After the success of Beijing

Half the medals on offer at the first ever Olympic 10km marathon swimming race in Beijing went to swimmers from the United Kingdom: David Davies took silver among men, while Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten took silver and bronze in the women’s race, respectively. This medal haul confirmed Great Britain as an open water powerhouse nation and left these three athletes extra-hungry to reach the highest podium again – this time for gold.

Next time victory would be particularly sweet. When the Olympics are staged in London in 2012, these swimmers have a chance to win in front of family and friends and become heroes at home with the support of the entire nation behind them. Davies, Payne and Patten recently spoke with “FINA aquatics World” about the significance of their Beijing glory, their competitive goals leading to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and how to excel in the rapidly expanding sport of open water.

David Davies – little experience, lots of success

After leading for most of the race, Davies finished in Beijing behind Maarten van der Weijden (NED) and ahead of Thomas Lurz (GER). It was only his third 10km race ever; incredible considering that on those three occasions he managed to pick-up not only his Olympic medal, but a silver medal at the 2008 World Open Water Swimming Championships in Seville (Spain).

Before his venture into marathon swimming, Davies was an established threat in the distance events of the pool, having won bronze at age 19 in the 1500m at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He raced the 1500m again at the Water Cube in Beijing, but managed just sixth. Although very upset by this finish, he has retained his pool aspirations at least until 2010, when he hopes to defend his 1500m title from the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Also to his credit since 2002, when he started competing at a senior international level, are dozens of medals from swimming World Championships (both long and short-course), European and European Junior Championships, Youth Olympic Days and National Championships.

“Winning in Beijing means everything I have done for the last 16 years (hard training, sacrifices not only by myself but my parents) have paid off.” – Keri-Anne Payne

Of his 2008 Olympic medal, Davies explains: “It is harder to come back and get a second medal after having success four years earlier and I think the silver medal this year is a good sign that I can continue to keep my motivation and dedication for the four-year cycle.” He is clear about his intentions for the London Games: “I hope to go one better in 2012. Switching to open water has given me more to think about and a different focus, which has given me more motivation for 2012.” Reflecting on the race itself, Davies admits that the silver medal wasn’t expected: “I was surprised because I was so new to the event. A year before Beijing I wasn’t even sure I wanted to swim the race and it was at the last turning buoy that I thought I had a chance of getting a medal. I felt I was in a good position and just kept going.”

Davies feels he needs more open water experience, which he intends to gather in the coming year. He must work out his “navigational issues” so he will be even stronger in London. “I always knew I would be a novice in tactics,” he said following the race in Beijing, in which Van der Weijden stole the lead in the last hundreds of metres. He has employed just one tactic in all his races so far: start fast to get a clean position outside the pack, where things get rough. In fact, he has also indicated a need to improve how he handles the aggressiveness of the sport.

His focus for 2009 is the FINA World Championships in Rome, where he hopes to compete in both pool and open water. Then in 2010, he’ll concentrate on the Commonwealths, a chance for him to have “a really proud moment”, as he can “compete for Wales [his hometown is Cardiff] and this is my only opportunity to represent the country.” Beyond that Davies will be waiting for the 2012 Games: “The fact that the next Olympics are in London is a massive motivational factor for me. It is a unique opportunity and probably the only reason I stayed in the sport after Beijing.”

Keri-Anne Payne – a pleasant surprise

Keri-Anne Payne
Keri-Anne Payne

Alongside her friend and training partner Patten, Payne (21 years old) won her medal in Beijing by maintaining a relentless lead for almost the entire race. This was not planned, nor did the two Britons plan to swim together. Payne fought for the win, even at the end when the winner Larisa Ilchenko (RUS) adopted her customary strategy and overtook the leaders with a victorious sprint to the end. In the last few metres, Payne went stroke-for-stroke with Ilchenko but couldn’t keep up until the finish. Her silver came as a surprise in open water circles, considering her previous finishes at FINA World Championships: she was 11th in Melbourne in 2007 and 8th in Seville at the Open Water Worlds.

But Payne has been competing in senior international pool competitions since 2004, when she won gold in the 400m freestyle at the European Championships (25m). Before that, she was medalling in distance freestyle at the European Junior Championships and various World Cups. She also has ten medals from various national championships and Olympic trials. Two years ago she began swimming medley events, and in Beijing she made it to the semis for the 200m and 400m.

On a personal level, says Payne, winning in Beijing “means everything I have done for the last 16 years (hard training, sacrifices not only by myself but my parents) have paid off. My dream has come true; I won the second highest medal at the highest competition in the whole world. Professionally,” she adds, “it means my name is finally on the ranking sheets.” Like Davies, Payne admits she didn’t assume she’d get the silver: “I did surprise myself in Beijing to get a medal; I went into the race in 8th from the World Championships (Seville) and was hoping I would better that. I realised I was going to get a medal at around 8.5km and after the last buoy I just put my head down and went for it.”

Looking ahead, Payne says she has identified tactical changes she and her coach believe will benefit her open water performance as she pursues a spot on the British team for the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, where she also wants to compete in the pool. In 2010, like Davies, she will turn her attention to the next Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India in hopes of making the team for the 400m and 200m medley events. Then, of course she will concentrate on the impending Olympics. Already, Payne says she “can’t wait for 2012 to come round; four years is a long way away and anything can happen, but I am more focused than ever on getting my spot on the next Team GB squad.”

Cassandra Patten – No fear

The bronze medal win of Patten was more predictable, as she had already proven herself several times over on the world stage of open water competition. Before Beijing, she had won the 10km gold at the 2007 British Open Water Swimming Championships, silver at the 2008 World Open Water Championships and silver at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, as well as earning multiple medals on the LEN Open Water World Cup circuit of 2007.

Meanwhile she fostered a successful pool career, winning medals at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 long course British Championships and the 2008 ASA National Championships in events such as the 400m and 800m freestyle, the 400m medley, and the 200m butterfly, which is actually her favourite event. In Beijing, Patten also reached the final of the 800m freestyle, placing eighth. Her bronze-medal finish in the 10km was very close – she finished just 0.9 seconds ahead of legendary German swimmer Angela Maurer.

“A lot of people didn’t have a clue what open water was before Beijing, and I think the way Keri and I went out hard early on to get the lead really showed the fighting British spirit and captured people’s imaginations.” – Cassandra Patten

Patten reflects on her feats in Beijing with pride, calling the experience something she “can tell her grandchildren about”. Contrary to her silver-medal winning compatriots, she was not as surprised to earn a podium spot. “It would be arrogant of me to say that I definitely thought I was going to win, but I always believed in myself and my abilities. I wasn’t afraid of anything going into the race.” Patten said she had no strategy, which is not abnormal for her: “It may sound ridiculous, but I never go into a race with a plan. I just have no fear.” In Beijing, like she did in Seville, Patten led for most of race before struggling through the final metres to stay in the top-three.

When asked her thoughts about the rapidly elevating level of competition within open water since it became an Olympic sport, Patten says: “Actually, I only started swimming open water after it had already gotten very competitive. I don’t like when people imply that open water is somehow secondary to pool swimming. For example, when Grant Hackett, probably the best distance pool swimmer ever, tried open water it wasn’t a success. It [open water] takes a lot of hard work, specialised training and skill development.” Patten notes that all three British swimmers who won open water medals have very strong pool backgrounds, and more pool swimmers are making the transition (which elevates the competition level), but it is not necessarily an easy one.

Looking forward to London 2012, Patten is definitely excited: “Beijing was amazing, but next time it [the race] could be almost at my doorstep. My friends and family will be able to watch and support me in person rather than watching on the TV at 3am.” Moreover, Patten feels the victories of herself, Payne and Davies have significantly boosted the sport in Great Britain: “I think a lot of people didn’t have a clue what open water was before Beijing, and I think the way Keri and I went out hard early on to get the lead really showed the fighting British spirit and captured people’s imaginations. Her goal for the next Olympics is clear: “I’m hungry to go for gold next time.”