Overview and Strategy in Open Water Racing

By Catherine Vogt, 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Open Water Head Coach & FINA Coaches Committee Member

Having been involved in Open Water since 2005, I have been fortunate to watch the trends in the sport, before the addition of open water to the Olympic Games. In its first Games – 2008, the sport has seen tremendous growth and expanse into crossover of pool athletes.  And that is exactly how I got involved.  Working with a 15 year old, Chip Peterson, he was a fast pool/1500m swimmer who loved swimming in open water in the beaches of North Carolina.  His first Worlds in Montreal were successful – he broke onto the scene winning gold in the 10K and silver in the 5K, and surprising the European countries who had been the most dominant. 

Later, in 2012, I worked with Ousama Mellouli as he won medals in the 1500m in London, and Gold in the 10K – becoming the first athlete to win medals in both.  Haley Anderson won silver that Games as well.  Most recently, Haley won a silver medal in Yeosu (Gwangju) at the 18th FINA World Championships and she is still going best times in the pool.

This is still a sport that captures the athletes, spectators by the many different skills you must have to be competitive on the world stage.  Open Water involves tactical knowledge, strategy, speed, stamina, mental strength, and desire.  The distances offered at Worlds every other year are the 5, 10, and 25K, with the 10K being the priority as it’s the only distance offered at the Olympic Games. 

There may be different strategies for each race, as there are so many variables in open water. The course is different at each race, the competitors change depending on the event. One of the most successful and proven women on the World stage is Ana Marcela Cunha – who has dominated all distances, 5K, 10K and 25K.  And the conditions are always changing – even during the race.  With so many variables the best athletes are able to adapt and adjust mid race, and must train to prepare for the unknown.

Some athletes may specialize in the longer races, like the 25K as FINA holds a Ultra-Marathon Series all across the world.  It takes years I believe to acquire the experience needed to be at the World Champion stage, and the French most recently (in 2017 and 2019) have continued to dominate this event.  With these races taking between 5-6 hours and many times coming down to a photo finish!

You can imagine how important it is to have the volume and endurance to complete the race, as well as have a nutrition/feeding plan to develop so you have the proper nutrients. Communication is vital between coaches and athletes before, during, and after the race to learn and understand the human body, how best to fuel along the way, and develop racing tactics.  

The premiere event – the 10K race – is one that also comes down to the final sprint and qualifying for the Olympic Games or a World Championship medal can be decided by less than one hundredth of a second.  At first glance you may look at results to see a time or place/final result, but that does not always tell the whole story.  There is more information once you look at the statistics like stroke rate, place on lap 1 or lap 5.   As you are not racing the clock, you are racing the other competitors.   With little control over anything other than yourself, the changing of the leaders, the course, the conditions, it is why people love the uncertainty and relish winning a World Cup race, or any race!  This event has a FINA series as well across the world – 7-8 races a year.  Some athletes pick one or two each year, some complete the whole series.

Irony is calling a 5K race the “short sprint” race.  This event is a great way to gain experience, to race in a pack, and to get into the sport. It tends to also come down to less than a few seconds for 1st-10thplace.  Turns and positioning, is more important in this event as you don’t have as much time to relax and get into the race.  There is also no feeding pontoon so it takes another strategy compared to the 10K.  Once the gun goes off – there is little to no communication from coach to athlete. 

Every race varies in competitors, course, conditions which makes the Open Water events extremely challenging, and exciting.  Athletes do have to maintain good mindset to deal with the challenges and obstacles for races that last 1 hour, 2 hours, or more!  As a coach, it is important to have a relationship with your athlete where you can communicate, have trust and mutual respect.  The coaches can help through training sessions, providing race experience, and genuinely understanding that each athlete has different strengths, weaknesses and will continue to grow as an athlete.  Each race provides coach and swimmer with more information and feedback and we continue to learn about ourselves!