66 men from 38 countries stood at the starting line of the 10 km world championship race under the warm 28ºC (82ºF) Spanish sun. Amid an enthusiastic crowd lining the shores and enjoying a stunning summer day in Barcelona, this race was different than the norm for the highest echelon of men.
For starters, they looked nervous and proved it with one of the few false starts in recent history.
But once they were in the water, they apparently took a page from the women’s book of tactics and strategy. A la Keri-Anne Payne, Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia took an early control of the swim while leading the huge group around the red turn buoys. Like the top women, the dominant man in the open water swimming world challenged the rest of the field to stay with him. The scrum behind Saturday’s 5 km world champion dealt the situation as best they could, especially in the midst of the obvious physicality of a huge scrum.
Like a giant school of fish, the entire pack was 25 meters within one another as they continued around the first loop. Sloshed left and right, the early physicality and warm conditions were bound to have an effect on the race during the second half. But Mellouli, Sean Ryan of the USA remained in the early lead and enjoyed cleaner waters than those who remained in their wake.
Like their female counterparts, the pack generated whistles and yellow cards from the referee while competitors like Brian Ryckeman of Belgium found themselves in unavoidable situations and were called early for impeding. As the race progressed in the first half, Mellouli and Ryan, both well-known for leading the pack early, settled down the pace a bit and allowed men like 19-year-old Axel Reymond at his first world championships to take over the lead at a 5 km per hour pace while others like Chad Ho of South Africa positioned themselves towards the front.
Banging and slamming into one another, the referees did their best to keep the physicality to a minimum, but the aggression and intensity were a far greater catalyst of action than whistles by officials. By the first loop with Mellouli, Jack Burnell of Great Britain, and Sean Ryan willing themselves into the lead, Lijun Zu of China was red carded (disqualified) while the rest of the tightly-bunched pack continued to scramble in and around the turn buoys and feeding stations.
As the men cruised and churned up their own turbulence on a flat-water day under cloudless skies, Mellouli kept trying to push the pace and made continuous surges building into larger leads during the second loop. But the chase group, led by Canada’s Richard Weinberger were not about to let Mellouli get too far of a lead. Like a cycling peloton, they lured Mellouli back into their fold. Gradually as the halfway point was reached, Weinberger’s Canadian teammate Eric Hedlin, who nearly upset Mellouli in the 5 km on Saturday, joined his Tunisian nemesis, Australia’s Rhys Mainstone-Hodson, and Britain’s Burnell in the front together with the always savvy Thomas Lurz of Germany.
The second half of the race soon to follow as the Aussie Mainstone-Hodson forges into the lead just as halfway with Mellouli and a whole lotta aggressive men following behind.
Real-time race reports courtesy of Theodore Yach. Race results, summary, and conclusion are here.
Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association