Once when Richard Weinberger was getting set to compete in a 10-kilometre race in Florida, his coach, Ron Jacks, suggested he go for a swim to check out the course. Big mistake.
“He did half a loop and came in and he said ‘I can’t do that. I don’t know what’s down there,’” Jacks recalled. “He can’t swim on his own.”
Weinberger might not be able to swim alone, but put him in a pack of 25 swimmers at the Olympics and there’s no stopping him.
He arrived in London a rising star in distance races, having won one world cup event and finishing in the top three in two others this season.
London would be all about going for a medal. And he showed no signs of intimidation as he punched his fist in the air at the starting platform, even though the field included Tunisian Oussama Mellouli who had won bronze in the 1,500-metre freestyle and Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece who had beaten Weinberger a couple of times.
“I’ve just got to have fun,” Weinberger said Friday. “That’s pretty much my position going into every single race. I’m here to have fun. I’m here to race these guys and to compete. The racing is just the best. This is like Christmas morning. I never sleep the night before.”
Far from shrinking from his more experienced competitors, Weinberger pushed the pace in Friday’s 10-kilometre race, leading from the start and hanging on with a group of four when Mellouli went to the front. The Tunisian had a big advantage. The course in Hyde Park’s Serpentine was more like a giant swimming pool than a choppy lake, perfect for pool swimmers like Mellouli who specialize in the 1,500 metres.
Mellouli was too strong for Weinberger Friday, but the Canadian finished third, just 5.2 seconds behind the winner and only two seconds behind silver medalist Thomas Lurz of Germany. “We made the race between four people and just tried to push the pace and separate things,” Weinberger said.
He certainly has a promising future in the sport. He is just 22, young by distance swimming standards, and most of his chief rivals, including Mellouli, are expected to retire.
He is also still learning about the event, like figuring out only recently the advantages of wearing a full body suit.
Few athletes work harder. Weinberger swims up to 100 kilometres a week at a pool in Victoria, doing hundreds of laps some days. He got into the sport after noticing the hard workouts a friend was doing in preparation for a distance swim. “I just saw him going longer workouts and I wanted to do that,” he said. “I hated seeing someone do more work than me.”
Jacks said Weinberger doesn’t just train hard, he has also developed shrewd competitive instincts and knows how to avoid the rough and tumble battling that is part of open water swimming.
“He’s the best in the world. He wasn’t today but I think he has that ability,” said Jacks, who has an easy rapport with the swimmer, despite the occasional nip from his pesky dog.
Mellouli too recognized the rising talent.
“He’s a tough swimmer,” the Tunisian said after the race, adding that he keyed on the Canadian during the competition. “I think you’ll see more of him in the future.”
That future will likely include the next Olympics, in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. And Weinberger is already preparing.
“I want to be Olympic gold medalist in Rio,” he said Friday.