RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In the sewage-filled waters off one of the world’s most famous beaches, Sharon van Rouwendaal claimed gold for the Netherlands in the Olympic women’s open water race Monday at Copacabana.
Van Rouwendaal began to pull away on the third of four laps, and it wasn’t even close by the end of the 10-kilometer race. She reached up and touched the timing board before her closest challenger had even entered the finish chute. The winning margin was a staggering 17.4 seconds, far more than the 0.4 difference four years ago and the 1.4 spread at the inaugural open water competition in 2008.
“I felt so good,” Van Rouwendaal said. “I swam so easy. I felt no fatigue. After 6k, I changed my mind and thought I should push on.”
The bigger drama came behind the winner. Aurelie Muller of France touched next, but then it was announced she had been disqualified for an incident at the finish of the rough-and-tumble sport. That moved Italy’s Rachele Bruni up to silver, while Poliana Okimoto went from just off the podium to bronze — the first swimming medal ever won by a Brazilian woman, either in the pool or open water.
Okimoto’s medal eased some of the sting from a disappointing performance by the pool swimmers, who failed to win a medal in Rio.
Van Rouwendaal didn’t look like much of a medal contender as she battled an ailing right shoulder for eight months. Finally, about six weeks before Rio, she was able to get treatment in Spain that relieved the pain.
Now, she’s a gold medalist.
Defending Olympic champion Eva Risztov of Hungary wasn’t a contender this time. She finished 13th, more than a minute behind the winner. American Haley Anderson, the silver medalist four years ago, was more than 48 seconds off the pace in fifth.
With music blaring, scantily-clad beachcombers frolicked in the ocean waters on a sunny winter day, though officials on jet skis kept anyone from swimming out close to the course. In many ways, it was just another day at the beach for sun-worshipping Brazilians — with an Olympic event thrown into the mix. The temperature was expected to climb into the low 90s.
The start of the race didn’t comply with FINA rules, which require the swimmers to jump off a fixed platform. The Rio structure was destroyed by high waves last weekend, so the swimmers — in a scene that resembled the set of a war movie — waded off in the water, cheered on hundreds of Brazilian fans.
About 250 yards off shore, they all bunched up together to get the signal to begin four laps around the bay. Fort Copacabana was at one end of the course, while Sugarloaf loomed over the far end of the 2.5-kilometer circuit. A Brazilian warship lurked close by, ensuring there were no security issues.
While the hotel-lined beach provided a glorious backdrop, the race was held in waters that an Associated Press study found could be dangerous to one’s health because of raw sewage that is dumped into the city’s waters. Brazilian officials had vowed to clean up the waters after winning South America’s first Olympics, but those promises were never carried out.
The quality of the water was a major embarrassment leading up to the games, also affecting venues for rowing, canoeing, sailing and triathlon.
The swimmers said there were no problems with the water.
“It tastes like ocean,” said Anderson, who took antibiotics and probiotics for extra protection. “My tongue is like salty right now.”
This was only the second Olympic competition held in open ocean waters. At the first Summer Games in 1896, before custom-built pools were the norm, swimming was held in the Bay of Zea.
The inaugural open water event in 2008 was staged at Beijing’s rowing and canoeing canal. Four years ago, the open water in London took place in the Serpentine lake at Hyde Park.
The men’s 10K race will be held Tuesday on the same course at Copacabana.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .