Ricardo Ratto interviewed the Brazilian husband-and-wife team of Ricardo Cintra and Poliana Okimoto. Cintra is the coach/husband; Okimoto is the athlete/wife. Together, they won the first Olympic medal in open water swimming for Brazil.
The 2016 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim brought the fastest and best marathon swimmers around the world to held on Copacabana Beach. “There was a lot of excitement from the public and the athletes as well as the coaches and referees because this was first ‘real’ Olympic marathon swimming event,” described Professor Ricardo Ratto.
“With the race in the turbulent Atlantic Ocean and not in a lake or a rowing course as in Beijing or London, this was one of the most spectacular venues of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. As I forecasted two years ago, the race and its preparations were conducted under rough sea conditions. When the pontoons were destroyed two days prior to the women’s race on August 15th, FINA’s Technical Open Water Swimming Committee rushed to provide the solutions necessary. With the support of Rio Organizing Committee, they could not only quickly came up with the solutions, but also provided the best conditions for the swimmers to perform their best.
Once the race started, the field battled in the water and showed the world how hard was to swim in the right spot at the right time.
During the women’s race, the Dutch swimmer Sharon Van Rouwendaal had no problem to set her own pace and touched the finish wall comfortably in first. But that was not the case for the other swimmers trying to guarantee their spots on the podium: Rachelle Bruni, Aurélie Muller and Poliana Okimoto fought for a medal until the very last stroke of the 10,000 meter race. As the swimmers came sprinting down the finish chute, it seem that Poliana would finish fourth and would not receive a medal. But then, as Muller dunked her Italian opponent Rachelle Bruni she was disqualified, enabling the Italian to receive a silver and Poliana the bronze.”
After this down-to-the-wire race, Okimoto described first-hand how the race developed.
Ricardo Ratto: Poliana, it is said that you were very scared to swim in the open water at first. What happened to change your mind?
Poliana Okimoto: That was a Ricardo’s decision. In 2005 he decided based on my results in the 800m freestyle pool events and my high aerobic capacity that a move from the pool to the open water would be a good move once marathon swimming was added to the Olympic schedule in October 2005. So we decided ‘to put our coins on it’.
We decided to take part in all the open water 5 km and 10 km events at the Brazilian Open Water Swimming Championships as well as regional races in order to face my fears and just deal with it. Travessia dos Fortes: That was a Ricardo’s decision. In 2005 he decided based on my results in the 800m freestyle pool event at Copacabana Beach, the same venue that was used at this Rio Olympics, was my first ever swim. I followed Ricardo’s advice. The day before this event, he asked me to swim in the sea at the venue. I was not able to swim more than a hundred meters and got out of the water. But I am a very competitive athlete so once the race started, my fears were gone and I was able to swim a good race. As I was watching my opponents warming up, the fear, little by little, disappeared.
But actually at the first events, it was really hard to deal with my own fears and mindset. I couldn’t get to sleep. I had nightmares. I had bad feelings. The fear was always by my side. I was always fearing marine life and the safety aspects of swimming in the open water. But little by little, I overcame these fears as I understood that I was safe and nothing would happen to me. We realized that we made the right decision when we competed the next year at the 2006 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Napoli [Italy] and I won the two first female medals for Brazil in a FINA World Championships. I won a silver in the 5 km and 10 km races at my first international open water swimming championship races. I love to win, so I understood that Ricardo’s decision was right and that open water swimming was definitely my discipline.
Ricardo Ratto: You have the most victorious career that an athlete can have, but even successful swimmers have ups and downs throughout their careers. Which one was the worst experience and which one was the best experience during your career?
Poliana Okimoto: Sports are all about this. One day we win, another day we lose. But I believe that the best athletes of the world are ones who lose several times, but have won at the right moment. For me, the 2012 London Olympics was the worst. It was very frustrating, all-consuming. I felt so bad after that. I was depressed. For sure, it was the worst time in my whole life and during my career.
And the best experience for sure was here in Rio. This Olympic medal was missing in my collection. Olympics are only held every four years so after a lot of commitment and dedication during the whole Olympic cycle, you must feel good and on that day, it must be your day. You have to perform your best at the right moment. So to win this medal at the closing this quadrennial Olympic cycle was the golden key. An Olympic medal was everything I dreamed about during my entire career. To win the 10 km gold medal at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, one year after London was really special as well and made me believe that my dream was really tangible. So I can say that these are the two best moments of my career, considering that Rio was already my third attempt to conquer an Olympic medal.
Ricardo Ratto: I was on the course at the 2012 London Olympics when you screamed at me asking for help, due to hypothermia. What made you stand up and keep on going after this bad experience?
Poliana Okimoto: I think it was because I’m a very persistent person. I was really prepared for the London Olympics. I knew I was able to achieve an excellent result. I was there to fight for a medal, but due to the hypothermia my dream became frustrated and postponed.
At the beginning, when I was under depression, I thought I was going to quit. But deep in my heart, I knew I had a lot to give. So Barcelona was a good opportunity to show myself that I could do it. I needed so much to give myself another chance and get rid of my frustrations. If I succeeded in Barcelona, I would keep on going. If not, I would consider quitting swimming. So Barcelona confirmed that I made the right decision. I never make long-term plans in my life and career. God is always putting me on the rails in such a way I always take the right decisions. I thank God for giving myself another chance because for this reason I was able to win this bronze medal.
Ricardo Ratto: Cintra, how is it to work with Poliana after London in 2012? How did you start all over again and what were the major changes on her preparation?
Ricardo Cintra: After London, we had tough times. She was in good shape and prepared to win or lose, but never to quit. I let her make all the decisions without any pressure.
At the beginning, she felt like quitting swimming, but I knew that she would miss it…and that’s what happened. So she started coming back little by little and the proof that she was in excellent shape for London is that one year later she won the races in Barcelona writing her name in Brazilian swimming history as she became the first Brazilian woman to win medals with gold medals in 5 km and 10 km at the World Championships.
About her preparation, for me it’s very hard to deal with it over such a long term. It has been 13 years [together]. It’s challenging to keep her motivated and keep re-inventing myself as a coach. I don’t know anybody working with the same swimmer for such a long time. But thanks to God, we are doing great and we have great creativity to create new models of preparation, without changing my insights and philosophy related to coaching.
Ricardo Ratto: Do you think that because there was so much focus on [teammate] Ana Marcela Cunha during this Olympic cycle, that there was reduced pressure on Poliana?
Ricardo Cintra: I think that this is a good question for the media. I don’t know why media didn’t forward the same attention to Poliana. It may be because of age as Poliana is older than Ana Marcela. Poliana is the grandma of this story. But she has been winning for the last 13 years. I really can’t understand. About the psychological preparation, she has a psychologist who takes care of her. I don’t take part in this field of preparation; it’s up the them. Besides, the possibility to win a Olympic medal at home is the best source of motivation.
Ricardo Ratto: Cintra, did Poliana follow the previous prepared strategy? What did she do differently?
Ricardo Cintra: Poliana is a very experienced swimmer. And you know that each race is different. So what I have done is to prepare her for several different situations. Of course, we had some strategies, especially after some of the last races of on the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup circuit when we were being competitive against some of the same opponents. We studied how they perform under different situations and how they deal with different challenges. They are very strong swimmers. We knew in advance how strong the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim would be. So what I did was to prepare Poliana to deal with different situations and according to her experience, she was able to make the right decision. They were able to sprint and leave the second pack of swimmers far behind. This is the proof she took the right decision.
Ricardo Ratto: Sharon van Rouwendaal, the Dutch gold medalist, took the lead at the third lap and kept her position until the end of the race. Did this movement surprise you? Why didn’t the other swimmers try to neutralize this sprinting with her?
Poliana Okimoto: Sharon and Aurélie Muller executed the same strategy in Kazan [in 2015] as well as in some FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup races, especially the last races. So I knew they would do that, but I didn’t know when. I was very focused on them. Maybe Sharon felt so good that she decided to sprint earlier than I thought she would do.
At that moment [she surged to the lead], I was not in such a good position in the pack. I had to swim really hard to get rid of the pack and sprint with them. I decided not to hydrate during the last lap. I think that I made the right decision as I tried to sprint with her, but she really swam fast so it was hard to keep her pace. At that moment, the Italian and Chinese swimmers joined us. But it was at the final leg that she sprinted harder and won the race even before the final touch at the finish wall. She did great.
My experience determined my result. I could read the race and make the right decision. I was able to identify my real opponents and also could understand that hydrate was not possible at that moment as the second pack could come and it would be a mistake. I felt strong and well all race long. I was very focused and concentrated. I did a great race and it was one of best races of my career.
Ricardo Ratto: Aurélie was disqualified at the finish gate. In my opinion, as a FINA official, it was a right decision according to FINA rules. When did you learn that you won the bronze medal? How did you feel that moment?
Poliana Okimoto: When I found out I got the bronze medal, I got really emotional, really happy. It was like a movie that I have been dreaming my whole life. Memories from the beginning of my career came flooding back; when I was a little girl, all the commitment and dedication, and the ups and downs of my career. How many kilometers I had to swim, sometimes early in the darkness of morning, no family life, no parties, diet, and endless swimming sessions. It’s not easy at all.
It’s has been 20 years swimming in Brazilian national team. It’s a whole life dedicated to the sport.
I think I deserve this medal for having such commitment and dedication to swimming especially when I represented my country in the Olympics and especially when the Olympics are being hosted at home.
I could not stop crying from the moment I learned [that I won the bronze] until the end of the awards ceremony. But I think as well that this medal is not only important for me as an athlete, but also for Brazilian women’s swimming. I hope that the girls from now on can understand that their dreams are possible. They have to go for it and pursue them. First of all, we have to believe to keep our dreams alive in our minds and go for it. It’s not only a wish while lying in bed and waiting for them to come. We have to work hard on realizing your dreams.
Ricardo Ratto: What about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Poliana Okimoto: It’s a challenge and it is a goal as well. I think that athletes retire when they are unable to keep on winning or having good results or when they have any injury that is an impedance. This is not my case, definitely. I’ve been training hard and my sessions are unbelievable hard and impeccable. So I think I have a lot to contribute to the development of women’s aquatics in Brazil. So Tokyo is a goal.
Ricardo Ratto: Cintra, what about Tokyo? What are the changes you’ve been planning through the next Olympic cycle?
Ricardo Cintra: Tokyo 2020 will be step-by-step, year-by-year process. First of all, we’ll have the World Championships, qualifying events, etc. So we have to move forward with these intermediate goals in mind. And throughout this next Olympic cycle, we hope we’ll have our own pool. It’s incredible, but we have never had an ideal structure. Today we are members of a club just to have a pool to host training sessions. We look forward to have our own pool to decide what to do, how to do it, and when to do the coaching program in our own way.
This is our dream.
Ricardo Ratto: What did you think about the organization of the Olympic marathon swimming? Did the changes that were made at the last moment due to the rough seas affect the swimmers’ performances?
Ricardo Cintra: The organization was quite good and even with the incident with the feeding pontoon that had to be changed and the new one was a little higher than the ideal, there was no problem for the coaches or the swimmers. These were an excellent Olympics and in my opinion – I’ve been in the last three editions – Rio was the best considering the Olympic Park, the Olympic Village, Olympic Boulevard. I’m very proud to be Brazilian.
Poliana Okimoto: The Rio Olympics were quite good. I have nothing to complain about, everything was due to FINA.
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