Sharon van Rouwendaal showed why she is considered one of the greatest open water swimmers ever on Saturday morning in Doha, Qatar as she won the 10km gold medal and an automatic berth to her fourth straight Olympics. The nearly two-hour race came down to the final touch as van Rouwendaal, who was near the front of the pack the entire way, won by a tenth in a photo finish over Spain’s Maria de Valdes.

“The feeling of winning is very special,” van Rouwendaal said. “I had told myself that I was going to be the World Champion. I never say it out loud, but I kept my confidence.

“The greatest challenge is the conditions in water as it is open water and you never know what can happen. I had every scenario in my head and was confident that I was going to win this. Everyone kept asking me to keep my eyes on Paris but for me, I had to grab this win to level.”

Van Rouwendaal touched at 1:57:26.8 to de Valdes’s 1:57:26.9, who won her first medal at a World Championships and qualified for her first Olympics at age 25.

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“This is a dream come true for me,” Valdes said. “I was working for this all those years. I was out of Tokyo so I am very grateful for this result.

“It was a very special day for me today and I dedicate this medal to my father who passed away three months ago,” Valdes continued. “It is very painful and it was very hard months for me before this championship. So, this result and this medal is very important to me.”

Portugal’s Angelica Andre won the bronze medal at 1:57:28.2 to upgrade her 15th place from last year’s Worlds in Fukuoka.

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“I never told anyone that I will try to win in Doha before the competition,” Andre said. “It is maybe better when you do not say it before the start, but it ended up with a medal. The finish today was not too hard as I felt strong.

“During the race, I usually only think of the race and my position, the tactics and so on. There was a lot of fighting and pushing during the race as many people are trying to get the place at the Olympic Games and it is hard for this reason. But open water is just like this. I train in Porto, Portugal so I am used to every condition. I like this championship; I like this temperature. Swimmers need to be prepared for all the conditions.”

De Valdes winning the silver and Andre the bronze comes as a surprise as Andre has won one international medal before this - a bronze from the 2022 Europeans in the 10K. It was at those Europeans where de Valdes picked up her first and only international medal as well - a silver in the 5K. Valdes didn’t even swim at the World Aquatics Championships last year, only solidifying her Doha qualification at the last stop of the World Cup in December.

The Race

A lot was at stake this morning in the 10K at the 21st World Aquatics Championships in Doha, with the top 13 to automatically qualify for spots in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris later this summer. The water temperature at the Old Doha Port was reported to be at 20.7 degrees Celsius with the air temperature at 18.2 degrees and the wind at 24 kilometers.

Van Rouwendaal and American Katie Grimes took the lead early on the first two laps of the race, setting the pace as two of the favorites. Grimes had already qualified for Paris based on her bronze from last summer’s Worlds in Fukuoka, Japan. The 18-year-old Las Vegas native looked nice and relaxed in setting the pace early.

It took over an hour for Grimes’s lead to get breached as van Rouwendaal took the lead about an hour and 10 minutes into the race. Some of the swimmers in the lead pack started to veer off course, creating two distinct lines on lap four of six with the other being led by Monaco’s Lisa Pou who held the lead through lap four.

On lap five, van Rouwendaal made her presence known and pressed the pace a little bit to see if anyone would go with her. Frustration was an overriding emotion for her in this race, missing out on Olympic qualification last year by finishing fourth in a photo finish at the World Aquatics Championships, and lost the overall World Cup crown in Portugal by finishing eighth.

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“In Madeira, I got a big deception while swimming at the World Cup and it made me hungry and focused on finishing in a better position while training very hard,” van Rouwendaal said. “I had a high-altitude camp in Pretoria. I felt firm recovering from the injuries since 2015 in my career. I had a feeling for the past 2 weeks that I was going to win this race. As soon as I arrived, I was feeling very confident but on the race day, there was some pressure on me.”

As the packed approached the final lap of the race, Spain’s de Valdes pulled up alongside Pou to compete for second place with France’s Oceane Cassignol and Japan’s Airi Ebina lingering. Italy’s Ginevra Taddeucci, who was in medal position for much of the first five laps of the race and was considered a real medal favorite, stayed even with van Rouwendaal and Valdes but fell off the pace on the last lap.

Australia’s Moesha Johnson entered the fray on the last lap and almost seemed to run away from the rest of the field, opening up about a ten meter lead on van Rouwendaal and Valdes.

But just as quickly as Johnson took control of the race, her training partner van Rouwendaal fought back, and Valdes went with her. Van Rouwendaal powered to the wall to win the gold medal by one tenth over Valdes, with Andre winning the bronze in a final sprint over Johnson, and those four will see each other again in Paris.

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“During the race, I was keeping my confidence during every lap,” van Rouwendaal said. “Although, I made some mistakes in the last few laps losing a lot of spots and dropping to the 4th and 5th positions. My fellow swimmers like Oceane and Moesha who are good at sprints gave me a tough time. My training partner Moesha Johnson was gliding and performing very well as I know she is very good at pacing. As I got closer to her I was like sorry but I have to get this.”

This will be the fourth Olympics for van Rouwendaal while Andre qualifies for her second at age 29, and Valdes qualifies for her first at age 25.

“The finish was great but very tough,” Valdes said. “The problem during the race was the waves so it was very hard in the final meters, especially after the last buoy, I was fighting with Angelica for the position. Of course, the next target is the Olympic Games and the dream is the Olympic medal.”

“I felt strong in the race and also in the last buoy,” Andre said. “I was confident but still, I am very surprised about my medal - the first medal among women in the open water for Portugal. It’s important that I compete at the Olympic Games. I will try to have a good competition there, too.

“This race was a good boost for my self-confidence,” Andre continued. “The first goal is to get to the top eight, but this medal gives me confidence for my next training before the Olympics and bigger targets. It will be my second Olympics and the first one did not go so well. So I want to do better in Paris.”

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The top 13 from this race automatically qualified for the Paris 2024 Games as Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha and Johnson finished tied for fourth overall at 1:57:31.10. Cunha will head to France trying to defend her Olympic title from Tokyo. Today marks Cuhna’s fourth time qualifying for the Olympics, while this marks the first time the 26-year-old Johnson has earned a place at the Games.   

USA’s Mariah Denigan finished sixth, booking her first trip to the Olympics at age 20.

France also picked up two automatic qualifiers in Caroline Jouisse, who finished seventh at 1:57:32.30, and Cassignol, who finished tenth at 1:57:34.90, while Italy’s Arianna Bridi (1:57:33.20), Monaco’s Pou (1:57:33.40) placed eighth and ninth to pick up automatic bids.

Japan’s Ebina (1:57:35.50), Hungary’s Bettina Fabian (1:57:36.50), and Spain’s Angela Martinez (1:57:36.60) rounded out the top 13 to qualify for the Paris Olympics.

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Defending World champion Leonie Beck of Germany was hardly a factor during the race and finished well off the pace in 20th at 1:58:11.80. She already solidified her Olympic qualification last year when she won the World title in Fukuoka.

Taddeucci, who was in the lead pack early on, also finished off the pace in 22nd at 1:58:21.10.