RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Ferry Weertman of the Netherlands won the men’s marathon swimming event off Rio’s Copacabana Beach on Tuesday in a race so close that he did not realize he had won until a friend called from home to give him the good news.
After the grueling 10km open-water swim, the 24-year-old Weertman touched the electronic pads at the finish line just before veteran swimmer Spiros Gianniotis of Greece, giving the Dutchman his first gold medal in his first Olympics.
The official results showed the first two swimmers with the same time of 1:52:59.8. Marc-Antoine Olivier of France, 20, finished 2.2 seconds behind to win the bronze medal.
Gianniotis appeared to finish ahead of Weertman, but the Greek said the position of his arm prevented him from getting to the pad first. It was the last race for the 36-year-old, who retires after five Olympics as a pool and open water competitor.
For Weertman, current European champion in the distance, it was not luck. He had been training hard on the touch pads for the last few weeks, but he did not expect to be struggling with a pack of six racers at the finish line.
In the last of eight lengths on the waters off the famous curving beach, Weertman pulled ahead of the leader for most of the race, Jarrod Poort of Australia, and was soon joined by several other heavyweights.
“Gianniotis got in front and I knew he was going to win a medal so I thought I have to get next to him, it’s the last 200 meters,” said Weertman.
On the touch pads, he said: “We have been practicing a lot just to get the finishing touches, pun intended, and I had a perfect finish. That’s what made the difference here today.”
He emerged from the water mentally and physically drained and was in a golf cart when his friend called him.
“I picked up, and he was like ‘You won, you won!’ and then it started hitting me and I still can’t believe it,” Weertman said.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, called him too before the medal ceremony, and he could hear the cabinet clapping in the background. Moments later, he gave a big kiss to girlfriend and fellow Dutch swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who narrowly missed medaling in the pool in Rio.
Weertman’s victory means a sweep by the Dutch in marathon swimming after Sharon van Rouwendaal, 22, won the women’s 10km open water race on Monday.
Marathon swimming, a sport rooted in swimmers who braved the English Channel, is relatively new to the Olympics. Tuesday’s race was the first of three editions to take place in the ocean, where the water temperature was a comfortable 21 C.
Gianniotis said the ocean “is always good (for) open water swimming.”
“It has a little bit of choppiness, a little bit of wave and current. I like the sea.”
The Greek, who was fourth in London in 2012, said he was motivated by the fact that it was his last race.
“I said to myself ‘this is the last 100 meters of your life, make it worth it’,” Gianniotis said.
But the closely fought final meters made for a difficult race finish. British swimmer Jack Burnell was disqualified close to the end for reasons yet to be disclosed, and had harsh words for the judges.
“The whole thing is a joke. I was disqualified two meters from the finish,” 23-year-old Burnell told the BBC.
Weertman said that with so many swimmers going into the narrow finish channel, it was hard not to touch anyone.
“I don’t think he (Burnell) was intending to make someone else swim badly,” he said.
Reporting by Mary Milliken, editing by Neil Robinson, Ken Ferris and Jan Harvey