LONDON – One thing became clear in the murky waters of the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park on Friday.
The gap between racing in a swimming pool and open water is vanishing.
In the second-ever men’s Olympic open-water 10km this afternoon in central London, Ous Mellouli gave Tunisia a gold medal by covering the six-lap course in one hour, 49 minutes, 55.1 seconds – just six days after the USC alumnus claimed bronze in the pool at 1500 meters. Mellouli had also won gold at the 2008 Games in the 1500.
Competing without lanes and in a bodysuit, the versatile Mellouli beat choppy-water specialists like 2008 Olympic open-water bronze medalist Thomas Lurz of Germany (who took silver, 3.4 seconds later). He beat 2011 open-water world champion Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece (who placed fourth). And he beat Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria, who, in 2007, swam the English Channel in the fastest verified time of 6 hours, 57 minutes, 50 seconds. (Stoychev placed ninth).
The lone American, Alex Meyer, finished tenth in 1:50:48.2, and while he trained for this event at Walden Pond, in Massachusetts, Meyer hasn’t completely said goodbye to chlorine.
“A lot of people see open water and the pool as two different camps; they’re not,” Meyer said. “A lot of people were surprised that I swam a mile [1500m] at Trials. I still have goals in the pool. I’d still like to be able to make the national team in the mile.
“A lot of people have transcended the gap that doesn’t really exist: Haley [Anderson, who had earned Olympic silver in the women’s 10km open water swim one day earlier], Chloe [Sutton, who placed 22nd at the inaugural Olympic open water race at the 2008 Beijing Games], Fran [Crippen]…”
Crippen was a two-time national champion in the 800m free who went on to capture the bronze medal at the 2009 open water world championships in 10km. In October 2010, Crippen died at age 26 while competing a 10km race in the United Arab Emirates where the water temperature was unusually warm.
Crippen had been Meyer’s roommate, mentor, and buddy, and Meyer’s late friend wasn’t far from his mind on Friday.
Most of what he was feeling, however, the Harvard graduate kept to himself.
Wish he was here? “Pretty much,” he said.
As for his Olympic debut, Meyer said, “I felt pretty good through the first 5K. I just didn’t have the little extra bit of magic to bring it home for the USA. I’m disappointed in the result, but I’m lucky and happy to be on this team.”
Meyer finished the first lap in 18 minutes, 10.8 seconds and was fourth. On the second lap, he moved up to third, although that lap was nearly a minute slower. Meyer swam even splits on laps three and four, but by then, Mellouli closed in and overtook Germany’s Andreas Waschburger at the front of the field, and ripped out the last two laps in 17:45.4 and 17:46.7 for the win. Meyer lost more and more contact with the leaders and was 53.1 seconds behind in the end.
As he emerged from the water, Meyer’s first thought was, “I wonder who won.”
“Not really,” he said, rubbing his left arm near a temporary tattoo of his race number, 20.
Asked what he might have done differently, Meyer said, “At one eating station, on the fourth lap, I got pummeled and lost probably 10 seconds right there. I probably could have done a better job keeping away.”
While he said he would analyze a replay of the race in the near future, he wasn’t so sure about coming back for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics – either in the pool or open water.
“I don’t know,” he said candidly. “I’m not the kind of guy who plans his life four years ahead.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.