Ana Marcela Cunha Realizes Golden Olympic Dream

Ana Marcela Cunha Realizes Golden Olympic Dream

The Olympic quadrennial has been the best of times and the worst of times for Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha.

Today, 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 Marcela is not a tall woman, but she 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.”

Kareena Lee of Australia kept up the momentum of the Australian female swimmers with a bronze. She constantly drafted but always kept sight of the swimmers in the lead and never let them get too far ahead. She played her cards very well, coming up strong on Cunha on the last half of the last race to capture bronze.  

Munatones added, “There has been no swimmer more active on the professional marathon swimming scene than Ana Marcela, a 29-year-old from São Paolo. Her consistency against the world’s best swimmers is so remarkable because she is not as fast as the other women in the pool and she overcame a very serious health scare where her spleen was removed in 2019.  She is such 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 to come back from her disappointing finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics and redeem herself on the Olympic stage is so 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 Marcela crawled back up, never letting up, and now she stands on top of the Olympic podium.  It is a remarkable comeback.”

Cunha explained her mindset during the race, “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]. Never until today could I say that I was an Olympic champion, but today I can say that I am the Olympic champion.”

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.”

Sid Cassidy who was commentating on the race frequently mentioned how the athletes were so grateful for even having the opportunity to compete and represent their country while the globe continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Kate Farley Sanderson of Toronto, Canada, agreed as she swam to 18th position. “I thought the first part of the race went well, my goal is to always put myself in a good spot. It’s a long race so you always want to go for it in the beginning. I didn’t hold on as well as I hoped to but overall I’m really happy with my effort.”
The weather was an issue for all, but all 25 athletes competed more or less well. Sanderson said, “[The heat] definitely affected the race a lot, but it was tough for everyone. I knew that if I was hot, then other people were hot and we had anticipated that coming to Japan so it wasn’t a surprise, but overall it was warm conditions.”
She expressed her gratitude as Cassidy mentioned, “I’ve just been so overwhelmed by the experience and it’s just a dream come true, [the Olympics] just means so much to so many people and I’m just so happy to be here. It’s really motivating being surrounded by all these different athletes and it has just been a really great experience being here.”

Silver medalist Sharon van Rouwendaal admitted her silver medal – a step down from her gold in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro – means a lot to her. “I think I did the best race possible. I was one of the favorites here and that’s really, really hard in open water because everybody’s looking at you. Every round, I couldn’t come up a little bit more in the front. I had to be smart and I didn’t want to swim in front because as the favorite, people would maybe pull me back, so I tried to stay second and third, and then saw Ana and I thought, ‘It’s better to let her (stay) in front, then maybe I can come back.’ But it got really hard. I couldn’t do better, if I would be in the front I would have been pulled back.

While many competitors trained this last quadrennial in warm, tropical areas, the Dutch woman took a different approach as she trained in Germany, “I had a different tactic due to warm water. I needed a new plan for today’s race as I didn’t train that much in warm water. Just five years ago, I was mostly a pool swimmer. It was tough at the end of the race, especially due to the warm water conditions, but today’s plan was a smart plan for me. The silver feels a little like gold because I am the first woman to earn two medals, achieving what Thomas Lurz did in the men’s marathon [in 2008 and 2012].”
Listen tomorrow to part 2 of the play-by-play commentary by Sid Cassidy and Steven Munatones during the 2.5-hour WOWSA livecast starting at 5:00 pm EST (6:00 am Tokyo time) for the men’s Olympic 10K Marathon Swim.

Olympic 10K Marathon Swim 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

Anastasiia Kirpichnikova of Russian Olympic Committee
Kate Sanderson of Canada at the feeding station
Coaches holding feeding sticks

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Steven Munatones