FUKUOKA, Japan, AFP
Italy showed the world how to swim distance races Monday, bagging the men’s and women’s 5km open water titles on the first day of the world swimming championships. Oozing supreme confidence and belief in themselves, teammates Luca Baldini and Viola Valli used a mixture of cunning and sheer power to outwit and outrace their rivals. The double glory was a shot in the arm for the Italian team, which plans to build on the unexpected momentum it gained in the pool at the Sydney Olympics. In Sydney the Italians won three gold medals, a silver and two bronze, to force their way into swimming’s premier league alongside Australia, the U.S. and the Netherlands. An assured Baldini showed he had learnt a thing or two since the last world championships in Perth three years ago when he finished third. Fighting a strong current and a brisk breeze in the waters off western Fukuoka’s Momochi beach, the 25-year-old noticed that his rivals were too busy fighting the elements to see him make a break and he took full advantage of it. He powered into an uncatchable lead and cruised home in 5507, almost a minute clear of Russian Evgueni Bezroutchenko (5601), who won the open water world championships in Hawaii last October and was fourth in Perth. Marco Formentini (5602) was third, adding a bronze to the Italian medal haul. “I started the race knowing I could win,” said Baldini.”I trusted myself.” He made the most of poor visibility in choppy waters as swimmers concentrated on their stroke to make his break from a tight pack of 19 swimmers with around 1.5km to go. “I saw the others swimmers didn’t notice when I broke away so I took advantage of that. When I got clear I believed in myself and I went for it,” he said. “I felt I had it won with one kilometre to go.” Baldini took a phone call from the president of the Italian Swimming Federation Paolo Barelli as he hauled himself from the water and, close to tears, announced: “I’m so proud to be Italian.” Formentini was content with bronze. “I am really satisfied with the result,” he said.”I am 31 and this was my last chance to win a medal. I am very pleased that I won the bronze.” Valli won the women’s race only hours earlier but in more settled conditions. Like Baldini, losing was never an issue for the petite 29-year-old. “I’m in the best shape of my life and I didn’t think I would lose,” said an elated Valli after crossing the finish line in 1:0003, 26 seconds ahead of German Peggy Buchse who pipped Australian veteran Hayley Lewis for silver. “My trainer told me to put them (other swimmers) to the hill from the start and I did. I’m shaking so much I can’t display how I feel. “I was so excited that I almost missed the buoys twice but I was already sure that I could win after I swam 300m.” She led a group of five away from the pack soon after the start in flat waters and under a hot summer sun. With one kilometre to go she upped her rating to take charge and pulled well clear. Her lead was hauled back in the closing stages but Valli, more used to 25km swims than 5km, held on for her first championship gold. Buchse, a bronze medalist in Perth, caught Lewis to beat her by three seconds but the Australian was pleased with a bronze. “It’s always been my goal to come here and win a medal and I’ve achieved my goal for the year,” said Lewis, who will also compete in the pool over 1,500m. “At this stage of my career any medal is a gold medal.” American Erica Rose, who took the title three years ago, trailed in seventh (1:0101).
World swimming body FINA is pushing to have an open water event included in the 2004 Olympics. The 10km race takes place on Wednesday and the 25km on Saturday. In other action Monday, Russian Olga Brusnikina topped the leaderboard after the technical element in the solo syncronised swimming preliminaries, performing a near flawless routine to stand 0.350 points clear of Japan’s Miya Tachibana and Frenchwoman Virginie Dedieu.