Jordan Wilimovsky celebrates winning the gold medal after competing in the Men's 1500m Freestyle Timed-Final at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships on Aug. 9, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan.
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Making Olympic dreams reality is often a long process, and that’s certainly true for swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky right now.
The 26-year-old qualified for his second Olympic team all the way back in mid-July of 2019 by virtue of a top-10 finish in the open water 10-kilometer swim at the FINA World Championships. By doing so, he became the first U.S. man to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic squad and joined teammates Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell, who qualified in the women's event two days earlier.
Even then, the first U.S. athletes to earn their spots in Tokyo were going to have a long wait to physically get there.
Of course, that was months before the world had even heard of COVID-19, much less entertained the thought that there wouldn’t be an Olympics in 2020. The bright side of having to wait more than two years between qualifying and competing, however, is that Wilimovsky will have more time to prepare than he ever thought possible.
“I feel very fortunate to have that qualifying done and to just be able to focus on the Olympics,” said Wilimovsky, who will try to become the first American man to medal in open water.
Open water swimming debuted at the Olympics in 2008, and the 10K is also known as the marathon. It’s a grueling test of endurance, with the best of the best clocking in just shy of two hours.
It also wasn’t Wilimovsky’s favorite event right off the bat.
“My first race? No, not at all,” Wilimovsky said of his first open water 10K in 2011. “It was super choppy, really tough conditions and obviously I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t swim well, I barely finished, crawled up on the beach and was like, ‘That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’”
Two days later, however, Wilimovsky raced in a 5K in open water, and it was a different story. The conditions were better, he at least had a little experience and this time he actually enjoyed himself.
“I was pretty stoked how the race went, and it was fun to do something different than being in the pool,” he said. “I got more and more into it and started doing more races.”
Wilimovsky started swimming when he was 9 years old after failing a swim test at summer camp. Growing up in Malibu, California, however, he was never far from the water. He played water polo and surfed and participated in a junior lifeguard program at the beach near his house as he also began to excel in the pool.
At 16, his swim coach suggested he try open water, and his first 10K — the one he didn’t enjoy — was at nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he said. In 2012 he made both the U.S. and world junior national open water teams before going on to swim at Northwestern University.
In 2015, he won a world title in the open water 10K, and then in 2016 he became the first U.S. swimmer to qualify for an Olympics both in open water and pool events. Wilimovsky just missed the medal stand in both, finishing fourth in the men’s 1,500-meter in the pool and fifth in the open water 10K.
Leaving the comfort and predictability of the pool to head into open water is something that requires adaptability.
“I think a lot of it’s mental,” Wilimovsky said. “A lot of things are outside your control. A lot of coaches stress worrying about the things you can control and forget about everything else because there’s so much stuff you have to deal with: the current, water temperature, other swimmers swimming all over you and things changing at the last second — like they might change the venue or the course might switch. You just have to stay calm and trust the preparation you’ve had and take one thing at a time.”
When lockdowns due to the spread of COVID-19 started across the nation, swimmers were among the athletes who were plain out of luck for a while. Pools were closed, and even the beaches were off limits in California, leaving Wilimovsky without the ability to train.
One way he found to get outside and stay active was rock climbing.
“I’ve been doing it about a year and a half now I guess and I’m pretty bad at it, but it’s a fun thing to do,” he said. “I was going to a local climbing gym with my brother and a buddy once a week messing around, but when quarantine shut everything down we started doing more bouldering outdoors and it’s been really fun. That was one of the few things you could do outdoors, and it was cool to explore new sports in L.A. I didn’t know existed. I’m still pretty terrible, but it’s fun to go.”
Wilimovsky said that one of the Olympic qualifying events in climbing was held at their gym prior to quarantine, and they went and watched the competition and saw the caliber of athletes who will be joining Team USA when climbing makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo next summer.
“There’s, like, four holds (on the wall) and you’re like, ‘What is going on?’” he said. “Somehow they get to the top. I have no idea how they do it.”
Wilimovsky is back into training and hoping to have an open water race at the end of October as well as perhaps a few races in the TYR Pro Swim Series. The men’s Olympic 10K is scheduled for Aug. 5, 2021, the last event on the swimming schedule.
“It’s crazy, a few weeks ago I was going to the pool thinking, ‘Man, this would have been the day I raced the 10K at the Olympics,’” he said. “Two days later I was doing a hard set and I was like, ‘Man, I would have just been hanging out at the beach right about now doing something else.’ But there’s a lot of opportunity in having it postponed a year, too. Another year to try to get better and improve isn’t the worst thing.”