Sabrina Knoll, FINA Aquatics World Magazine Correspondent (GER)

Twenty-three minutes is actually not a very long time. Compared with, say, a working day, or a 10-kilometre race at World Championships. That nearly two-hour 10km swim is exactly what Leonie Beck had just done in July 2019 in the South Korean city of Yeosu, when she stood on the pontoon at the finish and stared at the scoreboard. The scoreboard provisionally showed the German swimmer as ninth. But it was a very confusing sprint at the end of the race. A sprint that had never been seen before in this event: the entire top ten had crossed the finish line within just 3.9 seconds. And only a place within this top ten would ensure qualification for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And so it took 23 minutes until the result was verified by photo and video recordings. And the official result, which still showed Beck finishing ninth, sparked cheers all round in the German team. The first person to congratulate Beck was open water head coach Stefan Lurz, who was later to say that those 23 minutes were almost more exciting than the race itself. When Beck then sank into the arms of father Alexander, she could no longer hold back tears.

Leonie Beck (GER) in Gwangju 2019 

“It was a great relief”

"That was pretty exciting," Beck said later. "When the result was announced, it was a great relief." What it must have actually looked like inside for the 23-year-old, who always seems calm on the outside, can be guessed by a glance at the final result: two tenths of a second separated Beck from 11th place. After 10 kilometres and 1 hour, 54 minutes and 51.0 seconds. Two tenths of a second separated Beck from the collapse of her dream.

In fact, the finish was barely visible to the naked eye. Everywhere, hands clapped against the finish board at the same time. An impressive image of the fact that this World Championship race was about so much more than gold (Xin Xin/China, 1:54:47.2), silver (Haley Anderson/USA, 1:54:48.1) and bronze (Rachele Bruni/Italy, 1:54:49.9). It was about the dream of the Olympic Games. And if something like that is at stake, 23 minutes can be very, very long.

That Beck had to fear for third place over the non-Olympic 5km three days later was not much more than an afterthought. Since, for the open water swimmers, these World Championships in South Korea were about nothing else but the ticket for Tokyo. And so Beck said: "The 5km medal wouldn't have been worth anything for me if I hadn't made the Olympics.” But with the ticket in her hand and the medal round her neck the World Championships had naturally gone perfectly. “This is my first medal at a World Championships, so, yeah: everything is tops!

Only two years earlier, at the World Championships in Hungary, the German open water division, so spoiled by the successes of record champion Thomas Lurz, had been without a medal for the first time since several distances were swum at Worlds.

"We've been playing around in the pool too much lately," open water head coach Lurz said critically at the time: "If you really commit yourself to open water now and say ‘I want to go on to Tokyo’, you simply have to do the World Cup series, the European Cups, just as many competitions as possible.” Harsh words, which were especially addressed to his protégée Beck, who at that time was also still hoping for success in the pool.

“Stefan sometimes gets louder in training”

Beck took this criticism to heart. "You just have to admit that your performance was bad and see what you can do better. It was one of my first races. We went through it again and it was quickly clear that I screwed up in moments that would get better with more experience," she said one year later, after she had become the most successful German open water swimmer at the European Championships in Glasgow 2018. At that competition at Loch Lomond she earned silver in the 5km and with the relay.

The fact that Lurz is not only the national open water coach but also Beck's club coach in Wurzburg helped to put his 2017 outburst into perspective for Beck. She said: "Stefan sometimes gets louder in training when things aren't going well. But I need a coach like that, too. Otherwise it wouldn't work. Most of the time we just have a lot of fun."

And work it did. Not only for Beck. In South Korea, the German open water team secured all four possible Olympic spots for the 10km through the qualification of Beck and Finnia Wunram for the women’s race and 10km world champion Florian Wellbrock and bronze medallist Rob Muffels among the men. Four out of four – this had previously not been achieved by any nation since the premiere of the 10km race at the Olympics of 2008.

As for Beck, Tokyo will also be a matter of letting the memories of her first Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro fade. There she had finished well outside her personal best in the prelims of the 800 m. An experience so devastating, she even thought about quitting afterwards.

Leonie Beck in Rio 2016 Olympic Games where she competed in 800m free heat

But her switch to open water and her commitment to it made her believe in a second chance. After initial disappointments, Beck gained more and more confidence in her own abilities. Now she says: "I feel much better in open water than in the pool."

Reputation to be left in piece

Lurz has also noticed a development since his hard words in 2017: "Leonie is one of the fastest swimmers in the field. As soon as she is able to swim free she will catch up. But she also has to learn not to lose any more at the buoys. She still gets into these fights. But now she is finding solutions to get out of them.

In addition Beck is slowly but surely making a name for herself on the open water scene, which should not be underestimated in these scraps in the field, Lurz says: "At some point you have such a reputation in the field that people leave you in peace."

The race for the Olympic ticket, in which Beck beat 50 other women, was further proof of her development. For example, she had repeatedly lost touch with the leading group in which she had actually wanted to be from the very beginning. A constant struggle as Beck describes it: "In the first lap nothing worked, then I fought my way back to the front, then I lost again at the buoys, but then I fought my way to the leading group again, then I lost at the refreshments, then I fought my way back to the front again. It was a real fight, that race."

But the fight, it was worth it. The fight in the 10k race at the Worlds, but also the fight in the years before: "All the years I worked for it have paid off,” said Beck, who also seems to have a better control of her nervousness, now she appears to have settled down quite well after her experiences: "I've swum many World Cups now. A little nervousness is still there, but that is part of it, I think.

Beck is ready for the challenge of the coming season. Because ever since the 2019 World Championships and the longest 23 minutes of her life Leonie Beck now knows: "I belong in the top ten open water swimmers worldwide.

*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2020/4) click here