LONDON—Look out for the ducks. Forget about the fish nipping at your suit. And definitely don’t fret about exactly what’s in that murky water the locals derisively refer to as “The Turpentine.”
Welcome to Olympic open water swimming—London-style.
The rough-and-tumble sport might look a bit of out place in the serenity of Hyde Park, the sprawling urban oasis located smack dab in the center of London. This is, after all, a pursuit for those who are used to competing amid towering waves and nasty storms, who are willing to contend with everything from sharks in Hawaii to jellyfish in Australia—not to mention the occasional elbow from a rival swimmer.
“This is like pool swimming,” said Germany’s Thomas Lurz, a five-time world champion and 2008 bronze medalist, looking out at the water before a workout Wednesday. “I like it when it’s choppy.”
That certainly won’t be an issue at The Serpentine, an idyllic, 28-acre lake that snakes through the park, populated by plenty of ducks and pike that are jokingly known as “British piranhas.”
“I normally do a lot of fishing in fresh water, so this is not a problem,” Lurz said. “I know all the types of fishes.”
The ducks shouldn’t be an issue, either. A Croatian coach was feeding one at the water’s edge Wednesday, but the fowl are a bit disconcerting to US swimmer Haley Anderson when a bunch of them get together.
“I swam through a group of ducks,” she said. “I got really scared because I didn’t know if they would attack me or not. Fortunately, they didn’t.”
While Londoners are known to flock to the Serpentine for a refreshing dip on those rare warm days in the British capital, the water in the narrow, twisting lake really isn’t all that attractive up close, despite efforts to clean it up for the Olympics. Algae sprouts from the edges. Foam sprinkled with tiny bits of rubbish collects around the temporary dock that will serve as the starting and finishing line.
“It’s still a little brown and tastes funny,” Anderson said. “Hopefully I won’t taste too much of it.”
Her teammate, Alex Meyer, wanted to take a cup-full back to the athletes village, just to show others what he’s competing in. Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli, who will become the first swimmer to take part in both pool and open water events at the same games, wouldn’t dare dive in this lake without a medal on the line.
“Not unless I absolutely have to,” he said, breaking into a smile, “and that is the case here.”
Of course, these are minor inconveniences compared to the conditions faced during, say, the 2007 world championships in Melbourne. Huge swaths of jellyfish terrorized the swimmers, doling out so many stings that some competitors left the water in tears, their suits pockmarked with rips and tears. One race Down Under actually had to be halted because the waves got so high that no one was exactly sure where they were going, forcing rescue crews to pull off an intricate operation just to get everyone out of the water.
Safety has become a major concern in open water since the 2010 death of American Fran Crippen, who suffered a seizure and drowned while racing on a sweltering day in the Middle East. Even more shocking was the fact no one noticed Crippen was missing for two hours, leading to safety improvements that were very much evident on the eve of the women’s 10-kilometer race Thursday.
Dozens of lifeguards paddled around the lake in kayaks, keeping an eye on everyone.
“It changed after Fran died,” Lurz said. “You see more and more safety. There are more security boats and lifeguards. Sometimes there are scuba divers on the turning buoys to see if something is wrong.”
Crippen’s memory will be weighing on the minds of all the swimmers, but especially the American team. Meyer was one of his best friends. He was there on the day he died, pleading with officials to launch a search when his buddy didn’t turn up at the end of the race.
“I felt like the best way I could honor him was by achieving the goal we both shared,” said Meyer, who will swim in the men’s marathon on Friday.
Lurz will be thinking of Crippen, as well.
“I’m sure that he would have taken part in the Olympics if he was still alive,” the German said. “I think it’s important to remember him at this moment, because for sure it was his goal to swim here and win a medal. He was a very, very good swimmer.”
But this is largely a time to celebrate open water’s second appearance in the Olympics. The women’s race, especially, will likely turn into the raucous party, as boisterous and loud as some of the famous concerts that have been held on Hyde Park’s 625 acres. Britain’s Keri-Anne Payne is the defending world champion and looking to add to her country’s expanding medal haul with the games winding down.
On the men’s side, Mellouli hopes the bronze he won at the pool in 1,500-meter freestyle was just a warmup for only the third open water race of his career.
“This has never been done before,” he said. “I’m very excited to do it.”
More excited than he is about actually racing in The Serpentine.
“The water looks pretty murky,” Mellouli said. “It’s not very inviting.”