Open Water's Thomas Lurz: He's Not Just Getting Older, He's Getting Better
Open Water's Elder Statesman Thomas Lurz:  He's Not Just Getting Older, He's Getting Better
A few weeks before the FINA World Championships, 33 year old Thomas Lurz contemplated the events he would swim in Barcelona.  Of the four events on the open water swimming program, Lurz must have had trouble making a decision.  Instead he entered all four of them;  the 5K, 5K Team Event; 10K and 25K.  His program would include a staggering total of 45 kilometers of racing in Moll de la Vista harbour.
The three time Olympian was certainly accomplished at collecting medals in the shorter events but he had never won one in the 25K.  Lurz is still fresh off the Hyde Park podium after last summer's second place finish in the Olympic 10K Swim Marathon.  He is the only athlete with two Olympic 10K medals. In 2008 he earned a bronze in the inagural race in Beijing. To Lurz's way of thinking he's not just getting older, he is getting better.  
Two years ago at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai Lurz won the 5K event claiming his 7th consecutive world championship title in that event.  On his resume are three 10K world championship victories, only the second male swimmer to do so.  In the 5K Team Event Lurz and his German teammates earned a bronze medal in the new discipline when it was introduced two years ago in Shanghai. 
Lurz is older than 98 of the 99 men that would jump in the harbour to challenge him.  Heading into Barcelona Lurz was already the most medalled open water swimmer in history; he is the owner of 16 world championship titles.  In fact there are only two other athletes across all five of FINA's disiplines that have earned more FINA World Championship titles than Thomas Lurz.  Both are pool swimmers who you might say are in the "limelight" a bit more often:  Michael Phelps (33 titles) and Ryan Lochte (19 titles).  Lurz's position as the third ranking FINA medalist is quite secure and the medals he might win in Barcelona could advance him as second only to Phelps.
Setting goals before international events is something that the elder statesman of open water swimming has been doing for quite some time.  An obvious objective in Barcelona was to continue his streak of unbeaten titles in the 5K since his first title won at the 2005 Montreal championships.  On the first day of the World Championships Lurz fell 1.8 seconds short of winning an eighth consecutive gold medal.  He found his way to the podium for his ninth medal, a second bronze in the 5K event. 
Forty-eight hours later he would be one in a field of 64 men entering the harbour for the 10K.  No man had won four titles in the 10K.  Lurz would have been the first to do this had reigning world champion Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece not arrived at the touchpad 2.7 seconds ahead of the German ace.  Lurz would settle for a silver medal in the 10K to go with the one bronze and three other silver medals already in his trophy case. 
Lurz would find his precious gold in the second half of the week.  With the help of Isabelle Harle and Christian Reichert the German trio beat 21 other teams to capture a gold medal in the 5K Team Event.  The finish time of the third swimmer determines the team's final time -- their time of 52:54.9 was more than a minute ahead of the second place Greek squad.   Many competitors remarked at how fast the pace was swum, which was confirmed by the fact that the time for the slowest German, Harle, was faster than all 52 of the men who raced in the individual 5K just five days earlier on the same course.
On the eighth day of world championships and the final day of open water swiming Lurz would capture his second gold medal of the championships.    The clever German would allow others to lead the race and to do most of the heavy lifting.  While others are expending their energy and battling each other on the tight turns of the course. Lurz would be free to conserve his energy and avoid physical confrontations with other swimmers who might be fighting over the same path enroute to the touchpad.  Lurz saved his strength for his move to overtake Brian Ryckeman.  Lurz would beat the Belgian swimmer by four tenths of a second.  His time of 4:47:27.20 shaved more than 8 minutes off the previous best time making him only the second man to swim faster than five hours.
It would be his first medal in the 25K event, a signifcant personal milestone.  It would be his 20th FINA world championship medal meaning that for the moment only Phelps had a greater tally of world championship medals.  Lurz would enter the record books as the only open water swimmer to win a medal in each of the four events and he did this at a single world championships. 
Although there's no likelihood that his career is ending anytime soon, FINA Aquatics World Magazine caught up with Lurz just 24 hours after his 25K championship victory to learn more about the swimmer from Wurzburg, Germany and to look back at his career. 
Lurz recalled his first FINA world championship race as a 19 year old on Momochi Beach in Fukuoka, Japan, a 19 year old who finished 13th, more than 90 seconds behind Luca Baldini of Italy, during the summer of 2001.  A full year of training resulted in his first FINA medal, a bronze in the 5K in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt at the 2nd FINA Open Water Swimming World Championships.  He told us that he didn't swim fast enough at the German trials to be selected to swim in Barcelona's 2003 edition held 10 years ago held in the same harbour.  He admitted that the 15:33.81 time, 22nd place in the 1500m at his first Olympics in 2004 Athens was far from his best time.
Our Interview with World Champion Thomas Lurz:     
How do you feel a day after winning gold in the 25K and after swimming 45K in 4 different races during the World Championships:
"I am a little bit tired, I'm still hurting. I dont know how to lie on the bed and get sleep, my left arm is hurting, my right arm is hurting, my scratches are hurting.  All together those races were pretty tough and made this mistake of forgetting to apply Vaseline before the 5K race.  I still make mistakes!  The salt water and the tight suit made things uncomfortable for me in the rest of my races."
In Barcelona you earned a bronze medal in the 5K event, an event which you had dominated winning seven consecutive races, what happened that you didn't win?
"I had some contact with other athletes in the 5K and I came out of the water with some bruises due to the physicality of other swimmers.  I could never get into the postion I wanted to be in before the finish.  I knew that Sryrios would have a strong sprint. I avoided contract with other swimmers in the 10K and 25K because it only costs power that I prefer to conserve for the final sprint.  From experience I can tell you that the swimmers who are the most physical don't often find themselves on the medals podium."

When did you swim your first open water race?
"In 1998 at the German Championships."
Did you race in pool events before switching over to an open water specialst? 
"I swam mostly in the 1500m.  After I began training for open water races I improved my personal best from 15:35 to 15:11 in one year. My best time is 15:00.90 in 2006.  At the big meets there was always a conflict with open water events and I was never able to swim good times in the pool after competing in the open water events events.   I swam a 15:07 in 2008 although I wasn't tapered or shaved. Since I was already qualified for the 10K in Beijing, I skipped the German championships where I may have swum faster."
Tell us about your 25K race in Barcelona where you swam 4:47.20, the fastest time ever
"The first lap was very slow but this is open water and every race is different.  In open water racing you need to switch the speeds all the time.  Even if you swim very slow your muscules will get tired because it's not your rythm.  I think the third lap was the fastest.  I think its better to swim the speed of the whole group and find an opportunity to draft off of others, rather than being in front and.swimming your own thing.  I am sure that in every race I am not the fastest person in that race, but I am able to win because I apply the best tactics.  I knew that I couldn't push the pace of the 25K and felt that the only chance I had was to wait for the last 500 to 800m.  I know how my body feels and how my mind thinks and I have the experience to know when I can push ahead and sprint to the finish. If you have a good strategy and a little bit of luck at the end you can have a good result."

What do you think about your German teammate Angela Maurer who turned 38 years old on the day of the 25K race?
"Angela swam a great 25K. Of course when I see world class performances from swimmers like her its motivation for me.  Just look at her races and you will see that she swims so much smarter that others.  She has great experience and it's the most important thing in open water swimming."
Is it correct that your swim coach is your brother Stefan?
"My brother Stefan is 2 1/2 years older than me and he has been my coach since 2005.  I started swimming because of my brother.  When he was learning to swim he told me that I must learn to swim as well.  As a younger brother you always do what your older brother is doing.  At a young age Stefan was more highly talented than me.  He placed third in the 200m fly at XXXXX
When Stefan was younger he knew every world record not only in swimming but in athletics too. After his swimming career he became the assistant to my coach (Nicolay Evseev, anXXXX).  Stefan was always serious minded and very professional about being a swim coach. His previous job was selling insurance, but he realized that he liked coaching and he gave up his job to take over as head coach for our club.  Stefan is the German Open Water National Coach and he is not only coaching me, but also several other pool swimmers from our club:
Are there any challenges about having your brother as a swim coach?
"Sometimes its hard, and sometimes we might quarrel a little bit, but I think this is normal because sport is emotions and this is OK.  He is not the type of coach that needs to kick my ass or to tell me how hard to train.  I don't need motivation from him.  In fact he often needs to remind me that I'm getting older and maybe doing too much.  He tells me when I should back off my training.  I have always had a very good relationship with Stefan.  As a brother living together for many years we are close and he usually knows exactly how I feel."
Is the bulk of your training in the pool?
"I train in the pool always.  It's important to train in a group and I have trained with Swan Oberson, Petar Stoychev, Angela Maurer and many others."

When is the last time you missed a practice?
"Never, unless I was sick and that's very rare. This season I never missed even one practice.  Missing a practice is not an option.  I am training 11 times a week, only one practice on Thursday.  I take Sunday off but usually that's for dryland, gym, running or biking.  I am not very tall, and I don't have big hands so the only way I can beat these people is by training more than these guys.  If they train 10 times a week I must train 11 times a week."
The London Olympics were your third Games, what is your impression of the man who beat you to the finish line and of the course in The Serpentine.

"Oussama Mellouli is a very good swimmer and tough competitor.  He is relatively new to the 10K but for sure he is very good in the sea. He won the Olympic Qualification race in Portugal which was held in the sea two months before going on to win gold at the Olympic Games. I think the Hyde Park venue was very flat water, better for a typical pool swimmer.  Mellouli is collecting more and more experience with every open water race he swims.  Ous was swimming extremely fast and I couldn't stay with him.  He's has brought this sport to another level.  London was a great promotion of open water swimming, I read that there were more than 45 thousand spectators and of course worldwide television coverage too."

How does it feel to be the only swimmer to have won a medal in the 10K Olympic Marathon?
"I know it's a great achievement and I am very satisfied with this.  To win a medal at the Olympics is extremely hard. It means even more to me than medals at the World Championships.  It's special because the Olympics are held only every four years and there is only one event for open water swimmers.  In the pool you have many events and relays so this makes an open water medal much more difficult. Many people don't realze how much work it is training for an event that occours every four years. Compare this to a popular sport in my country, football.  Every year a team will win the Champions league, it's hugely popular on TV and highly publicized and that's only within Europe.  We need to get our Olympic sport more in focus!"
What goals did you have for the Barcelona world championships?
"I said to myself that I want to do something that no one did before in open water. I thought about setting a goal of winning three golds but at the moment I know this is extremely hard with so many great athletes in our sport. Winning a medal in four starts would be great.  I also wanted to win the 25k because that would mean I would have won a medal in every event."
Would you like to see races with more swimmers?
"Its very impressive when you see 100 or more swimmers in an open water race.  The setting can be spectacular when held in cities with spectators surrounding the course like in Barcelona.  But the course must be set to accomodate that many swimmers and there must be more room at the start.  Athletes at the world championships are highly motivated and they go out to fast and there is a lot of fighting especially at the buoys.  This is open water and it make it interesting. If I were an open water swim coach I would tell my swimmers keep out of this and that they cannot swim fast when people are swimming on your hips and your shoulders.  You can't feel the water if you are swimming on top of people or if they are swimming on top of you."

Please tell us about your family and their support for your swimming success?
"My father Peter was the President of our swim club and it was his dream that Stefan and I would be swimmers.  He was always happy when I swum and of course when I won my races.  It was a great loss for our family when he died of a heart attack while on a cycling tour.  At the time I was competing at the World University Games in Thailand and it was a shock to receive this news.  I think about my father often during my races, especially when I need that extra strength in the last 500m in the sprint.  My mother Renate cooks two meals for me every day, so I visit her twice daily and she makes sure that I am eating well.  She was in London and was very nervous about my race.  I told her to relax even if I should be in 10th position and not up front with the leaders.   I also have the support of my girlfriend Annette Baumann who is physiotherapist with the German team.  She knows very well the habits, the schedule and the work ethics of an elite athlete.
What's next on your competition schedule?
" I will be racing in World Cup events in Canada and in the 10K events in China in September."
What do you predict you will be doing in 5 years?
"I am sure that I will not be swimming in 5 years. I studied social work and received my degree in 2007 from university.  I wanted to finish my education so that I would be able to have a career after swimming was over. I always wanted to be sure that i had a career after swimming.  In January I started a job with a major clothing company in Europe.  I also want to have something to do with sport and I want to give something back.  It's sensible to have swimmers with experience involved in the governance of sport."