Ana Marcela Cunha has won the 2019 FINA Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year award for the sixth time in the 10 years of its existence after a year in which she claimed two world titles and collected the overall crown in the Marathon Swimming World Cup for the fourth time. The year 2019 also marked the 27-year-old Brazilian’s induction in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, and after winning the 5km and 25km at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju in July she prevailed in the 10km at the Pan American Games in Lima in August. 

“It was a magical year” 

Ana Marcela has amassed 12 World Championship medals, five of them gold, in 14 years of open water swimming since her first big races at the age of just 13. Last year marked several milestones in her astonishing career, notably her entry in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, although she was unable to attend the ceremony in Melbourne last March and Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel received the award on her behalf.

At the Worlds, in the races in Yeosu, Cunha became the most prolific female open water world champion in history, with the fifth gold medal of her career – her first in the 5km followed by an unprecedented fourth in the 25km. The Pan American Games title in the 10km was also a first for her. In October she scooped two more firsts for Brazil - at the World Beach Games in Doha and the World Military Games – she is a sergeant in the Brazilian Army – in Wuhan, China. All in all, it was a remarkable year that led to the accolade of Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year from the US magazine “Swimming World” and the FINA award.

“I was really surprised by these awards. But it was a magical year, super productive, we achieved all the goals set. All reviewers of these awards are very technical in their choice, so it is an honour and very rewarding,” Ana Marcela said.

Tough and tasty medals

If we take all the Olympic disciplines into account, Cunha is by far the most successful Brazilian woman with her 12 medals in World Championships. Second on this list is pool swimmer Etiene Medeiros, with eight podium finishes, and third is judoka Mayra Aguiar with six.

Her impressive results, her dedication and professionalism make her an example for aspiring young athletes.

However, Olympic glory has so far eluded the Brazilian – a gap she will hope to fill at the Tokyo Games this year. She finished fifth in the 10km – the sole Olympic distance – at the World Championships, which booked her place for her third Olympics.

She might be the only one in the race on August 5 who also competed in the first Olympic open water event in Beijing 2008, where she finished fifth. Guided by coach Fernando Possenti, she will fight with her usual determination to overcome the frustration that came from missing out on the London 2012 Games and managing only 10th place at home, in Rio 2016, where she had been pre-race favourite. During that last experience she faced health problems and had her spleen removed a month after the Games. She said after the Rio race her result “was not worthy”. But she bounced back at the World Championships in Hungary’s Lake Balaton the following year, winning the 25km and earning bronze in both the 5km and 10km.

“It was hard to return after everything that happened, but nothing like a medal to make it all worthwhile. It was a tough and tasty medal,” she said after her 25km victory.

Love has no face

Born in a humble family in the state of Bahia in north-eastern Brazil, Ana Marcela was two years old when she learned to swim in a school for babies in the city of Salvador.

At the age of 13 she was already swimming on equal terms with much older opponents and in 2006, aged 14, she won her first major national competition, the Travessia dos Fortes, off Copacabana Beach, launching her successful career. Since then she has been a stalwart of the Brazilian team, taking part in two Olympics, eight World Championships and two Pan American Games.

Happy with the titles she has already won and hopeful about the Tokyo Olympics, Ana is in a magical moment of life and plans, after the Olympics, to marry water polo player Diana Abla.

It will happen after the Tokyo Olympics, for sure. We have to be free. Love has no face, no explanation. You feel. You feel something for someone, admiration for everything that this person does and it is all encompassed. What I feel for her, for sure, is love,” she said.

*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2020/2) click here.