Russia's Larisa Ilchenko wins 10-km swimming

Aug. 20, 2008, 3:20 a.m. (ET)

BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China (AP) Russia's Larisa Ilchenko sprinted to a gold medal in the final stages of the first Olympic women's 10-kilometer marathon swim race Wednesday, overcoming a battle of kicking and underwater grabbing that resembled roller derby in water.

The Russian finished four grueling laps in 1 hour, 59 minutes, 27.7 seconds in the warm, shallow water at Shunyi Rowing-Canoe Park.

The only calm thing about the race was the water.

Exploiting the smooth conditions, Ilchenko drafted behind the leading British duo, Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten, most of the race before sprinting to a gold medal in the final 50 meters. She reached up to slam the yellow touchpad 1.5 seconds ahead.

"It doesn't bother me in the least," she said of her tactics through an interpreter. "It is a competition after all and the best athlete wins. I actually worked as hard as anybody else."

Ilchenko's trademark strategy has helped her dominate open water swimming since 2004, winning five consecutive 5k world championships and three consecutive 10k races.

Payne, who got weeds stuck in her suit and on her face, took the silver in 1:59.40.7. Her British teammate, Patten, earned the bronze in 1:59.42.3 despite swimming into a large orange buoy.

"The last 1,000 meters seemed like another 10k. Every part of my body was aching," Patten said. "Your stomach is the size of a pea, because all the blood rushes to your arms, your body is saying, 'Stop' but your head is saying, 'Keep going.'"

There was a lot of crying, hugging and bitter words exchanged after the 25-women race.

Patten pointed angrily at fourth-place Angela Maurer of Germany, accusing her of dirty tactics.

"I had my legs pulled," Patten said. "I'm just annoyed because I didn't get to savor looking up and coming in third because of that negative. It's unsportsmanship. I would never pull on someone's legs so I would never assume someone would do it to me. But at the end of the day, I've got one of these (medals) and she hasn't, so that's enough."

Patten said Maurer claimed she didn't see the Brit.

"I don't want to say anymore because I don't want to start an inter-country war," Patten said.

While not admitting anything, Maurer said, "It was really crowded going around the corners, there was a lot of grabbing and pulling, but I have to say I was no angel either."

Natalie du Toit of South Africa, an amputee who removed her carbon-fiber prosthetic left leg before diving in, finished 16th - 1:22.2 behind Ilchenko's winning time. She lost her leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 2001.

"I don't even think about not having a leg, and if I want to keep competing I will have to continue to qualify with the able-bodied," she said. "Hopefully I'll be back for 2012 (London Olympics), where I'll be hoping for a top-five finish."

In one of the few kind gestures shown, Du Toit's effort was lauded by her rivals, with Ilchenko suggesting the South African be given a separate gold medal.

"I want to compliment her on being so strong and so brave," she said.

Payne and Patten swam side-by-side in the lead virtually the entire race in calm conditions that were opposite of last year's world championships in Australia. Ilchenko won there, overcoming white caps, biting jelly fish and strong winds.

Sutton competed in Melbourne, too, so she was familiar with the rough racing tactics.

"It was a pretty physical race. I tried to stay away from a lot of it," she said. "If I would've tried to get into a good draft position, I would've just gotten beat up. I was sprinting so long that when people started to speed up, I just started to slow down."

Ilchenko said she had her own run-ins with Brazilian teammates Ana Cunha and Poliana Pechanova (seventh).

"I had to clash on numerous occasions, especially with the swimmers from Brazil," she said. "I was trying to break away from the Brazilian girls, who were quite aggressive. This is swimming after all, not boxing."

Edith van Dijk of the Netherlands, a 36-year-old, two-time 10k open water world champion, finished 14th.

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