In the marathon event of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes will bunch tightly together, refuel at various points, make a break for the finish line...and then climb onto dry land and take off their goggles. Marathon swimming—the term for a 10-kilometer, open-water race—is making its Olympic debut, and supporters hope it can grab as much attention as that other kind of marathon.
You don't have to be an Olympian to get a boost from long-distance swimming. The rising sport—described as a combination of swimming, water polo, and cycling for its elements of strategy and physical contact—is quite different from a far-shorter pool race, and that novelty appeals to competitive and recreational swimmers alike. Carrington Cole, a 36-year-old New Yorker, swam competitively in college but says her pool racing days are over. "I don't want to compete in the same arena," she says. A few years ago, after a friend told her about local open-water swims, she signed up for a 1-mile race in the Hudson River—and got hooked. Since then, she's worked her way up to a nearly 6-mile race. She's competitive in her age group but says that's not the point. "It's a complete source of pleasure and relaxation," she says. "It's an amazing, surreal experience to be swimming in the river and to do it as part of a group. You can completely relax and let your head go." (You can find information at USOpenWaterSwimming.org.)
For other converted pool swimmers, open-water swimming can give a second wind to a flagging career. That's what happened to Mark Warkentin, a 28-year-old native of Santa Barbara, Calif., who in college swam faster than most people can ever hope to. But he was still seconds away from world-class status and grew slower and more burned out with each passing year.
Path to Beijing. About a year ago, his coach suggested he try a local open-water race. He won. Re-energized, he trained hard and this fall won the USA Swimming Open Water World Championships Trials. That got him a ticket to the World Champs in Seville, Spain, in the spring. The top 10 finishers from that race will be among those sent to Beijing. His coach, John Dussliere, says the Americans have a good chance of making it to the Olympics, even though Europeans have dominated the sport. "We're coming into our own," he says. "They count on us to make a lot of rookie mistakes, and we aren't making those anymore. The United States, the Australians, and other countries that have been counted out in the past have been coming on strong."
In Beijing, swimmers will compete in still, fresh water, and organizers hope the less-than-two-hour race will play well on TV. It certainly might: Spectators don't just watch people swim in a straight line; because of strategy, swimmers often form a pack, and there's some elbow throwing.
Marathon swimming isn't the only new Olympic sport that may inspire amateur copycats. Other 2008 additions will include team table tennis, BMX, and women's steeplechase.