One of only three American swimmers to already qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Jordan Wilimovsky is as laid back as you would expect any Malibu, California native to be. The two-time Olympian and World Champion open water swimmer, who also holds a degree in Political Science and International Studies from Northwestern University, explains his world of open water swimming in an easy way, glossing over the gritty details of years upon years of early practices and pure dedication to earn each of his accolades. But while his attitude might have started from sunny days on the beach as a kid, it’s grown into a mindset befitting of a champion athlete.
Most swim races are measured in minutes and meters but in open water swimming its hours and kilometres. Just like cycling where drafting is a key component of the sport, even though the swim might last for up to five hours and 25km, the pack thins out and “a lot of races come down to 100ths of a second or one touch which,” as Wilimovsky smiles, “is crazy.” What really sets open water swimming apart from pool swimming is the mindset it takes to race in such a changing environment.
Wilimovsky’s main event, the 10km and only distance included in the Olympics, lasts around two hours and, unlike the controlled environment of a pool, weather and water conditions are also part of the event. On top of that, the intricacies of draft swimming and race strategy also come into play which makes open water swimming more than just a change of scenery from four walls and a black line. Racing isn’t easy going but going with the flow is exactly what Wilimovsky cites as fundamental for every open water swimmer:
“If you swim in open water, you have to have an open mindset¨ he says. ¨Be ready for the course to change at the last second, or the conditions to change, or just something where you need to adapt.”
Adaptation is something Wilimovsky learned early in swimming. After failing a swim test to join a lifeguard camp at the age of 9, Wilimovsky joined the local swim club for the summer instead. He continued swimming throughout school but when sprinting didn’t seem to be his thing, his coach suggested open water swimming and, at 16, Wilimovsky adapted again.
Even starting as swimmer, when Wilimovsky switched to focus on open water, he admits he wasn’t great. “But it was fun, something different from the pool. I stuck with it, slowly got better, and eventually I got to the point where I made teams.” Not only did he make teams but Wilimovsky went on to a silver and bronze medal at Junior World Championships. Wilimovsky’s career only progressed from there with the 10km World Champion title in 2015, multiple World Championship medals in subsequent years, and he became the first American to compete in both the pool and the open water at the Olympics in Rio, finishing 4th in the 1500m and 5th in the 10km open water event.
Despite the fact that open water swimmers primarily train in a pool and, according to Wilimovsky, the best swimmer is usually still the winner, there’s a lot more of what constitutes being the best swimmer in open water. The race dynamics, intricacies of drafting, when to have nutrition (swimmers feed mid-race from a boat), and what equipment to use, can all be crucial to pulling off a win. A missed feed or simple equipment failure can mean the difference between winning and losing.
"I know I can trust my THEMAGIC5 goggles to not leak and to stay fitted properly, which is exactly what I’m looking for, especially during a long open-water race,” Wilimovsky says. “Between the crisp optics and custom fit of my goggles and my high-tech performance suits, I’m set with a winning combination.”
Strategy is a big part of a race, especially with pack dynamics and drafting. “It’s like cycling,” Wilimovsky explains, “where you have that drafting aspect, even though it is two hours and the pack thins out.” Wilimovsky says he’s often at the very back of the pack in the first part of the race, preferring to conserve energy in the slipstream of other swimmers. It’s only during the second half, or even final few kilometres that Wilimovsky swims through the bunch and positions himself to make a move for the win which, he says, is why he “loves the clarity and peripheral vision of the THEMAGIC5. “It’s great to be able to see all my competition,” Wilimovsky explains, especially in the last 1000m of the race where, he smiles, “everything goes out the window and it’s all out.”
Even with the perfect equipment, such a long time in the water means there is more time for variables to change and things to go wrong, or—as Wilimovsky sees it—go right.
“In a 50m or 100m if you mess up, the race is kind of over. For distance swimming, particularly open water, if you mess up it’s your decision if that’s going to make or break your race. There’s enough time where you can come back from a bad start or if you fall behind; but, you have to be mentally tough enough to make the decision that ‘this is not going to end my race,’ overcome whatever obstacles, and keep fighting until the end.”
Wilimovsky’s approach to race strategy points to his success. Whatever comes up in the water, whether he is minutes behind and last in the pack or attacking for the win, Wilimovsky has the ability to stay calm, trust in his training, and adapt to any situation. Grown steadily throughout his experience as a swimmer, unconsciously or not, Wilimovsky’s open mindset is exactly what allows consistent success in such a challenging environment and, hopefully, at the Tokyo Olympics and beyond.
Thinking about trying open water swimming?
Wilimovsky urges everyone to try open water swimming and explains there are entry points for everyone with more approachable distances on offer like 1 or 2 mile events. “The more you swim in open water, the more you appreciate it, and the easier it gets. The more comfortable you are, the more fun it becomes,” Wilimovsky says.