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The World Championship Race In A Tropical Storm

While a hurricane barrelling from Baja California, Mexico to Southern California this weekend, this weekend’s Naples Island Swim was cancelled out of an abundance of caution.

Race director Greg Shea chaired an emergency meeting of this event crew and with the consultation of the Long Beach Marine Safety Division, the 1-mile and 3-mile races in Naples Island, Long Beach were cancelled.  The threat of driving rain, strong winds, and lightning during the Sunday race was too great to risk hosting the race that has continued since the 1940’s.

The Naples Island Swim will be postponed to August 27th.  The postponement was a judicious decision that calls to mind the 25 km race held at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia.

On March 25th 2007, the fastest female marathon swimmers around the world dove from a floating pontoon near the pier in Port Phillip Bay to race five 5 km loops.  The race would culminate the open water swimming events of the 2007 FINA World Championships.

Four days earlier in St. Kilda Beach, the 5 km race was held in warm water under a blazing sun and very warm conditions.  Two days later, the 10 km FINA World Championship race was held among blooms of floating jellyfish where the swimmers were heard screaming in agony throughout the two-loop course.  Both the men’s and women’s races were all competitive with several races coming down to the last stroke.  The high-speed cameras positioned on the finish pontoon captured finishes between swimmers that were too close for the human eye to discern.  The frame-by-frame images were used to be reviewed by the FINA referees.

USA Swimming coach Steven Munatones recalls how the bay seemed angry before the race. “Before the 10 km race, there were all kinds of blue bottles [jellyfish] that had been blown all along the course. You could see a mixture of dread on the faces as the athletes stood with the other swimmers on the shore gazing out to what they would undoubtedly encounter in the race. During the races, the competitors were screaming in pain as they got stung. In the packs, it was especially tough. As the first swimmers passed and touched the bells of the jellyfish, the jellyfish would turn upside down and their tentacles would sting the swimmers behind them. The screams were the worse I ever heard at the ocean.”

Sid Cassidy of the USA served as the chairman of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee while Shelley Taylor-Smith of Australia served as the Honorary Secretary and Tomás Haces Germán of Cuba served as the women’s 25 km Chief Referee.

The race started as normal with Britta Kamrau of Germany taking the commanding lead early on.  Kamrau had earlier finished 4th in the 5 km race and 6th in the 10 km race in the competition, so she was hungry, albeit a bit tired, for a podium position.  The weather had been hot all week, but other than the mass of jellyfish that had stung the swimmers all over their bodies, the competition ran smoothly.  But Port Phillip Bay is a relatively shallow body of water and when the winds pick up, the surface water becomes turgid and very rough surface water sloshes open water swimmers about.  

On the morning of the 25 km race, very strong winds and overcast skies greeted the swimmers. 

The weather forecast was not good, but no one was backing down.  Coaches and handlers were boated out to the two floating pontoons that also housed the Omega timing system.  Small whitecaps could be seen off in the distance, but a week of rough water conditions, the swimmers were not complaining.  

As the swimmers rounded the first loop, Kamrau took the lead with the trailing pack all bunched together.  The skies were becoming increasingly gray and darker, seemingly by the minute.  Raindrops started to fall and the winds whipped up, quickly leading to a bay full of whitecaps.  Still, the swimmers forged on. 

All the coaches and handlers wore life jackets while standing on the feeding pontoon,” said USA team coach Steven Munatones.  “It was definitely getting windier and windier and wavier and wavier.  By the time the swimmers were well into their second loop, we could see the storm coming towards shore.  It was not looking good at all. I had never seen a squall in Australia before. I had no real idea of what to expect.”

To their credit, the Australian surf lifesavers were zipping around the perimeter of the course on their surf skis making sure all the swimmers were accounted for. “But it was really the coaches and officials on the pontoons who I was more worried about. In the worse case scenario, I figured the swimmers could make it to shore, but I was definitely more worried about some of the coaches and officials who appeared less water safe.

As the skies got darker, the squall was approaching closer to the shore with the swimmers at least 500 meters from the shore on the outside leg of the course. “The rain got so bad, it was very difficult to see. That is when I got nervous,” said American Kalyn Keller.

Shelley Taylor-Smith was manning the radios and heard the chatter between the surf life saving safety personnel on shore and on surf skis and the Australia Coast Guard staff.  The squall was coming in fast. “I knew there were no existing rules about calling a world championship event in mid-race.  With the storm coming towards the course, we were closely monitoring the safety of the swimmers and the coaches and staff out on the water.”

A world championship race had never been cancelled or called before.  Taylor-Smith, Haces, and Cassidy were in charge of a race that was looking to be the first in history.

It was the right decision. It was definitely time to call the race when not only were the anchors of the turn buoys could no longer hold the buoys in place, but the large start and finish and feeding pontoons also became floating battering rams that became untied,” remembered Munatones.

The only time a World Cup marathon swim had been called was in 1988 in Evanne, France.  Between Evanne and Lausanne, Switzerland, Dale Petranech was in a position to call the race because the escort boats were going to sink in the rough water.  Eventually, that race was restarted – but since 1991 when FINA took over marathon swimming from the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation and the International Marathon Swimming Association, no other race had encountered conditions like this.  

Taylor-Smith consulted with the Coast Guard that decided the conditions had become too treacherous on the third loop under a torrential downpour. The decision had been made: the race had to be stopped. 

Taylor-Smith called Cassidy who concurred. They then radioed Haces on the lead boat as he was encountering horrific conditions in a driving rain. Meanwhile, the winds were blowing over all kinds of temporary structures onshore. Taylor-Smith recalls, “After Tomás agreed, the officials took everyone’s position and time behind the leader – although we did not know exactly what the next steps were.  There was no rule in the FINA rule book to what we just faced.  There was no precedent in evacuating the swimmers and stopping a rece.  While the surf skis started to pull the swimmers from the water, the officials also had to be taken to shore.”

Munatones remembers, “I was on the finish pontoon with all the expensive timing equipment, computers, cabling.  The Omega timekeepers were so nervous, especially as the pontoon tore from its mooring.  The entire structure was either going to sink or be slammed into the rocks or piers.  It was incredible to see their dedication, both to the sport, the swimmers, and their equipment.  But eventually, there was no question that everyone had to abandon the pontoon and get to shore quickly.  When the lead Omega manager started to abandon the equipment and jumped on a PWC to head to shore, I knew the officials were in more dire straits than the swimmers.”

Surf skis were zipping back and forth from shore, taking 3, 4, 5 people at a time.  Those surf lifesavers really showed their expertise that day.

After all the swimmers, coaches, and staff were accounted for, the FINA liaison to the FINA Bureau was alerted.  FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu was not happy.  He demanded to know who gave the Technical Open Water Swimming Committee the authority to stop the race.  Taylor-Smith explained, “Mother Nature doesn’t wait for FINA to hold a meeting.  We were instructed to stop the race by the Coast Guard.  There was no compromise on safety.

Cassidy took a lot of heat from Marculescu for that decision. But from the perspective of the open water swimmers and coaches, Cassidy, Taylor-Smith, and Haces made the correct decision that averted disaster. They were also extremely fortunate that the Australian lifesavers were so skilled and experienced. Munatones said, “I really wish someone had videotaped their numerous rescues on that day because their work was textbook. Their heroism serves as a perfect example of what best to do in an increasingly bad situation.”

As the relentless thunder and lightning made the wait for the athletes and coaches more dramatic, hours passed as everyone huddled back in their hotel rooms.  No one knew what the FINA Bureau would ultimately decide.  Would the race be called?  Would the athletes finish the race in the order that they were pulled from the water?  Would the race be postponed?  

That night, the winds and rains continued. “I remember listening to the rain pour outside. It just never let up,” said Munatones. “I cannot imagine that frightful this must have been to the athletes. To be caught in a squall, listen to pouring rain and constant winds throughout the night, and then have to show up on St. Kilda Beach where all the tents, chairs, tables and signage had been stripped away. The start area was so festive the day before. But on race day, there was very little left on the beach.”

Later that evening, FINA made its decision that the second half of the race would conclude the next day.  The women would start after the men’s 25 km race in a staggered start.  They would swim the remaining 12.5 km.  Kamrau had covered the most distance on the day previously, so she would start first alone.  Kalyn Keller of the USA, Ksenia Popova and Natalia Pankina of Russia, and Angela Maurer of Germany would then follow. 

The swimmers will commence in a staggered start for the remaining 12.5 km in accordance with the times they had after the initial five laps,” FINA said in a statement late that night.

Kamrau had a strategic plan all along. She purposefully led the race as the conditions were deteriorating with the thought that the race would be cancelled. She took off right from the start and established a lead, thinking that upon its inevitable cancellation, she would be declared the world champion if she could maintain her lead. “The conditions were just so extreme. I have never experienced this before. The buoys were just swimming away and the boats were about to capsize.”

Russian Natalya Pankina, who started the staggered position in second, told the media that she had never swum in such conditions. “The waves were unreal. I couldn’t understand anything. I was being tossed back and forth, in every direction, couldn’t tell which way, from the back, from the side.

German Angela Maurer agreed with the decision to cut the race short. “These waves were inhuman. I’m happy they called off the race. I think I never would’ve finished because it was so wavy.”

Australian Shelley Clark, who finished seventh, was of the opposite opinion. “Honestly…I knew the conditions were bad, but I didn’t think bad enough to call off the race.

At the end, the trailing pack could never catch Kamrau who would go on to win her first and only world championship title.  Kamrau had a four-minute lead in the second half of the race, but she also knew that the rest of the chase pack could work together and cut down on her lead. So she took off fast and eventually won by 2 minutes 27 seconds.

2007 FINA World Championship 25 km Women Final Results

  1. Britta Kamrau-Corestein (Germany) 5 hours 27 minutes 11.66 seconds
  2. Kalyn Keller (USA) 5 hours 39 minutes 39.62 seconds
  3. Ksenia Popova (Russia) 5 hours 39 minutes 51.51 seconds
  4. Angela Maurer (Germany) 5 hours 40 minutes 00.13 seconds
  5. Natalia Pankina (Russia) 5 hours 40 minutes 1.87 seconds
  6. Jana Pechanová (Czech Republic) 5 hours 47 minutes 23.28 seconds
  7. Shelley Clark (Australia) 5 hours 47 minutes 24.88 seconds
  8. Laura La Piana (Italy) 6 hours 7 minutes 21.71 seconds
  9. Malwina Bukszowana (Poland) 6 hours 11 minutes 31.54 seconds
  10. Evelien Sohl (Netherlands) 6 hours 24 minutes 25.82 seconds
  11. DNF Alessandra Romiti (Italy)
  12. DNF Darija Pop (Montenegro)
  13. DNF Eva Berglund (Sweden)

2007 FINA World Championship 10 km Women’s Top 10 Results

  1. Larisa Ilchenko (Russia) 2:03.57.9
  2. Cassandra Patten (Great Britain) 2:03:58.9
  3. Kate Brookes-Peterson (Australia) 2:03:59.5
  4. Angela Maurer (Germany) 2:04:00.7
  5. Ksenia Popova (Russia) 2:04:03.7
  6. Britta Kamrau-Corestein (Germany) 2:04:05.8
  7. Jana Pechanová (Czech Republic) 2:04:07.6
  8. Poliana Okimoto (Brazil) 2:04:09.1
  9. Kalyn Keller (USA) 2:04:10.0
  10. Eva Berglund (Sweden) 2:04:13.7

2007 FINA World Championship 5 km Women’s Top 10 Results

  1. Larisa Ilchenko (Russia) 1:00:41.3
  2. Ekaterina Seliverstva (Russia) 1:00:43.6
  3. Kate Brookes-Peterson (Australia) 1:00:47.6
  4. Britta Kamrau-Corestein (Germany) 1:00:47.7
  5. Jana Pechanová (Czech Republic) 1:00:48.1
  6. Poliana Okimoto (Brazil) 1:00:48.7
  7. Alessia Paoloni (Italy) 1:00:50.1
  8. Eva Berglund (Sweden) 1:00:50.3
  9. Nika Kozmernik (Slovenia) 1:00:50.8
  10. Yurema Requena Juarez (Spain) 1:00.50.8

© 2023 Daily News of Open Water Swimming – “to educate, enthuse, and entertain all those who venture beyond the shore

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