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Marathon swimming made its Olympic debut at Beijing 2008, where the men’s and women’s 10km races were held on an open-water course at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park.
In London four years later, the Serpentine in Hyde Park provided the venue for the two events, while the Rio 2016 races will make a return to the sport’s origins, with both races being held at sea and Copacabana Beach providing the starting point.
Open-water swimming, to give the marathon its other name, involves tactics and race strategies, which will be hugely important when it comes to the battle for Olympic gold in the waters of the Atlantic this summer.
Born on 8 March 1983 in Sao Paulo Brazilian marathon swimmer Poliana Okimoto was among the field when the sport made its maiden appearance on the Olympic programme in Beijing, where she placed seventh. Though she retired from the London 2012 race, she won the women’s 10km world title in Barcelona the following year, edging out her compatriot Ana Marcela Cunha by a mere 0.03 seconds.
Okimoto left those 2013 worlds with a full set of medals after also collecting silver in the 5km marathon and bronze in the team event. She also holds the Brazilian 1,500m freestyle record (16:26.80) and won 800m gold at the Military World Games in Mungyeong (KOR) in October 2015.
Taking time out from her preparations for Rio, Okimoto explained the differences between marathon swimming and the pool events and also revealed just what it takes to compete at the highest level in her sport.
“The difference between the swimming marathon and the pool events is mainly down to the weather,” she said. “Nature always gives us external factors to deal with. A lot of the time we have to swim in water that’s either very cold or very hot. It’s not a controlled environment, and there’s often a lot of wind, while on other occasions the sea can be calm. And then there’s the distance. The longest pool event is the 800m, while the Olympic swimming marathon is held over a distance of 10km.”
“Pool swimmers are very slim and they’re stronger,” she added. “Marathon swimmers have to train an awful lot and they end up losing a bit of muscle mass. So we need to have a bit more fat, though that’s not the case with me. Many swimmers have a little bit of extra fat though, so that they can deal with the cold and get through what is an exhausting event. But in swimming, and in any other sport for that matter, it’s the taller and slimmer athlete that will always have an advantage.”
“We are totally exposed to the elements, and with so much sun and saltwater we can get really dehydrated. We lose weight and muscle mass, which can really take its toll. I tend to lose two kilos during a race if I don’t take on enough liquid. Mid-race, your heart rate is about 140 to 150 beats a minute, and by the end it can go up to anything as high as 190 to 200. I think marathon swimming makes you work more on your upper body, your abdomen, trapezius and your arms. When you finish a race your arms and abdomen are more tired than your legs. Your legs are tired because you’ve just sprinted for the line, but at the end of the race, when you start to relax, it’s your arms that hurt.”
Turning her attention to race tactics, she said: “With marathon swimming, I think you have to use your head more than you do in pool events, which are more automatic. You can just go out and replicate your training pace in competition. With the marathon, though, you have to contend with nature, physical contact and time.
“Every race is different. You have to be right mentally. The water is often very cold – about 16 or 17 degrees – and it can be very windy. A lot of the time you get kicked and elbowed and people pull your legs. You have to be mentally ready to let those things slide and just focus on your race.
“I don’t think the start is that important in marathon swimming. For me, it’s better to start a little bit off the pace because you’ve got two hours of racing ahead of you. In the middle of the race, the marshals hold out water bottles so you can stay hydrated. We stop for just a few seconds and try to lose as little time as possible. We drink water or a carbohydrate gel.
“The last kilometre is the most important part of the race. It’s when everyone gives their all. It’s when you remember that your legs actually exist, because you forget about them at the start of the event. You just have to kick hard in that last kilometre. I’ve lost marathons by a few thousandths of a second and I’ve won them by a few thousandths too.”