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Open-water swimmer Michelle Weber feels the heat in Tokyo’s superwarm sea

Open-water swimmer Michelle Weber feels the heat in Tokyo’s superwarm sea
From left: Michelle Weber of South Africa, Betina Lorscheitter of Brazil and Alice Franco of Italy at Copacabana Beach during the 2015 King and Queen of the Sea in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: Buda Mendes / Getty Images)

Michelle Weber is still only 24 and Tokyo is already her second Olympics, and as long as the hunger is there, her talent will put her in the mix for Paris and in that rare category of being a three-time Olympian.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

 There’s a knock on the interview room door inside Team SA’s Olympic Village headquarters. In steps Michelle Weber, wearing her black mask, which hides much of her face but not the two fresh wounds above her right eye.

She’s here to talk about her morning, having competed in the women’s 10km marathon open water swim.

“Come on in. What happened to the eye?”

“I don’t really know … these races are always physical. There was a girl yellow-carded so I think it might have happened then. This is the Olympics, the girls are aggressive, and even though there were only 25 of us, the Olympics is extra competitive.”

Weber clocked two hours six minutes 56.5 seconds in finishing 21st, the race being won by Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha. Now, a couple of hours later, back in the village, Weber is keen to talk about her experience.

She isn’t disappointed as such … her exact emotion is difficult to pigeonhole.

“I tried my best and I gave my best – under the circumstances. I honestly came here hoping to medal; obviously it didn’t happen,” Weber says.

“I’d love to go to Paris 2024. It’s in three years’ time and coming here I wasn’t sure that I’d want to go through another cycle with all the sacrifices. But I have unfinished business.” 

Difficult race

Weber is still only 24 and Tokyo is already her second Olympics, and as long as the hunger is there, her talent will put her in the mix for Paris and in that rare category of being a three-time Olympian.

“This race was really difficult in a way that people might not necessarily understand. They might look at the results and move on to the next sport’s results without seeing the big picture.

“When I came here, I really did think I could medal. But, when I now reflect, I can understand why I didn’t. I’m not making excuses; it is what it is.

“The conditions were incredibly difficult. Think of swimming in a Jacuzzi for [more than] two hours. We started off in a water temperature of 29 degrees and it was pushing 30 degrees by the end of the race.

“I came here last week directly out of Cape Town. I’ve been training in Stellenbosch, where the pool water is 20 degrees and I’d jump into the water with the outside temperature [being] three degrees.

“Meanwhile, the girl who won gold, for example, has been preparing in Spain in 28-degree water for six weeks before coming here. She’s been in a training camp – as have many of those who finished in the top 10 – for three months.

“Our Covid lockdown and restrictions were longer and more stringent than so many other countries. Pools were closed, we couldn’t travel, we received no funding.

“So, my prep for these Games wasn’t good, but I came here and did the best I could. And I think that’s what the Olympics are all about – athletes coming together from different backgrounds giving their best.”

Feeling hot, hot, hot

“This was by a long way the warmest water I’ve ever swum in. The first half of the race wasn’t too bad – there were seven laps of 1.4km – but after that I sort of ‘fell asleep’. I didn’t have my bearings, and when the bell rang for the last lap, I thought I still had three laps to go. But that’s all part of this sport. Open water is challenging and we have to adapt to different environments.

“The big factor was the heat and I drifted away in the second part of the race. It was a strange sensation. You’re hearing the water all the time for [more than] two hours and it gets difficult to breathe, and swallowing salt water makes the throat coarse.”

Weber, whose post-race analytics show that she averaged 45.4 strokes per minute – 5,741 strokes for the entire race – is at pains to portray the thoughts of someone who isn’t disappointed but wants to let us into her world.

“Five years ago for Rio, it was pre-Covid and we could travel,” she says.

“There was funding too, which meant that we were based in Italy for four to five weeks, then went to Florida for another four to five weeks and then down to Rio from there.

“I have been through a tough five years since then. I lost my mom last year and there has been a lot going on. I need to go back home and find balance in my life and rethink what I want to do. Also, the social unrest in South Africa just before we came here was unsettling.

“It played on my mind. Although I’m now in Stellenbosch, I come from Durban, which was badly affected. I’m also acutely aware that South Africa needs good news at the moment and I came here wanting to give them good news.

“There’s a lot of added pressure under those circumstances, knowing the expectations are to bring back medals. But, as I’ve explained, there were a lot of factors at play.

“I love the Olympics and what they stand for. I first dreamt the Olympic dream at the age of 12. I’m now 24. Few people know what it takes to qualify for the Olympics. There are so many sacrifices, swimming 80km a week, the nutrition, financial demands … so when I represent Team South Africa I do it with everything I’ve got. It’s a huge privilege and nothing is taken for granted.

“Today, though, it was basically the heat. The race moved so quickly but the second half … in Cape Town the water is 10 degrees and sometimes I’m okay without a wetsuit in 12 to 13 degrees. This was 29 to 30 degrees …,” she says.

Climbing out of the water, with more than two hours and 10 kilometres behind her, Weber was covered in ice-cold towels. She sat down for a while before making her way to the athletes’ lounge. The air conditioners were working overtime. “Aah, now this is bliss,” she says. DM168 

Gary Lemke is in Tokyo as chief writer for Team SA.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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