USA trio capture first medal in World Championships with victory in 5km Team Event

Shanghai 2011 - Open Water Swimming

altA trio of open water swimmers from the United States captured the first gold medal for their country at the FINA World Championships in the 5km Team Event today at Jinshan Beach, Shanghai. Americans Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, and Ashley Twichell finished in 57:00.6, just 1.2 seconds faster than the Melissa Gorman, Rhys Mainstone and Ky Hurst of Australia.

The team from Germany placed third, more than 43 seconds after the Americans. The German squad was composed of Jan Wolfgarten, Isabelle Haerle and Thomas Lurz, the world's most accomplished swimmer at the 5km distance. Lurz has won every FINA 5km world championship event since 2005 and placed second in yesterday's men's 10km, qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Lurz was a bronze medallist in the 10km Marathon Swim at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.  

The team event is a new addition to the FINA World Championships with 14 nations competing today. Each team consisted of three swimmers with each gender represented. Teams left one minute apart and the time of the slowest swimmer determined the order of finish. The tactics and strategy in this team event are entirely different from the pack formation of the 5, 10 and 25km events.  

According to published reports from the Daily News of Open Water Swimming, "Gemmell pulled the train in about as straight an arrow as one could do in the open water. Andrew led his Team USA teammates, Sean Ryan and Ashley Twichell, in an unwavering streamlined formation throughout the two-loop 5K course to win the gold medal in 57:00.6. Sean remained in the middle and Ashley give it her all by trailing the men right on their toes. The trio never got out of position and held tight to gain the optimal advantage of drafting. Andrew sighted every now and then as his teammates literally followed in his wake."

Gemmell is an experienced and accomplished open water swimmer. He captured a silver medal in the 10km at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome. In June his hopes for an opportunity to qualify for the London Olympics were extinguished when he placed third behind Alex Meyer and Ryan at the US Trials. Gemmell would not be entered in the 10km event in Shanghai but would be entered in the 5km Team Event and the 5km individual event.  

5km Team Event Podium - Credit: Giorgio Scala
5km Team Event Podium - Credit: Giorgio Scala

Gemmell wondered if the expression "If it rains, it pours" was really coming true for him. Just one week ago Gemmell's hopes to compete in Shanghai were almost dashed when his passport went missing on the day the US Open Water squad was traveling from Florida to Chicago to catch their flight to Shanghai. Instead of boarding the intercontinental flight with his teammates for China, he was booked on a flight to Philadelphia where he would wait at his home in Delaware until his passport could be located or replaced. It wasn't until four days later that a new passport and visa arrived and he was able to travel to Shanghai.  

A broad smile could be detected on the America's face today when the final team finished their 5km and the USA was announced as the winner. “It was pretty incredible for a 5km race to come down to a single second for two teams that started 10 minutes apart,” Gemmell said. “It just shows you how tight the race was. We did a great job working together as a team."  The Americans were the fifth team to enter the water.

Ryan placed 25th in yesterday's 10km event and was far from qualifying for the Olympic Games. But he too was thrilled with today's gold medal despite the narrow margin of victory over the team from Australia: "It was a great result and I think we were a great team,  Each of us are pretty good by ourselves as 5km swimmers and we had a lot of fun together".  Ashley Grace, the female member of the trio swam her fastest 5km, 7 minutes, better than her previous personal best. "I really tried my best this time, I kept looking forward and tried to keep up with them."

Racing as a team of three in a time-trial style new event, the Aussie trio were the 12th team to depart on one minute intervals and overtook four teams on their way to silver in 57:00.01, a little more than a second behind the USA. With Hurst and Mainstone sharing the lead, and Gorman tucked in behind the lead swimmer in single file, the trio who were all backing up from 10km swims in the previous two days had no idea how close they were to gold until getting out of the water. Going through the half way split in third position the Australian team picked up more than 40 seconds on the German’s and almost a minute on the US on the second lap to take silver with Germany winning bronze some 43 seconds behind.

Disappointed to miss out on a medal in the 10km yesterday, but still elated to have qualified for Olympic selection, Hurst said he was confident of performing well in the new style of team racing. "I knew when we overtook the Italians at the end that we were going pretty well, but there was no way to tell how close it was," said Hurst. “I've swum in plenty of races on the East Coast of Australia with Melissa Gorman at my heels so I knew she would always be there, and that if we worked together we would be a good chance for a medal.”

For Gorman, who has also qualified for selection for London next year after finishing fourth in the 10km on Tuesday, the chance to race as a team was certainly something to remember. "Rhys led us out well for the first lap and the plan was for me to stay in the middle for as long as possible," said Gorman.
“When Ky surged to the front for the second lap I knew we we're in good shape and then I just tried to stay with the boys as we sprinted in for the finish over the last 50m or so.”

Missing out on a top 10 finish in the 10km event yesterday, Mainstone said the silver was a bitter sweet feeling today. “It was disappointing to miss out yesterday, but when I found out I was swimming the relay I just had to re-group and was looking forward to racing,” said Mainstone. “To win silver in a team event like this is a fantastic feeling and it’s something new for open water swimming which is great. Now I know how the pool swimmers feel when they represent Australia in a relay. Today was awesome.”

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