Champs' way: no pain, no gain

Champs' way: no pain, no gain

Two-time Olympic swimming medalist Thomas Lurz has a tip or two for kids

Champs' way: no pain, no gain
“Long distance (running) is tough because you have to learn to be patient and endure the pain,” marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie once said about his chosen sport. Marathons tend to test not only the physical strength and endurance of a participant, but also his mental preparedness. And these virtues get pushed to a greater level when you move from land to water.

For Thomas Lurz, a two-time Olympic medallist in open water swim (10 kms) — the marathon of swimming — these are the factors that made him succeed in his chosen sport. “You need to have the ability to accept the pain. It doesn’t matter which race it is, it’ll pain like hell. You need to work for this. And that’s something I accepted very early in my career,” he said. Lurz was in Bengaluru on a visit as a part of his college programme. Post his retirement in 2015, the German has been pursuing a part-time MBA from the WHU University in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“There’s only one way around this — hard training. Make your body fit for training. Mentally work on your body.” For someone who started out in pool at the age of seven, it was only at the age of 25 that Lurz decided to switch to open-water. “I always wanted to win a medal at the Olympics. When I was growing up, open water event was not part of the Olympic programme.

“It was after the Athens Games (in 2004) that open water swimming was included in the Olympic programme. This happened in 2005. And I realised that this was a good opportunity for me. I am not very big, I have small hands, small legs, I am not the strongest guy and my turns were not good in the pool. So, open water was the best chance for me to have a shot at the medal. And I think I was not wrong,” the 37-year-old said. Lurz won a bronze in 2008 when the marathon event debuted at the Beijing Games, and four years later went on to clinch the silver in London.

The gold medallist at London, Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia, labelled the race as ‘hell’ but Lurz had a different take on the race. “Well, that’s how every race feels, isn’t it?
“But for me, London was easy because the water temperature was fine and it felt like a race in the pool, without the filters. I was hoping it (water) would be choppier but it wasn’t. He (Oussama) was quite fast in the last two minutes and separated himself from the pack. I think his comments were more because of how he timed the race, than because of the conditions. We couldn’t start the victory ceremony immediately because he wanted to throw up. But for me, if the race was another 200 metres longer, the result could have gone my way but that’s not how the sport works,” the German said.

Over the years, open water swimming has had its share of controversy too. Be it the unpredictability at the Catalonia bay during the 2013 World Championships or the troubled waters at the Copacabana during the Rio Olympics. But it is the 2010 10K series in Fujairah, UAE, that cast a cloud over the sport. The death of Fran Crippen, a talented American swimmer, during the last race of the FINA series shocked all.

“It was a sad day and a tough day because I raced with him for many years and I knew him well,” said Lurz, who won that race. “I realised he was missing after the event. I won the race and I saw he hadn’t come. I finished the race, turned around and I saw other swimmers finish. I didn’t see him. I thought maybe he went out. Then I saw his backpack and felt something was wrong. It was hell there. The water temperate was 36 degrees and outside was hot as well,” he recollected.

An independent investigation later concluded that Crippen died of a cardiac abnormality and uncontrolled exercise-induced asthma in unfavourable race environmental conditions. For someone who swam in the pool for majority of his career, switching to open water was indeed a difficult task. While the physical training did go up by many notches, Lurz believes it is the ability to train his mind for the long distance that did the trick. “Physical training is no rocket science. Every coach will tell you to do 10 times 400M or five times 800M and so on. But it’s the mental preparedness that makes the difference,” he said.

“I didn’t have many problems because I was always hungry to achieve my goals and I couldn’t wait until the competition. The most important training session for me was the one on Christmas and New Year because I knew no one else is training at that time, but I am. And this one training session gave me the advantage, even for the Olympics, mentally. Of course for the muscles and body, the training sessions don’t make a difference. But I knew mentally that I was training hard.”

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