With elbow insert to the best nation

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The open water swimmers have become more robust. This paid off for the Germans at the World Championships in South Korea.

Finnia Wunram pressed Suri to her stomach. All medal winners at the open water competitions in Yeosu in South Korea got the stuffed animal: this little blue otter with green swimming trunks. Wunram swam over 25 kilometres to silver on Friday after more than five hours and won a medal – unlike two years ago at the World Championships in Hungary. With the mixed relay, for example, Wunram finished eighth and last in 2017, which was a particularly dramatic race for her: Right at the beginning she received heavy blows to the head, after her 1.25 kilometres the 21-year-old had to be pulled out of the water completely exhausted. She collapsed and needed ten minutes to get back on her feet. But at that time national coach Stefan Lurz also stated: “She bit her way through. Others would have gone out immediately.

Biting through – that’s one of the motto of the open water swimmers, because a lot has happened in this respect over the past two years. After the zero number of 2017, the open water division is now suddenly with five medals, first place in the nation classification. The German Swimming Federation (DSV) has been able to celebrate two gold medals this week: Florian Wellbrock (ten kilometres) and the mixed relay won their races, Rob Muffels took bronze (ten kilometres) and Leonie Beck was happy about a divided third place (over five kilometres). And then came Wunram’s silver in the longest race of the WRC. The fact that so much can be cheered all at once has a lot to do with the biting through. And that one has learned from mistakes.

Stefan Lurz, brother of record winner Thomas Lurz, who resigned in 2015, had left the World Championships in 2017 with an outburst of rage. His protégé Leonie Beck, for example, who also tried her hand as a swimming athlete in open water, had too seldom gone into open water for his taste in preparation. “A little bit running through the pool, then running here and getting a medal, that just doesn’t work,” said Lurz. Which could be applied to the entire concept of German open water swimming. After the World Cup disaster at Lake Balaton, they questioned a lot at the DSV. “We then went to training camps together, but above all we went to more competitions, including international ones, in order to gain competition hardness and experience,” Lurz told ZDF in Yeosu. That was the greatest insight: that they have to train the biting through properly.

Unlike in the pelvis, they fish and bump in open water, and on tacks and in the final sprint it’s the robustness that counts. To keep your nerves, not to lose your orientation when your opponents pull you under water. “That was the problem in the run-up to the 2017 World Cup: That we tried to practice that in the pool”, Lurz said now. To swim with two or three men on a track, however, is no comparison to the 30 or 40 athletes who, for example, meet in the water at some points during a World Cup. So this year the German open water swimmers completed various international competitions and accepted the strain of travelling. “The boys and girls have practiced stretching their elbows a little, asserting themselves, not letting themselves be defeated,” said Lurz.

Wellbrock has brought self-confidence to the team

And these experiences have now paid off. In the ten kilometre race it was only the final sprint that decided the medals, in which Florian Wellbrock had to defend himself against an attack by France’s Marc-Antoine Olivier. Olivier swam over his hip, “it took a lot of strength,” reported Wellbrock later, but he was able to finish faster. In the mixed relay, open water specialist Rob Muffels prevailed over 1500-meter Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri from Italy in the final meters, and Leonie Beck’s photo finish was the deciding factor for a medal over five kilometers. There have been close races in which even after ten kilometres sometimes only fractions of a second separated the athletes from medals.

A decisive factor for the astonishing yield was also one for the national coach: Florian Wellbrock. “He has brought self-confidence into the team,” said Lurz, “we have found a new leader who takes the pressure off the team. The convincing performances of the 21-year-old, who also has great chances of winning medals over 800 and 1500 metres in the pool, also encouraged his colleagues. As trained indoor swimmers, he and Beck have enormous basic speeds, they can start races quickly right at the start. Muffels and Wunram have always been open water lovers with great fighting qualities. Due to the good results, all four of them now have starting places for the Olympic Games in the coming season.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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