The 10,000-meter Open Water Swim Race: Nearly Two Hours of a Grueling Swim Capped by a Furious Finish

open water swimming fort copacabana

In the first four Olympiads, from 1896 to 1904, swimming events were held in open water areas like The Mediterranean, The Seine River or artificial lakes. As mentioned in a previous post, the 1908 Olympics in London were held at the massive White City Stadium that had a pool and diving area built into the infield. For the most part in recent history, swimming events have been held in pools, and recently indoor pools.

At the 2000 Olympics, the triathlon was introduced, which includes a 1,500 meter swim in open water. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes could compete for the first time in a 10,000 kilometer swim. In Beijing, this 10,000 meter swim took place in a rowing-canoeing park, while the same race took place in The Serpentine, which is a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, both the triathlon and the 10,000 meter swim competition will commence at Fort Copacabana, which is at the southern edge of Rio de Janeiro. This is truly open water as Fort Copacabana opens up into the South Atlantic Ocean.

There has been a lot of news about the filthy and possibly dangerous conditions in the Guanabara Bay waters, where the sailing events will take place, but Fort Copacabana is about 30 kilometers away from the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, and there is less anxiety about sickness and safety for he triathlon and 10,000 meter race. This is how the site openwatersswimming.com puts it.

Fort Copacabana to Guanabara Bay

As can be expected in a beach bordering a major metropolitan area, Copacabana Beach is not pristine and there is plenty of urban runoff in the water, especially after a rain. But it still remains one of the world’s most iconic beaches and presents one of the world’s greatest natural amphitheaters for open water swimming competitions. With a twice daily inflow and outflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, major events like the Rei e Rainha do Mar and Travessia dos Fortes are hugely successful.

To me, what is more amazing about the 10,000 meter open water swim is how close the finishes are. Unlike a 10k run, which is completed in 26 to 28 minutes at high performance levels, a 10k open water swim will take about 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours, which is a little less time than a fast-paced foot marathon of 42 kilometers. While 10,000 meter race finishes are determined by seconds, marathon top finishers are often ten to thirty seconds apart.

Maarten van der Weijden
Maarten van der Weijden, winner of the first Olympic 10,000 meter open water swim competition in 2008.

In the short history of Olympic open water racing, after nearly two hours of grueling swimming, the differences between the top finishing times have been seconds, even fractions of seconds. At the first 10,000 race in Beijing, only two seconds separated the medalists, 1.5 seconds being the difference between gold and silver. At the London Games four years later, only 3.4 seconds separated first from second.

All this after nearly two hours in the water!