The Open Water championships got underway with the men's 5 km race, swum in ideal Indian Ocean conditions with clear water, little swell, and a gentle offshore wind.
A field of twenty took to the water from Hillary's Boat Harbour, following the course 2.5 km south down the coast to the turning point off Sorrento Beach.
While the early pace was set by 16-year-old Ky Hurst (AUS), the more experienced swimmers held back to watch his progression. Alexei Akatiev of Russia eventually made a move in the second half of the race. Two-time European champion in both the 5 km and 25 km races, Akatiev set out to shake off a persistent David Bates (AUS), challenging Hurst soon after they entered the final chute to the finish. He was successful, and after finishing the race six seconds ahead of Hurst, said quite modestly, "I didn't know I had won it until after I had touched the finishing pad."
The women's race saw a much healthier easterly wind. Kirsty Park of Australia led the way out of the harbour and to the halfway buoy. A pack of twelve swimmers followed, and there was much jostling as they stayed very much together throughout the race. After the halfway mark the pre-race favourite, Erica Rose (USA), decided she had had enough of the roughhouse tactics. She surged ahead to establish a commanding lead.
The pack stayed together until they had entered the harbour and then for some reason headed off in the wrong direction with the exception of Edith van Dijk of the Netherlands. By the time the main group had corrected their course, the Dutch swimmer was in an unbeatable second position. The bronze went to Peggy Buchse of Germany.
Winner Rose said, "In the beginning it was really tough, with pressure from a number of swimmers, so in the second half I just decided to take off. It wasn't too wavy but I just kept trying to follow the lead boat because there was some confusion with the course. This is definitely a special win."
Buchse commented, "There was lots of jostling so it was quite difficult and I had a lot more trouble than I had in Seville. But I'm satisfied with the race. Tactically I swam well despite the fact that we all made a big mistake coming around the last bend."
Contrary to the searing heat and clear skies of the 5 km race, the longer race saw ominously dark and hazy skies; conditions were relatively good with a southwesterly breeze of 10 to 15 knots and a swell of 1.4 metres. Water temperature was 21°C.
Australian Grant Robinson left the harbour ahead of the rest of the field, but by the 5 km mark it became obvious that Akatiev was hanging back and waiting until Robinson showed signs of faltering. The Australian led until 17.5 km, at which point he "hit the wall" and was unable to regain his rhythm. Akatiev maintained a classical high elbow freestyle technique, stayed focussed and pulled ahead, leaving Gabriel Chaillou (ARG), Claudio Gargaro (ITA), teammate Yuri Goudinov, Robinson, and Stephan Lecat (FRA) fighting it out in his wake.
A phenomenal challenge from a determined David Meca of Spain, who moved into second in the last 5 km of the race, was not enough to threaten the Russian, who finished first for an impressive second gold.
Once again it was an Australian who led the way out to sea; 19-year-old Tracey Knowles, winner of the Australian Trials event, held that lead past the 5 km buoy but surrendered it shortly afterwards to Valeria Casprini (ITA) and Peggy Buchse (GER).
At the 10 km mark Buchse swapped the lead with Casprini. Tobie Smith (USA), who had joined the leaders at the 11-km point, split the previous two leaders, with Knowles dropping back to fourth place.
Towards the end the American surged ahead and into the chute to take the lead and finish 100 m ahead of Buchse. "It was all worth it," said Smith. "I started moving ahead between the third quarter and just kept going through to the last leg."
The bronze medallist, Edith van Dijk of the Netherlands, showed the strong finish that had put her on the podium in the 5 km event. "That was exactly how I planned to swim it," she said, "to start slow, and swim the second half faster. But the last half was harder. The conditions about two and a half k's from the finish were terrible because the waves were coming side on."