Each sport needs a great athlete, and each great athlete needs a rivalry. For golf, it’s Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. For tennis it’s Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. For football, it’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

And for distance swimming, Florian Wellbrock and Gregorio Paltrinieri, along with Mykhailo Romanchuk, have enjoyed their own era of dominance that started in pool swimming and has spread to open water swimming.

On Monday morning, Wellbrock, Paltrinieri, and Romanchuk shared the podium at the World Championships in Budapest in the men’s 5K open water race. It wasn’t the first time those three have shared the podium at a major international meet, but it was the first time they’ve shared it for an open water race.

The three have become good friends and rivals over the last few years, traveling and competing all over the world with each other.

“It’s always nice to swim against these guys,” Wellbrock said. “We had a good race in the pool in the 800 and 1500 as well. It’s always nice to share the podium with Greg and Misha. I think they are like family in the sport now and it’s great.”

Wellbrock and Paltrinieri were on the podium in Tokyo last summer for the 10K, with Wellbrock coming out on top with gold over Paltrinieri in bronze. Romanchuk had not competed past the pool events in Tokyo but was inspired to take up the long distance events after seeing his friends and rivals succeed.

“When I saw last year the guys were competing in the pool and open water I decided to join them after the Olympics to try and now we are here and I’m really happy with the medal and to share the podium with the guys,” Romanchuk said. “Like Florian said, we are really good friends outside of the pool and the lake. It’s really nice to join them on the podium.”

Last week, Paltrinieri won gold in the pool 1500, with Wellbrock winning the bronze medal and Romanchuk in fifth. In the 800, Wellbrock won silver, while Romanchuk won the bronze, with Paltrinieri in fourth place.

Their dominance is hard to ignore. In the pool 1500 meters, here is a list of the major champs each year since 2015.

  • 2015 World champ: Gregorio Paltrinieri
  • 2016 Olympic champ: Gregorio Paltrinieri
  • 2016 World short course champ: Park Tae-Hwan
  • 2017 World champ: Gregorio Paltrinieri
  • 2018 #1 ranked time: Florian Wellbrock
  • 2018 World short course champ: Mykhailo Romanchuk
  • 2019 World champ: Florian Wellbrock
  • 2020 Olympic champ: Bobby Finke
  • 2021 World short course champ: Florian Wellbrock
  • 2022 World champ: Gregorio Paltrinieri

With every major 1500 final in the last six years, one of the three from Paltrinieri, Wellbrock, and Romanchuk has stepped up to win the gold eight out of ten times. These three have dominated the pool distance events with the kind of domination seen from Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic in tennis.

“For me to share the podium with Flo and Misha is the best,” Paltrinieri said. “I think we made history in long distance event because we have been on the podium together a very long time. For me it’s the best.

“I’m really glad we are all doing open water so it’s another chance to compete. I think we love this sport and we love everything about swimming because we compete and we compete up to the last meter. Sometimes I win, sometimes he wins, sometimes somebody else wins, but that’s OK. We just love to push each other and do our best.”

Romanchuk, who has trained alongside Wellbrock and coach Bernd Berkhahn at the German’s home training base in Magdeburg during the ongoing war in the Ukraine, expressed interest that maybe Paltrinieri could join the group for a training camp in the future.

“Maybe one day we will train all together,” Romanchuk said. “Let’s see, maybe it will happen and I think it would be a good experience for one or two training camps, so why not?”

The respect amongst these three can be seen on the podium as they interact with each other behind the microphones.

Paltrinieri talks about joining his rivals for training: “Me and Misha trained together in the past so we did something together-”

Romanchuk interrupts him.

“Yeah, but it was a big difference in our results in 2016,” Romanchuk said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Paltrinieri said, who was Olympic champion in 2016 while Romanchuk was 15th.

“Now it’s much harder for you!” Romanchuk said.

Florian Wellbrock, Gregorio Paltrinieri, and Mykhailo Romanchuk know the significance of their podium appearances in the pool and in open water. The sport has seen more pool swimmers trying both disciplines, especially within the last 15 years when the 10K made its Olympic debut in 2008.

Perhaps the three have started a new era in open water swimming, where the best 1500 swimmers will also make podiums in the 5K and 10K. Times are virtually irrelevant in the sport, due to each course being different, but they are still recorded for placing purposes. Wellbrock’s time on Monday morning of 52:48.7 was over 34 seconds faster than Kristof Rasovszky’s winning time of 53:22.1 at the 2019 Worlds. Wellbrock has brought his speed from the pool to the open water venue, which has helped him win this 5K in Budapest as well as the 10K at the Olympics last year. Not only does he have the speed, but he has the endurance too, a nightmare combination for anyone trying to beat him.

Wellbrock, Paltrinieri, and Romanchuk will each race each other for the final time in Hungary on Wednesday in the 10K where they are each co-favorites to capture the gold medal in the Olympic distance.