BALATONFURED, Hungary — In the last and most grueling of six open water events at the world championships, 49 men and women set out Friday to swim 25 kilometers (15 1/2 miles) in a lake.
Axel Reymond was the first of the 44 finishers. Swimming for more than five hours, the Frenchman beat Matteo Furlan of Italy by only six tenths of a second to win the men’s title.
“I asked myself all the time why my acceleration wasn’t working. And it was really hard because I couldn’t get rid of the others. There were there all the time, all the time,” Reymond told The Associated Press. “In the end, after the final turn, I said, ‘It’s now, now or never.’ And I really accelerated.”
Reymond gave France its fourth gold medal in seven open water races, and its fifth overall at the championships.
Defending champion Ana Marcela Cunha won the women’s race in 5 hours, 22 minutes for her third world title.
Five swimmers didn’t complete the course on Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Budapest. One entrant, 2009 winner Angela Maurer, didn’t start.
Do you need to be crazy to attempt such a race?
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Anna Olasz of Hungary, the 2015 silver medalist, told the AP. “I love swimming, so I may as well do it for 5½ hours.”
Olasz said she thought “75 percent” of the effort required to complete a 25K race is mental, and sometimes the brain doesn’t exactly play along.
“I’m singing, and trying to figure out who is swimming beside me. We know each other, so I know who I want to swim beside, who I don’t want to. Time just passes,” Olasz said.
A sparse crowd watched 28 men set off at 8:30 a.m. – among them the defending champion Simone Ruffini of Italy – followed by the women 15 minutes later.
Ruffini was bidding to become only the second man to win multiple world titles — Yuri Kudinov of Russia won four in a row from 2000-03 — but the Italian had to be content with fourth place, 6.7 seconds behind Reymond.
Ruffini said he was concentrated on the race throughout. No singing for him.
“During the race I switch off my mind, I think, ‘Swim! Swim very fast!’ I only think of swimming and conserving the best energy for the end of the race,” the Italian said.
Spectator numbers grew throughout the races – after all, there was no rush – and there was enthusiastic applause and cheering for the swimmers as they passed the tribune over 10 2.5K laps.
American swimmer Haley Anderson, who didn’t race the 25K this time, said open water is very different from being in the pool — not just because you’re swimming for hours, but also because you often wind up by yourself for long periods, especially in the 25K.
“Swimming is very much an on-your-own sport. You can’t hear anything. Your head is underwater. Then you’re swimming by yourself. You think about a lot. It’s a roller coaster. You’ve got to maintain your emotions,” Anderson said. “You normally have a bad song stuck in your head. It’s never the one you want stuck in your head.”
After two hours, all the male swimmers except one were still together in a pack as they stopped for a brief break at the feeding station, where they receive food and coaching.
The athletes grabbed whatever drinks and snacks their coaches held out for them on feeding sticks and they generally ate and drank while floating on their backs before continuing on again for another lap.
Some had the feeling it would never end.
“At 22K I was on the verge of giving up. My coach told me to give everything again and then luckily I could stay on the others’ tail, and then I managed the last lap with them,” said Soren Detlef Meissner of Germany, 11th in the men’s race.
Warm temperatures made it even more difficult for the swimmers. The water temperature was recorded at 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit). Some athletes poured cold water over their heads at the feeding stations when they had the chance.
“I think every swimmer is crazy,” Gergely Gyurta of Hungary said of the challenges in open water swimming, particularly in such a long event. “I want to improve myself, that’s why I train every day, training, training, training. I think, ‘OK Gergely, I can do this.’ And I did it.”
Gyurta was sixth in the men’s race.
Cunha had a relatively straightforward finish, beating Dutch swimmer Sharon van Rouwendaal by 2.4 seconds and Arianna Bridi of Italy by 9.8 to become the second woman to win three world golds. Edith van Dijk won four.
“When it starts, I think of nothing, but toward the end I knew I was the only one in the leading three that had swum the 25K course before,” Cunha said. “So I knew the pain that would arrive at the end. This experience made the difference.”