By diving out into the toasty waters of the handsome Odaiba Bay early on a humid Wednesday morning in Tokyo, Alice Dearing had already made history. She is and will always be the first black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at an Olympic Games. But two hours later she left the water in despair following a frustrating early morning that had rendered her maiden Olympic experience bittersweet, already leaving her to yearn for redemption.
Over the course of the seven 1.5km laps in the women’s 10km marathon swimming event, Dearing was never quite able to remain in touch with the top group. She fell back into 20th place in a field of 25 competitors early on, and away from the main action she remained until finishing 19th. While Dearing struggled to affect the race, the gold medal was won by Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil. The Netherlands’ defending champion, Sharon van Rouwendaal, took silver and Australian’s Kareena Lee bronze.
Afterwards, as she walked through the mixed zone, Dearing’s devastation was immediately plain to see. “I’m pretty broken. It was really hard, a really tough race. I had a lot more to give than that, I’m better than that,” she said. Her intention was to look over the race and use it as impetus to improve. “It’s bittersweet,” she said. “It’s incredible to race at the Olympics but I’m really disappointed with the result. I know I can do better. I want to go to Paris and have a better race, perform better than this.
Dearing, 24, said that the toughest part was keeping up with the high pace, particularly early on as the front group established themselves in the race. “I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “Constantly playing catchup for about 2km, swimming at the same pace as the leading pack but not actually with them. It takes a lot out of you mentally and physically, not being in it with them. I’ve got a lot to learn – each race is a learning curve – so I feel I have a lot of experience to gain from it. I know I’ve got a lot to give.”
Even amid the disappointment of not living up to her own standards, Dearing, who became a leading ambassador for the Black Swimming Association in order to facilitate increased participation in swimming among black people, was still able to take a step back and appreciate the significance of her presence in Tokyo.
“I really hope it makes a difference and people look at this and think it’s doable and for anyone out there,” she said. “I just want people to know it is open and available to you, regardless of your race and your background. If you don’t know how to swim, get in and learn to swim. If you want to go to the Olympics, give it your best shot – don’t let anyone tell you it’s not for you. Go chase your dreams if that’s what you want to do.”
Open water swimming is a unique curiosity. Since it is often difficult to even identify the individual swimmers in the wide body of water, it can make for a sterile spectator experience. But at the same time there may not be a more chaotic sight in the Olympics than “the feed”. During every lap, team members hold out bottles on long sticks with makeshift flags and identifiers. Swimmers try to find their bottle, grab it, switch to backstroke, throw the liquid towards their mouths and then toss the bottle into the water. Much of the liquid splashes on to the face. Some swimmers use it tactically, forgoing the feed to see if they can push ahead and establish a lead.
One such tactician was Ashley Twichell of the United States. Perhaps swimming without inhibitions in her first and final Olympics before retirement, Twichell twice ignored the feed, on laps four and five, in order to try to establish a lead. Her time at the front was sandwiched between stints for Germany’s Leonie Beck, who set the tone as she tried to stretch the field and cull the leading pack. Neither could create a large enough gap to make their initiative pay off.
In the end, the race was decided by more measured approaches. Cunha, who remained on the shoulder of the leader throughout the race, stressed that victory was in her composure. “We had to be cool, or cold, as Europeans,” she said. “We are Latin people; we are hot, we are emotional people, so I had to be very cold mentally in the race to be focused and I had to win it myself. I knew I was prepared for that.”
Van Rouwendaal compared open water swimming to cycling in the sense that the pack is always watching. That had not been an issue in Rio when, aged 22, she swept into the competition and won the title. Things are different now, she said: “I was one of the favourites here and that’s really, really hard in open water because everybody’s looking at you … I had to be smart and I didn’t want to swim in front because as the favourite, people would maybe pull me back.”
The conditions, already hot and humid with 28C water at the 6.30am start, only intensified as the race wore on. Cunha withstood those tough conditions best as the morning finished in a sprint for the title which she won, crowning her sparkling career with an Olympic gold medal.