There’s a saying in swimming that medals are won at practice, not races. Those years and years of dreary mornings between the bright lights of the Olympics or world championships, when reluctant bodies are pushed to their limits and resolve to the breaking point. There are no short cuts to becoming fast, after all. But there are surely more direct, and less painful routes to the podium than contesting the 10km open water marathon.
It’s a race that lasts for almost two hours. A churning mass of arms and legs that at London 2012 boiled back and forth along the length of Hyde Park’s famous Serpentine under an unexpectedly blazing English sun. So long and so exhausting that competitors must take in fluids at least once or twice during the event, rolling over on their backs to gulp power drinks, all the while continuing to swim. And it was decided by mere seconds.
Ousama Mellouli of Tunisia, who took gold in one hour, 49 minutes and 55 seconds, was clearly the class of the field, picking up a second medal in London—he already had a bronze from the 1500m freestyle—and becoming the first man to win Olympic titles in both the pool and open water. (He won the 1500m four years ago in Beijing.)
But it was the battle for the remaining spots on the podium that most concerned Canadians. And in the end, it was Richard Weinberger, a relatively unheralded 22-year-old University of Victoria student, who out-swam and outlasted almost all the competition, taking a bronze in 1 hour 50 minutes, a little less than two seconds behind Thomas Lurz of Germany in the silver spot.
What should really excite the folks at home, however, is just how easy Weinberger made the next-to-impossible look. He was the one who led for the first two laps and set the pace for much of the race, never falling out of the top four. And when he emerged from the water and strutted off the dock to his medal ceremony, he looked fresher, and far happier than most. “You just have to have fun,” he explained. “Racing is the best. Training is hard, but this is like Christmas morning. I never sleep the night before.” The night before the biggest race of his life was no exception. He spent most of it watching silly cat videos on the internet.
After taking up distance swimming just three years ago—he saw his training partner on the UVic team doing the punishing workouts and thought they looked like a good idea—he has made remarkable strides. In 2009, he won the event at the Canada Games, and the next season enjoyed a top-5 finish at an international in California. And once he finally acquired one of the expensive full-body suits that all of his competitors use, he went from 17th at the last world championships to the top of the podium at the Olympic test event in London a year ago. Since then,Weinberger has hit the medals like clockwork on the world cup circuit. “Success is a habit. I just got in a groove,” he shrugs.
Still, it was no sure bet that the first-time Olympian would withstand the pressure and expectations of a Summer Games. His coach Ron Jacks said the rookie followed their plan to the letter, and when called upon to improvise in the final stretch showed some surprising savvy, keeping his cool and holding off the charging Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece, the current world champion. “I think Richard has the ability to be the best in the world,” said Jacks. “He can go that intermediate pace better than anyone and with less effort, which means he has something in the tank for the back end.”
Weinberger admits he hasn’t always enjoyed his journey to podium. Every week for the past three years he has racked up 80 to 100 kms in the university pool. Eight to 10 kilometres in the morning, then eight to 10 more in the evening, which works out to 320 to 400 laps of the pool each day. It’s mind numbing, and it hurts. And if the outcome of the race in the Serpentine was more fun, it doesn’t sound much more pleasant. “We were swimming in seaweed and duck crap,” he said, blaming Mellouli for dragging the pack into the shallows.
But now that he has a taste of Olympic glory, he’s committed to working all the harder. Getting bigger and filling out his still skinny frame—”my old man strength,” he calls it—and then in four years, showing the world what he has learned. “I want to be the Olympic gold medalist in Rio,” Weinberger declared with a smile. And given what happened at London 2012, the rest of the world should take him seriously.