Exciting atmosphere in the Aquatic venues

London 2012 Highlights

With two days to go for the start of the FINA competitions, the atmosphere is already intense in the Aquatic venues. Swimmers, divers, synchronised swimmers and water polo players are already practising for some days in the state-of-the-art facilities, trying to put in place their last winning strategies for a successful participation in the 2012 Olympic Games.

"Winning" and "successful" have obviously different meanings for the myriad of athletes competing in London. Strong teams are obviously looking for podium presences, while competitors from developing countries will certainly do their best to raise the aquatic image of their respective nation and to emulate the youth in their territory to the practice of swimming. 

In the first group of traditionally-strong nations, the team of Great Britain has naturally great expectations with their home Games. On the Press Conference to present the goals of the squad, Michael Scott, the British National Performance Director, was clear: "We've strived to continue momentum. The upward curve has continued through Rome (2009 FINA World Championships), Delhi (2010 Commonwealth Games) and Shanghai (2011 FINA World Championships). We've learnt from Shanghai, where we missed on four medals by a short margin." Four years ago, in Beijing, the British delegation had totalled six medals in Swimming (three in the pool and three in the marathon swimming events). 

One of the stars in open water is precisely Keri-Anne Payne, silver medallist in 2008, and the greatest favourite for this year's race in the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. "I'm obviously immensely proud of what I've achieved so far. The Olympics is about concentrating on doing the best that I can, I'm not going to run around screaming. There's any number of girls in the open water race that have the opportunity to win a medal," she declared. After swimming in Hyde Park on July 25, 2012 Payne proudly admitted: "Yes I've just come from there. I'm the first athlete to swim in the Serpentine, which I think is really cool. I had to fight with a couple of ducks, though, to get around a couple of the buoys, but apart from that it was really good."

More modest are the objectives of Tonga's first ever swimmer in the Games, Amini Fonua, who will compete in the men's 100m breaststroke. Impressed with the Aquatic Centre, and with the natural excitement surrounding the Games, he stated: "There is nothing like this in Tonga. Every time something does not go right, I have to stop and think to myself, 'It's the Olympic Games'. It's really special." His coach Jon Winter, from New Zealand, commented on the importance of this participation: "We are less about medals and more about people back home learning to swim," he said. "We have had a few boating tragedies where kids and mothers have drowned because they didn't know how to tread water or stay afloat."

Chris Duenas, from Guam, is a bit more experienced as he also swam at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Entered in the men's 100m freestyle, he recalls the impact of his first Games' participation: "It gives smaller countries that little push they need to reach a higher level. [After 2008], we definitely noticed a big change back home. The Olympics is just more tangible than any other event you can compete in."

900 pool swimmers from 167 nations (a new record) will be present in London, while 50 marathon swimmers will compete in Hyde Park on August 9 (women's 10km race) and August 10 (men's 10km race).

From the divers' side, Matthew Mitcham (AUS) had been the surprise in Beijing, when in the last night of competition he prevented the Chinese team from a complete sweep of the eight gold medals at stake in the "Water Cube", by getting the victory in the men's 10m platform. Occasionally affected by injuries since then, Mitcham is happy with the fact that he is not considered favourite for this year's event. "I feel quite grateful. Because of all these injuries a lot of expectation has been lifted off me," he declared. "People underestimate how much it can affect you having the weight of expectation. Some athletes deal with that better than others. The Chinese divers will be going for eight gold medals (in the men's and women's events). They will have an incredible amount of pressure on their backs."

In London, Qiu Bo (CHN) and Tom Daley (GBR) will be the athletes to watch in the 10m platform. Bo is the current world champion, while Daley, a star in Great Britain, won the world crown in 2009. The fight between these two talented competitors will certainly be one of the highlights of the diving events at the London Aquatic centre. Mitcham is however optimistic: "I am confident I am going to compete well. All you have to do is put six good dives together in the finals."

Great expectations are also shared by the Chinese synchronised swimming team. Earning their first Olympic medal in this discipline in 2008 in the "Water Cube", the Asian will have fierce opposition from Russia (dominators of the discipline for the last decade), Spain, Canada, or Japan. Their coach, Masayo Imura (JPN), precisely one of the assets that allowed this fast progression, is realistic: "I think they can do it, a bronze like in Beijing or even a silver. But not a gold." On the strong points of the team, Imura highlights the girls' physical characteristics: "They have very good power, they are very tall and slim and have long legs so the quality of their leg (work) is very good."

Adjacent to the Aquatic centre, the Water Polo Arena is also ready to welcome the best 12 men's and eight women's best teams of the planet. Among men, Hungary has a solid reputation to defend: in London, the Magyar squad will try to get its 10th Olympic crown and the fourth consecutive one after the successes in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. Zoltan Szecsi, Tamas Kasas, Gergely Kiss and Peter Biros were part of all these recent triumphs and will play at their best level to achieve a fourth crown in London (which would be a record for any water polo player).

For Australia, the expectation in the men's tournament is not so high (all the gold medals in the history of Olympics went to European teams), but one of its players, James Clark, had an innovative idea: to move the Water Polo Arena to his country!

Impressed with the venue that will host the water polo events, Clark's suggestion is simple: "They should bring it to Australia after the Games. It's temporary, but for the spectators it's the best venue I've been to." For the first time participating in the Olympics, Clark completes his thought: "There aren't many pools around the world that are water polo specific, so it's great. It's special to see and I'd definitely like to see it in Australia."