The Australian team of Moesha Johnson, Chelsea Gubecka, Nicholas Sloman, and Kyle Lee took down defending champion Italy in the final open water swimming event of the World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024.
For the first time since Shanghai 2011, a European nation did not win the mixed team relay at the World Aquatics Championships, as Australia won a scrapping fight over Italy and Hungary to close out the open water swimming schedule at the World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024.
The team of Moesha Johnson, Chelsea Gubecka, Nicholas Sloman and Kyle Lee won Australia’s first-ever gold medal in the open water team relay at the World Aquatics Championships at 1:03:28.0 as Lee got the final touch over the Italian team in silver at 1:03:28.2.
Australia didn’t come in as the pre-race favourite but had been building a strong open water team in the last few years, by virtue of their World bronze last year and their World Cup win in December.
“I think we absolutely raised the bar within the last five years,” Gubecka said. “I am proud of this team but even the juniors who are coming up want to be a part of this and we set the bar to that standard. We want these kids to come up and achieve that too. As far as we can continue the legacy especially with this relay, it really means something.”
Australia had a big week in the open water venue, with Johnson, Sloman and Lee qualifying for the Paris Olympics by virtue of their top 13 finishes in the 10km.
“This will be the first time we have ever had a full team for the open water,” Gubecka said. “I think we are one of two nations that will have a full team at this current moment in terms of qualification. I am just super proud to be an Aussie.”
A lot of the attention coming into the race was around the Italians and the French. Italy won this relay last year at the World Championships in Fukuoka, while France went 1-2 in the men’s 5km race on Wednesday. France however was hardly a factor on Thursday in Doha, placing sixth some 97 seconds behind the gold medalists.
“It was a tough finish but we knew that Australia was strong,” Paltrinieri said. “But we will see next time who is going to win. We expected this battle between us and Hungary and Australia. This is the fourth medal in a row for us so it is very good”
Hungary lost touch with the lead pack but won the bronze for the third straight medal at the championships with the team of Bettina Fabian, Mira Szimcsak, David Betlehem, and Kristof Rasovszky touching at 1:04:06.8 as they ran down Germany (1:04:11.6) and the United States (1:04:16.1) in fourth and fifth.
The pre-race favourite France was hardly a factor, placing sixth at 1:05:05.5 ahead of Portugal (1:05:05.7) and Brazil (1:05:36.2). France was presented with the best team trophy after the medal ceremony by virtue of winning a gold and two silvers in Doha.
With water temperatures reported at 19.1 degrees Celsius and air at 20.2, it was a chilly day on Thursday morning at the Old Doha Port in Qatar to close out the open water schedule at the World Aquatics Championships.
With many of the top nations going with two women up front and closing with two men, Australia took advantage of its speedy women to stay up early with the likes of Turkiye, People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of Korea, who went with two men on the front half.
Johnson and Gubecka stayed close with those three nations to keep Australia well ahead of the United States and Italy.
The United States had a lot of momentum coming into this race with the likes of Mariah Denigan and Katie Grimes on the front end, who both finished in the top five in their best events this week, before finishing with 1500m pool swimmers Charlie Clark and Michael Brinegar, but the men could not match the strength and speed of the Europeans as they fell off to finish fifth.
The third lap was when things got interesting as Paltrinieri grabbed the lead over Sloman as they both distanced themselves from the rest of the field. Germany held a solid third position with the likes of Oliver Klemet on the third leg, holding a sizeable lead on the Americans and the Hungarians, with the 10km World champ Rasovszky some 35 seconds back of the bronze medal.
Paltrinieri gave way to Acerenza, while Australia finished with Kyle Lee, who stayed on Acerenza’s feet.
Germany held third position with 17-year-old Arne Schubert finishing as Brinegar and Rasovszky led that chase group.
Lee had been known to be a great finisher for Australia as he had some memorable anchor legs at the 2023 World Championships in Fukuoka and the 2023 World Cup in Funchal, but he was going against Acerenza, who was also a great racer and closer.
“Domenico (Acerenza) is such a strong swimmer so it was not an easy thing to be around him and it cost me a lot of power and speed in the finish,” Lee said. “I was just trying to keep the speed and be as fast as I could on the touch.”
Lee stayed on Acerenza’s feet and as they turned to the final straightaway, he pulled up alongside the Italian. Acerenza and Lee were going stroke for stroke, but staying clean into the final straightaway as they were jostling for the gold medal, knowing fully what was at stake.
As they neared the touchpad, Lee reached up to grab the Omega board to give Australia the gold medal in a photo finish by two-tenths of a second over the Italians.
“It was so exciting to race today and to know you’re not swimming for yourself, you’re swimming for your country,” Lee said. “Everyone swam so well so going into the water, they were wishing me the best of luck and I tried to do my best for them.”
Australia improved on its bronze from last year’s Worlds and its the country’s first relay gold medal in open water swimming at the World Championships.
“I think it is a credit to our federation that we improved so much in the last years and put in the funding to be able to put us to the races and that gives us the experience we need,” Sloman said. “It is not an easy journey that is taking us for at least half a decade to get where we are and I credit this to the whole team as they are all a great support and we have done a really good job today.”
“We won a bronze medal as the underdogs last year and that really has driven us to strive for bigger and better,” Johnson said. “To be on top of the podium today against some really incredible nations is so special for all of us. We had an incredible week with our 10k swims.”
Rasovszky was able to track down the teams from Germany and the United States to give the Hungarians the bronze medal with Germany in fourth and the United States in fifth.
“We were second last year and we really wanted to win today but now, it is bronze so we downgraded a little bit but we are still glad that we managed it to the podium,” Rasovszky said. “In the last lap, I was just fifth so it was a big thing to get on the podium again.”
Many of the open water swimmers will continue on to the pool schedule next week at these World Aquatics Championships with the heats of the 1500m freestyle for women happening on Monday morning with the men’s 800m freestyle heats on Tuesday.