U.S. Open Water Swimming Championships

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By: Harvey Fialkov

Swimming with the fishes takes on a whole other meaning when it comes to the excitement, challenges and dangers associated with the upcoming U.S. Open Water Swimming Championships held behind Miami Marine Stadium from May 3-5th.

Approximately 30 men and 30 women will be testing their stamina, mental strength and the unknown elements lurking in the Atlantic Ocean, over 10 kilometers for the opportunity to win a gold, silver or bronze medal. Far more significantly, for any of these elite American open water swimmers to eventually qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games 10K event in Tokyo, they must go through Miami, which is considered a pseudo-Olympic trial.

The top 10 finishers in the 10K Open Water national championships, held on May 3, can then compete in the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea this summer. Gwangju is one finishing kick away from Tokyo. However, only the top two American men and women will receive automatic bids into the 10K race in Gwangju, while the third through 10th-place finishers will be placed in the 5K, 25K and team non-Olympic events.

“If you don’t compete in Miami, you can’t go to the Olympics,’’ said race director Johnathan Strauss. “This is the pipeline to Tokyo.’’

Despite being part of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, open water swimming finally got its due respect and became an official Olympic event in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where Martin van der Weijden (Netherlands) and Larisa Ilchenko (Russia), took the gold.

“For years, open water swimming wasn’t respected and while pool swimmers such as Michael Phelps were taken care of, the kids in open water were treated as second-class citizens,’’ Strauss said. “Now, the Olympic movement is placing more importance on open water and providing the same amount of funding as the pool events.’’

Future Olympic hopefuls will be competing in the 5K Junior National Championships on Saturday, May 4. Boys and girls ages 16-and-under will vie for the gold.

On Sunday morning, May 5, the 5K National Championships will take place, followed by the 15th annual Swim Miami community event, that includes races in the 5K, 10K, half-mile, mile, Special Olympics mile as well as the K-9 Krawl. Nearly 1,000 participants of all ages from around the country and the world will receive finishing medals with the overall winners awarded trophies.

“By producing the national championship event on the same weekend as our community Swim Miami event, it will help grow awareness and popularity while bringing in more spectators for the nationals,’’ Strauss said. “So, it went from a one-day event to three days.’’

The three-day open water swimming festival is open to the public and there is no admission charge. Parking is free at any of the 2,000 spaces at Miami Marine Stadium. Spectators will be able to watch the entire mile race, or six laps around buoys, from the beach.

If you get hungry or thirsty, not a problem — there will be a concession stand serving food and drinks. Off-duty Miami Beach rescue lifeguards and safety boats will be on hand to protect the swimmers.

Local competitors as well as their family members and out-of-town swimmers can certainly enjoy the nearby hotels, shopping, restaurants and nightlife on idyllic Key Biscayne, just a few laps away from Coconut Grove and from Brickell City Centre and Mary Brickell Village in Downtown Miami.

America’s finest open-water swimmers, such as Jordan Wilimovsky, the 2015 FINA Open Water World Champion in the 10K event, will be seeking a return to the Olympics. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Californian finished in fifth place with a time of 1:53:03.2 just seconds behind gold-medal winner, Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands (1:52:59.8).

Another expected competitor in the Swim Miami 10K is Yoelvis ‘Joey’ Pedraza, a perennial contender in marathon open water races, who grew up in South Florida where he attended Columbus, Pine Crest and St. Thomas Aquinas high schools before swimming for the University of Florida (UF). Pedraza, now 31, gave up his Olympic dreams after 11 years of close calls, and now gives back to the sport he first grew to love when he was mentored by the late Fran Crippen at a USA swim camp during his sophomore year at UF.

“To me the mental aspect is the biggest challenge in open water races,’’ Pedraza said. “When to draft next to someone and when to sprint. I’ve seen sharks, barracudas and have swam through a swarm of jellyfish. I felt like I was hyperventilating, hopped on the boat and took a bath in straight-up ammonia for five minutes. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing dolphins and seals, but it happens. Fans will feel the excitement of the last 4,000 meters of the race. This is where the game turns on.’’

“As a kid I never swam distance. I was a sprinter,’’ laughed Pedraza. “My friends started joking that the reason I got so good in long distance swimming was because I swam from Cuba to Key West. Here we are 15 years later and I’m going to do it, swim from Cuba to Key West next year.

“I want to inspire the younger generation to give back to the people who inspired me to be the athlete and student that I became. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself as a person and not just for Olympic glory.’’

All races will begin early at about 7:30 a.m. and some will last until noon.

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