of the city below.
He Zi won her second world title in the women’s 1m springboard, edging Tania Cagnotto of Italy by 0.10 points after executing a nearly flawless final dive. The margin was the smallest to decide a gold medal in men’s or women’s diving at any worlds.
“I wish diving wouldn’t be that close because it hurts,” said Cagnotto, a perennial runner-up who came up just shy of He’s winning score of 307.10. “Of course I am a little disappointed because I don’t know if I will have more chances like this to win a world championship.”
Wang Han of China took bronze with 297.75, while the US’ Deidre Freeman finished 11th.
Qin Kai and He Chong followed with a victory in men’s 3m synchronized springboard, giving China five of six diving golds so far. Russia’s Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilia Zakharov claimed silver, while Mexico’s Jahir Ocampo and Rommel Pacheco earned bronze.
The US duo, four-time Olympian Troy Dumais and Michael Hixon, settled for fifth.
Cunha barely missed qualifying for open water at the London Olympics, where the only events were at the 10km distance.
“In just two years, I have improved a lot,” she said. “Today I’m the second-best swimmer in the world, just behind another Brazilian athlete.”
Maurer, who turns 38 on Saturday, earned the sixth world medal of her long open water career, but the first in the 10km since 2003, when the championship also was held in Barcelona.
“I’m very surprised,” she said. “I did not plan today to get a medal.”
Defending Olympic champion Eva Risztov of Hungary led after the first two laps of the four-lap race and she was still in the mix going to the final sprint before fading to ninth.
According to Maurer, the key was negotiating the 90? turns, often while tussling with a dozen or more swimmers trying to do exactly the same thing.
“This race was more turning than swimming,” she said.