Open water swimming is a contact sport, as proven by the rugged women’s 10K race held off Copacabana beach on Monday at the Rio Olympics.
The main danger to swimmers wasn’t contaminated water or big waves but the kicking, elbowing, grabbing and gouging that turned calm seas turbulent.
Second-place finisher Aurelie Muller of France was disqualified for dunking Italy’s Rachele Bruni underwater as they reached for the timing pad at the finish line. Swimmers try to get away with such sabotage on the 6.2-mile course but Muller did it right in front of the judges, who ruled she interfered with Bruni’s finishing touch.
Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands won the gold medal in 1:56.32, Bruni took silver 17 seconds later and Poliana Okimoto was elevated to bronze to take Brazil’s first-ever women’s swimming medal.
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“God is Brazilian,” Okimoto said.
Haley Anderson of the U.S., silver medalist in 2012, finished fifth.
Nine swimmers were flagged with warnings for misconduct during the four-lap race such as grabbing legs and kicking ribs.
“Going around the buoys was absolute carnage,” said Great Britain’s Keri-Anne Payne, who finished seventh. “My elbows were out. I’ve never seen so many yellow cards.”
She was hoping for rough and breezy conditions that would not favor the pool swimmers but the water was smooth.
The race got off to an unusual start as 26 swimmers waded into the waves. Typically they start on a pontoon, but the floating platform disappeared over the weekend when its anchor lines broke during high winds. Curious beachgoers found it washed ashore at Copacabana, but officials couldn’t repair it and didn’t have a replacement.
Anderson said fears that swimmers would be dodging raw sewage in Rio’s polluted waters did not come to pass.
“The water was perfect, the conditions were really nice, so it set up for a good race,” she said. “I didn’t set myself up going into that fourth lap to be successful. I fought all the way in and tried to reel them in as best I could.”
Muller’s coach disputed the judges’ decision despite footage showing Muller yanking on Bruni.
“In sports there is always injustice,” Philippe Lucas said. “But it’s not worth crying for 50 years. The podium is made, it’s dead, it’s over.”