RIO DE JANEIRO — Jordan Wilimovsky came to Rio as a reigning world champion in men’s open water swimming.
He’s leaving as a top-five finisher in the Olympic Games — actually, a two-time top-five finisher.
In a seven-man sprint for the finish after 10 kilometers of ocean swimming off Rio’s Copacabana Beach, Wilimovsky — the 2015 world champion in the 10-kilometer race — finished just one second off the Olympic podium in fifth.
It is the best-ever finish by an American man at the Olympic Games in open water swimming, which was introduced to the Olympic program in 2008.
European champion Ferry Weertman from the Netherlands won the gold medal in a photo finish with Greece’s Spiros Gianniotis, a two-time world champion who ended up with silver. Both men finished in 1:52:59.8. Marc-Antoine Olivier from France claimed bronze in 1:53:02.0.
Wilimovsky hit the touch pad 1.2 seconds behind Olivier.
“It was a tough race,” he said after the race, still not aware of where he had finished. “I tried to build into it a little bit. I got pushed around at the end.”
The race was so aggressive that Great Britain’s Jack Burnell, who led for part of the final 500 meters, was disqualified for impeding other swimmers.
Also competing for Team USA, Sean Ryan finished 14th.
It was Wilimovsky’s second top-five finish of the Rio Games. On Saturday night, he came in fourth in the 1,500-meter freestyle in the pool, 4.17 seconds off the podium. He is the first U.S. swimmer to compete in both the pool and open water at the Olympic Games.
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He admitted that it was a tough turnaround to swim over six miles less than three days after swimming a mile in the pool — twice (prelims and the final).
“You never feel great the day after the 1,500, but I’m very fortunate to be part of Team USA, and they have great staff here for us. I can’t really complain; I have the best resources available.”
The men’s open water swim was tough from the start. Australia’s Jarrod Poort, whose best result before Rio was a world cup win in 2014, broke from the pack almost immediately, and the shoal of swimmers looked like it was racing for second place. With their heads down, neither Wilimovsky nor Ryan knew the Australian was out front.
But during the third lap, the pack started gaining, and Wilimovsky moved toward the front of the pack. At the 7.5K mark, the 22-year-old American — one of the youngest in the field — was in third. By the final 1,000 meters, seven men were off the front, almost sprinting each other for the finish.
“Unfortunately, I was kind of stuck in the middle,” said Wilimovsky. “I didn’t really get to see anybody. I didn’t really know where anyone was. I just saw splashing.”
It was two solid finishes for the young swimmer in his Olympic debut. Wilimovsky is considered a late-bloomer because he did not become a competitive swimmer until age 9. Raised in Malibu, California, he wanted to join his friends at a junior lifeguard camp but failed to swim the 100-yard freestyle under the required one minute, 50 seconds. So he signed up for the swim team.
“I did know how to swim,” he said, “just not fast at all.”
He then tried open water swimming at age 16. His coach thought that the young distance swimmer would like it.
His first race was at the 2011 USA Swimming Open Water National Championships. In big swells off the coast of Fort Meyers, Florida, Wilimovsky — then 17 — finished almost 15 minutes behind winner Alex Meyer.
Through hard work, he improved quickly. A year later, he finished second in the 7.5K race at junior world championships.
After winning the 10K world title last year, Wilimovsky red-shirted at Northwestern University to train for the Olympic Games. After Rio, he will return to Northwestern for his senior year.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.