The Ilchenko – A Powerful Move In The Open Water

Courtesy of WOWSA, Beijing, China.

Throughout sports history, great athletes have created great athletic moves. From track-and-field (The Fosbury Flop) and gymnastics (Thomas Flare and the Omelianchik) to boxing (the Rope-a-dope) and wrestling (Karelin Lift), sports fans have associated certain great moves with great athletes.

Even sports announcers have been associated with memorable verbal descriptions of sports events (e.g., the Miracle on Ice, he could…go…all…the…way! and back-back-back-back)

Perhaps open water swimming announcers should be describing the closing kick of 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 world champion and the 2008 Beijing Olympics gold medalist Larisa Ilchenko of Russia as “The Ilchenko”?

Larisa’s trademark move is a classic to watch and extremely difficult to compete against. She expertly drafts off of the lead swimmers for a majority of the race, aggressively protecting her #2 or #3 position in the pack, which is difficult to consistently do throughout a 2-hour 10K race. Then, around the last turn buoy, she gets ready to make her signature move. With the finish approaching, sometimes with less than 100 meters to go, Larisa picks up her kicking speed and literally swims around her competition, often on the opposite side to which her opponents breathe, to win the race.

Much easily said than done, Larisa puts in tremendous hours and work to be able to pull off The Ilchenko. Recently, she told former world champion Shelley Taylor-Smith that she has not taken a day off in 2008. “I only had 7 days out of the water in 2007. I am looking forward to some time off I hope.”

The dominance of Larisa has stymied her competition ever since she first won the 5K world championships in 2004 in Dubai. Year in and year out, at every major race, everyone knows Larisa’s blazing finish will come…they just can’t seem to do anything about it. Fast pace, slow pace, ocean, lake, Larisa comes through at the end with “The Ilchenko”.

At the Singapore leg of the FINA 10K Marathon Swimming World Cup, Shelley asked Larisa’s competitors how they plan to dethrone her.

Fourth-place Olympic 10K Marathon Swim finisher Angela Maurer of Germany told Taylor-Smith, “The difference between Larisa and the rest [of us] is not that she is faster, but that she swims smarter than the rest of the competitors.”

Brazilian open water swimming coach Igor de Souza said of his swimmer, “…we will now go back and prepare…on becoming a ‘smart racer’. She must learn to race. Speed is important, yes. But thinking like a 10K marathon swimmer is what wins. I believe that is what it is going to take to beat Larisa.”

Easier said than done.

To equate “The Ilchenko” with a land-based move, sports fans are reminded of the incredible 10K run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics of Billy Mills which is considered one of the greatest individual efforts in Olympic history. Just as Mills barreled down the runway in the 10,000-meter run in Tokyo to the surprise of everyone, Larisa flies down the straightaway in her 5K and 10K swims…to the surprise of none.

Photos by Pei Qingsheng at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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