Richard Weinberger likes to keep open-water swimming friendly amid the thrashing of arms and legs.
The 22-year-old Canadian will blurt out a greeting to a competitor churning the water beside him, or a “Duuuude” if it’s one of his friends in the sport.
“Richard is unusual,” his coach Ron Jacks says. “He’s different in a lot of ways.”
But when you aspire to be an Olympic gold medallist “you’re not normal,” Jacks says. “There’s only one of them and one can’t be the norm.”
In a sport dominated by swimmers older than him, Weinberger is the brash upstart who beat the world-class field in the Olympic test event in London last summer.
“I beat the world champion and second-place finisher at worlds by 30 seconds almost,” Weinberger says. “That was definitely a huge win and an unexpected win.
“Pretty much at that moment, it became real to me that I could possibly win gold at the Olympics.”
Weinberger took gold at the Pan American Games last October. A top-10 result in June at a World Cup in Portugal was required to qualify for London.
Weinberger finished second despite an early scramble to keep his goggles on.
While fiddling with his goggles, Weinberger was mowed over by other swimmers and raced from well back in the pack to reach the podium.
“I would have to say he’s the fastest improving open-water swimmer in the world,” Jacks says.
Open-water swimming made its Olympic debut in Beijing four years ago, but Canada didn’t qualify a man or woman for the 10-kilometre races.
Toronto’s Zsofia Balazs will compete in the women’s open-water swim Aug. 9, followed by Victoria’s Weinberger the following day.
Also known as marathon swimming, open-water races are held in oceans, lakes, rivers and ponds. The 2012 Olympic race is six laps in the cool, calm water of the Serpentine in Hyde Park.
Germany’s Thomas Lurz and Spyros Gianniotis of Greece, both 32, are considered the men’s co-favourites for gold. They were second and third behind Weinberger respectively in the London test race.
“Experience is a huge part of this game. They’ve got much more experience,” Weinberger says. “I push the pace and these older guys tend to tighten up at the end.”
Open-water training seems like sheer swimming drudgery compared to sprint preparation.
In the final stages of his Olympic preparation, Weinberger has put in over 100 kilometres a week in the pool. That’s physically and mentally daunting.
“I always tell Ron that you have a sanity meter throughout the week,” Weinberger says. “Sometimes it runs out before the Saturday-morning workout. Those are the times I’m mentally not there.”
Adds Jacks: “It’s a joke that he breaks down every Thursday night and has a big kerfuffle with me. He has breakdowns. Then there’s the repair jobs. Breakdowns and repair jobs.
“I’ve gone a week almost without talking to him sometimes, but they don’t come in nice packages. The ones who come in nice packages usually aren’t going to win.”
Weinberger’s training is done almost exclusively in the pool. During the racing season, he says fitness gained from competing in an open-water event also helps prepare him for the next.
He admits losing interest in his training program, much to the dismay of Jacks.
“I’m a basket case,” Weinberger states. “I tend to not follow the same idea longer than 24 hours.
“I’ll veer off and want to do something else. For a coach, it must be extremely frustrating.”
Weinberger has realized there is a method to his coach’s madness. Mental fortitude built through gruelling training paid off in Portugal.
“Sometimes Ron throws in a set that’s mind-boggling, terrible, and you’ve just got to deal with it and go through it step by step,” Weinberger explains. “In Portugal, when I lost my goggles, I was 49th after the first lap. I had to pass 48 people to place where I was.
“There’s mental ups and downs in racing, therefore they’ve got to be in training too. Ron’s really brilliant with his coaching, I must say. He said I could do great things in open-water swimming.”
Weinberger was born in Moose Jaw, Sask. He moved often with parents Tony and Marina and sister Brittany to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Saudi Arabia and British Columbia during his life. Tony is a commercial pilot.
A competitive swimmer when he went to Victoria to attend university, Weinberger observed distance swimmer David Creel in the pool beside him.
“I hated seeing Dave Creel doing more work than me and longer workouts than me, so I wanted to join in,” Weinberger recalls.
“When I was younger and racing I always seemed to be better at the 400 freestyle than 200 free, I’d be better at 800 free than 400 free and then better at the 1,500 than the 800. I tried the 10k and it was better than the 1,500.”
Despite a short attention span when it comes to training, Weinberger has natural talent in distance racing.
“I get the feeling it kind of stimulates him because there’s so much happening,” Jacks observes. “He’s very good at breathing with his head up. He swims very natural with the physical ability to do that.
“He knows where everyone is in a race, which is, I think is an innate type of skill.”
Similar to running races on land, open-water swims have re-fuelling stations on the course.
Weinberger likes caffeine in his energy drink — caffeine is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances — but he never wants it otherwise.
“Only for racing,” he explains. “It’s a mental and physical buzz. Actually I try to stay away from all kinds of caffeine. I have sleeping problems and it will keep me up all night.”
Away from the pool, the economics student likes to spend time with friends and enjoys the odd wager at the casino.
“Right before I left for Olympic trials, I won $130 on Red 7 in roulette,” Weinberger boasts.
Unlike the world championship, in which 60 men compete in the open-water race, the Olympic field is capped at 25. Weinberger expects a fast race and intends to be the one pushing the pace.
“It’s not going to be the last 1,500 or 1,600 metres for a final sprint,” he say. “It’s going to be the last four or five kilometres final sprint.”
The Serpentine is a pond frequented by water fowl. While not as dramatic as the ocean, Weinberger feels it’s the ideal environment for him.
“Anything that is flat and cold, I’ll swim in,” he says. “I swim in other things, but I prefer flat and cold, so the pond is perfect for me.”