As hundreds of athletes prepare for the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, dozens of whom have a legitimate shot at making the 2016 Rio Olympic final in the marathon swim, Warkentin looks at when he was preparing for the race of his life.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What is it like facing a race that you have been training your entire life for?
Mark Warkentin: Swimming in “THE” race if your life is frightening if you know beforehand the severity of the consequence of that one race. For most of my career as a competitive swimmer, from age 10 until age 26, there was always a tomorrow, always another chance, always another race. In Seville at the 2008 FINA World Open Water Swimming Championships there was no tomorrow, no second chance, no race in the future to get ready for. That was a bizarre self-realization.
On the other hand, while it was certainly frightening, there was also a sense of peace on the morning of the race. After months breaking down every aspect of the race and a lifetime of training I had relief knowing that the end – whatever it would be – was near. I had accepted the various potential outcomes and was at peace that, at the very least, the stressful days would finally be over.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What was your favorite pre-race dinner?
Mark Warkentin: I don’t remember dinner the night before the race, but on the morning of a race I always ate a ton of Cheerios. Probably an entire family sized box. I would wake up early and just start eating bowl after bowl after bowl. Cheerios are bland and basic and a good base substance to have in your stomach during a race.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Did you have any particular rituals the day or night before or the morning of your race?
Mark Warkentin: The morning of big races I always tried to force myself to be extroverted and in communication with those around me to get over my nervousness. I would talk about nothing with anyone and try to have a pleasant conversation. One big mistake I made as a pool swimmer was that I got too self-focused before a race – I would listen to my music and turn the world off – and that actually made me really nervous. When I got into open water swimming I made a strategic decision that on the morning of a race- no matter how big of a race it was – I wouldn’t turn into a complete nervous wreck. So, I tried to tell jokes instead. I took pictures with my wife and family and tried to talk to as many friends (non-competitors) as possible. It worked really well.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: During the early part (first half) of the qualification race where you qualified for the 2008 Olympics, what were you thinking?
Mark Warkentin: In my mind, the 10 km marathon swim at 2008 FINA World Championships in Seville is the greatest open water race ever. The magnitude of the consequences, combined with the top flight star power and the tremendous depth of the field has not been matched before or since – in my mind – including at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. This is simply because the qualifications to get into the Olympic race are so challenging that even the top flight countries – those that have at least 2 to 3 legitimate open water swimmers – have typically only sent a single athlete to the Olympics. Therefore, at least in my mind, the Olympics is significantly less competitive than the World Championships.
No one knew what to expect from a field that deep, but the depth of the field wasn’t the scary part. There was an added level of suspense in the form of two wild cards in the race. David Davies and Grant Hackett were sub-15 minute 1500m swimmers entered in the race, but lacking in experience in international competitions. This was very scary for the rest of us because we didn’t know what to expect from them. Everyone knew how the pre-race favorites Vladamir Dyatchin and Thomas Lurz would swim their race – but none of us knew what to expect from Davies or Hackett strategy-wise.
So, what was I thinking during the first half of the race? “Don’t allow yourself to get more than three rows behind the leader. Fight for position in the fourth or fifth row of the pack, but under no circumstances fall behind the fifth row.” That’s how I swam the first 5K. I fought through every turn and maintained my position at all costs. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that claustrophobic in my life and I certainly endured some physical conflicts along the way, but my mind never wandered much from what was happening immediately at that exact moment. There wasn’t any time to lose focus. I couldn’t think about anything but what happening 2 inches from my face.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: During the latter half of the qualification race, what were you trying to do and thinking about?
Mark Warkentin: The latter half of the qualification race was spent mostly just trying to hold onto the person next to me and pull draft as much as possible. I knew that I needed all the help I could get (because I was tired) so I got really, really, really close to the guys around me and tried to swim just barely behind their shoulders to get maximum draft. I focused on my breathing, protected my face, and tried to keep my heart rate low. I remember that I didn’t do any sighting (looking forward) for the buoys up ahead during the 2nd half of the race. I just trusted that the guy in front of me was swimming straight. The only other thing I remember is pain. Lots and lots of pain. I wasn’t a very fast swimmer, but the lead pack was going as fast as I could possible handle. David Davies had taken us on a snake like course for most of the race at an incredibly fast pace and I was exhausted. To this day I still feel like the last 30 minutes of the 10K in Seville was about as much pain I could possible endure.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: During the last 400 meters of the race, what was going through your mind?
Mark Warkentin: Grant Hackett and I turned around the final turn buoy at the same time and we were somewhere between 6th and 10th place at the time. For whatever the reason, Hackett tried to swim over me to get to my other side. I remember being totally disoriented and shockingly tired so I didn’t think much of it at the time. I later found out that Hackett got a red card for that move. I remember the adrenaline and pain mixed together.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: As you hit the finish line in Sevilla, Spain, what was your first few thoughts?
Mark Warkentin: My first few thoughts at the finish line were fear and confusion. I knew I wasn’t in the top 5 and I knew that 10 guys had touched at about the same time I had touched. There was a solid 10 minutes where I wasn’t sure if I had made the Olympics or not. It wasn’t until [coach] Paul Asmuth said, “It looks good for you” that I started to feel like the dream might become a reality.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: When you finally heard that you made the Olympics, what did you do?
Mark Warkentin: I cried. That was a really emotional moment.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Once you qualified for the Olympics, did your training or mindset change?
Mark Warkentin: Unfortunately I think my mindset did change a bit when I made the Olympics. I was desperate to make the Olympics. Totally obsessed. But I don’t think I was desperate to win a medal. I trained appropriately between Seville and Beijing, and I had some of the best training sets of my entire life. I got to do some great sets with Michael Phelps, Peter Vanderkaay, Ryan Lochte, Erik Vendt, Klete Keller and Larsen Jensen, but I don’t think I readjusted my brain properly. I had never been a top 3 guy at international competitions – I always finished between 6th and 8th – so in my mind jumping over 3 to 5 top tier guys and getting on the podium wasn’t something that I thought was possible. I still regret that because the gold medalist Maarten van der Weijden was a good friend and we usually finished fairly close to each other at big races. Maarten wasn’t expected to win in Beijing, but after talking with him in the aftermath of the race it was clear that he thought he had a good chance.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you take us through the Olympic race in detail?
Mark Warkentin: The story of the day starts about 5 minutes before the announcer said “Take your mark…”
Unfortunately, athlete family members and other 10K swimming fans were relegated to seating areas far from the start location and so the 25 athletes stood on the waters edge waiting to get introduced to the members of the media. The excitement of being announced to an Olympic crowd was thus diminished greatly but we were all preoccupied with the task at hand. That task was not the upcoming race, but rather the need to relive ourselves of a full morning of hydration.
Prior to the introductions the athletes had been sequestered in a ready room, then herded to the starting location, and then told to stand at attention in front of the cameras in the media section. The whole process took about 20 minutes and by the time the athletes were finally introduced the only thing we really wanted to do was find the restroom, which of course was not an option. Thus, there was quite a bit of eagerness to get into the water as quickly as possible. At the beginning of the historic race, levity triumphed over tension at the starting dock.
Nothing of significance happened in the first lap of the race and all I really remember was trying to establish a good drafting position, which I believe I did. The race was physical from the start with a lot of jostling for position within the pack for the entire first lap. At the start of the second lap I was the unfortunate recipient of an elbow to my shoulder blade that, now 2 days later, still hurts. I don’t know who it was that got me, but I must have made an aggressive retaliation move because I was given a Yellow Card a few moments later. The race official blew his whistle at me, held up a yellow flag and produced a board with #18, my number, written on it. I was a bit confused about what I had done to get a Yellow Card, but there really isn’t any time to get an explanation from the official. The only thing you can really do is adjust your race strategy accordingly, knowing that a second infraction will result in a disqualification from the race.
At first I didn’t think that the Yellow Card would really affect my race strategy. Every 10K swimmer believes that he swims a docile race, but the reality is that there are times when the situation demands that you get a bit physical. A Yellow Card makes the athlete more apprehensive at the critical moments, and there was one critical moment where I had to back down when I normally would have stood firm.
Going into a turn on the third lap the Russian and I were battling for position. 25 meters until the turn buoy we were side by side. I had an inside position – technically the better position – but the Russian was making it clear that he was going to try and angle me inside the course. His goal was to try and slam me into the buoy instead of going around it cleanly. I knew what he was trying to do and, under normal circumstances without a Yellow Card, I would have held my position. However, holding position would have required a lot of physical contact, and I didn’t want to draw the attention of the race officials. So, I backed down, lost my position, and had to try and scramble to get back into the thick of the pack.
Up until I got cut off at the buoy on the third lap I was in the hunt, or so I thought. The upside of my position was that I was drafting really well, but the big downside of my position was that I was taking a physical beating. In retrospect I should have abandoned the desire to draft in favor of getting clean water, but I didn’t know this at the time.
At the start of the fourth lap the pace picked up tremendously, and this is when I knew that I was in trouble. My heart rate shot up, my technique started to flag, and my mind lost a bit of coherency. This isn’t abnormal to 10K races, in fact it happens every time, but in good races I can usually keep my composure at least until the 9,000 meter mark. I fought like crazy from the 7,500 to the 9,500 to stay in the race but I kept getting tangled with Maarten, the Dutchman and the eventual winner, the Vladimir, the Russian world champion, and a whole bunch of other swimmers.
At around the 9,200 I saw the red flag go up right next to me and for a split second I was worried that I was going to be kicked out of the race. It turned out that the race officials gave a Red Card to Vladimir for his physical contact on me but I wasn’t carded for similar contact. I don’t know why he was carded and I wasn’t, but I do know that the physical contact took it’s toll on me because with 800 meters to go – when I needed to make a surge to the front – I didn’t have the energy.
I scrapped my way through the last very painful 800 meters, and the closer I got the more it became apparent that I wasn’t going to win a medal. I won a small battle by out-touching a few of the other competitors at the finish line, but my 8th place finish was about 20 seconds behind the winner. I put my hand on the touchpad 1 hour 52 minutes and 13 seconds after the start of the race.
The winner of the race, Maarten from the Netherlands, is a great guy. Maarten, on the other hand, is without a doubt the most popular guy in the sport. He’s funny, very well-spoken, and he has a great story before he became the Olympic champion.
Here’s a good story. In May, Maarten and I raced to a photo finish in the 25K in Seville. He beat me by 4 tenths of a second in a 5-hour race. At the 20,000 meter mark of the race Maarten and I happened to be next to each other and breathing towards each other. We made eye contact through our goggles and Maarten smiled at me. It was a really funny gesture considering the circumstance of our location.
Now, fast forward to the race here in Beijing. Just before the pace picked up at the 7,500 meter mark I happened to be next to Maarten when the guy did the same thing. It was only a split second of a grin this time, but it was noticeable, and it made me shake my head and laugh a little. That moment, just before the pain really increased, was one of the highlights of the race.
Looking back on it now I feel good about my race experience. No I didn’t win a medal, but I was in the race the entire time and I gave it my best effort. To wrap up the race analysis I thought I’d share the Olympic Creed: The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as in life the most important thing is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.
2008 Beijing Olympic Games Men’s Results
Gold: Maarten van der Weijden (Netherlands) 1:51:51.6
Silver: David Davies (Great Britain) 1:51:53.1
Bronze: Thomas Lurz (Germany) 1:51:53.6
4. Valerio Cleri (Italy) 1:52:07.5
5. Evgeny Drattsev (Russia) 1:52:08.9
6. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) 1:52:09.1
7. Brian Ryckeman (Belgium) 1:52:10.7
8. Mark Warkentin (United States) 1:52:13.0
9. Chad Ho (South Africa) 1:52:13.1
10. Erwin Leon Maldonado Savera (Venezuela) 1:52:13.6
11. Ky Hurst (Australia) 1:52:13.7
12. Igor Chervynskiy (Ukraine) 1:52:14.7
13. Francisco Jose Hervas (Spain) 1:52:16.0
14. Allan do Carmo (Brazil) 1:52:16.6
15. Gilles Rondy (France) 1:52:16.7
16. Spyridon Gianniotis (Greece) 1:52:20.4
17. Rostislav Vitek (Czech Republic) 1:52:41.8
18. Luis Escobar (Mexico) 1:53:47.9
19. Saleh Mohammad (Syria) 1:54:37.7
20. Mohamed Elzanaty (Egypt) 1:55:17.0
21. Damian Blaum (Argentina) 1:55:48.6
22. Arseniy Lavrentyev (Portugal) 2:03:39.6
23. Xin Tong (China 2:09:13.4
Csaba Gercsak (Hungary) DNF
Vladimir Dyatchin (Russia) DSQ
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