Ana Marcela Cunha, FINA's 2021 Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year

Ana Marcela Cunha, FINA’s 2021 Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year


It is not surprising that Ana Marcela Cunha repeated as FINA’s Best Female Open Water Swimmer of the Year again in 2021.

The dominance of the 29-year-old Brazilian from São Paolo over the last decade has been impressive…and 2021 was certainly her most impressive yet, especially with her strong Olympic marathon swimming gold medal performance in Tokyo Bay.

2010: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2011: Keri-Anne Payne (Great Britain)
2012: Éva Risztov (Hungary)
2013: Poliana Okimoto (Brazil)
2014: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2015: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2016: Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands)
2017: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2018: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2019: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
2021: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)

Ana lived up to her own high expectations and won gold in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim – going away – cementing her legacy as the world’s most celebrated professional marathon swimmer. She is not tall and lanky like many of her strongest Olympic rivals. She doesn’t have the world-class pool swimming cred as they do, but Ana is just quite simply the most tenacious, most well traveled, most experienced open water swimmer at the highest levels of the professional circuit. From 5 km to 25 km, in any water conditions or temperature, she is always in the hunt for victory.

Swimming World Magazine, SwimSwam Magazine, WOWSA Awards, her own Brazilian swimming federation, and FINA all acknowledged her brilliance and track record by naming her its best open water swimmer of the Year – and justifiably so.

Cunha swam a nearly perfect race to win the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim at the Tokyo Olympics.  Cunha never swam lower than the third position throughout the race. She took over the lead from Ashley Twichell on the third of seven loops and kept on pushing the pace after taking the lead in the 29.5°C (85°F) water of Odaiba Marine Park on the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh loops. 

She relinquished the lead only a few times throughout the entire race – only letting Leonie Beck of Germany temporarily take the lead.  Every time Cunha was challenged, she steadily maintained her pace. The Brazilian explained her gold medal performance, “This means a lot.  [The victory] was due to many years working.  I was the only swimmer [in this race who also competed] in Beijing in 2008.  Around 10 days ago, I knew.  I want it to much, so badly.” 

She looked so long and strong in the latter part of the race,” observed Steven Munatones. “Ana really looked like a champion throughout the race out there.  Her strokes looked so long and powerful – her kick varied between a 2-beat kick and culminated in a 6-beat kick. When eventual silver medalist and defending Olympic champion Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands came up alongside her, she kept her pace up.  She never backed down and was deliberate in her tactics. She swam a magnificent race; it was a credit to her attitude, confidence and hard work over the last decade.

There has been no swimmer more active on the professional marathon swimming scene than Ana. Her consistency against the world’s best swimmers is so incredibly remarkable because she overcame a very serious health scare where her spleen was removed in 2019.  She is also a great ambassador for the sport of open water swimming – she participates in local races in Brazil and wins 25 km world championships with frequency.  And her comeback from her disappointing finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics to redeem herself on the Olympic stage is extremely inspirational.”

I can only imagine that lying in a hospital bed after her surgery after not medaling in the Rio Olympics must have felt terrible, like she fell to the rock bottom.  But Ana crawled back up, never letting up, and now she stands on top of the Olympic podium.  Her tenacity is remarkable.”

Cunha explained her mindset during the Olympics, “We had to be cool or ‘cold’ as Europeans [are]. We are Latin people; we are hot, we are emotional people, so I had to be very cold mentally in the race to be focused and I had to win it myself. I knew I was prepared for that.

My family always believed in me and supported me in this journey. We are dreaming the same dream (with her coach). This medal means a lot to me. I will keep this medal in a special place and I have a plan to develop a foundation that will support the future dreams of swimmers. I think this medal will show new generations that swimming, and especially marathons, will allow many others to dream. I could speak for hours about this medal, but our time is short. I am thankful for the support of the Brazilian government and for many other sponsors, supporting me for so many years. Of course I must thank my club and my family.

I was able to give 100% of my skills and talent today. In other competitions, I often said I could have done better, but I won’t say this today. I am exhausted from the race. I am proud that it has been 13 years since my first Olympics [in 2008 when she finished 5th as a 16-year-old].”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Ana-gold-1200x750.png
Ana Marcela Cunha admits her hair is her signature. “It is my tradition to get a haircut or a new hairstyle or a new hair color before a race.”

Unlike several others in the race, Cunha plans to continue racing. “I am very happy in training for open water swimming. I am active and training with passion. That love will allow me to continue. Paris is just three years away. My mental preparation is as important as my physical training. My body and my mind are always connected and the most important is that I have always believed in myself.

Tokyo Olympic Games 10K Marathon Swim Women’s Results:

  1. Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil, 29) 1:59:30.90
  2. Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands, 27) 1:59:31.70
  3. Kareena Lee (Australia, 27) 1:59:32.50
  4. Anna Olasz (Hungary, 27) 1:59:34.80
  5. Leonie Beck (Germany, 24) 1:59:35.10
  6. Haley Anderson (USA, 29) 1:59:36.90
  7. Ashley Twichell (USA, 32) 1:59:37.90
  8. Xin Xin (China, 24) 2:00:10.10
  9. Lara Grangeon de Villele (France, 29) 2:00:57.0
  10. Finnia Wunram (Germany, 25) 2:01:01.90
  11. Samantha Arévalo (Ecuador, 26) 2:01:30.60
  12. Cecilia Biagioli (Argentina, 36) 2:01:31.70
  13. Yumi Kida (Japan, 36) 2:01:40.90
  14. Rachele Bruni (Italy, 30) 2:02:10.20
  15. Anastasiia Kirpichnikova (Russian Olympic Committee, 21) 2:03:17.50
  16. Paula Ruiz Bravo (Spain, 22) 2:03:17.60
  17. Angelica Andre (Portugal, 26) 2:04:40.70
  18. Kate Farley Sanderson (Canada, 21) 2:04:59.10
  19. Alice Dearing (Great Britain, 24) 2:05:03.20
  20. Paola Perez (Venezuela, 30) 2:05:45.00
  21. Michelle Weber (South Africa, 24) 2:06:56.50
  22. Krystyna Panchishko (Ukraine, 23) 2:07:35.10
  23. Li-Shan Chantal Liew (Singapore, 22) 2:08:17.90
  24. Spela Perse (Slovenia, 25) 2:08:33.00
  25. Souad Nefissa Cherouati (Algeria, 32) 2:17:21.60

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Steven Munatones