Trained by assassins, Vancouver's Richard Weinberger looks to clean up in Rio's dirty water

Vancouver's Richard Weinberger has heard the all about the dirty and dangerous waters in Rio but is undaunted in his quest to win a second Olympic medal in open water swimming.

'I always hope for the toughest conditions because I know I can handle them better than my competitors'

London 2012 bronze medallist Richard Weinberger is racing for his second Olympic medal in the 10k open water race in Rio. (Mark Blinc/Canadian Press)

By Karin Larsen, CBC News

Vancouver's Richard Weinberger has heard the all stories about the dirty and dangerous waters off Copacabana Beach where body parts have washed up and testing has revealed unsafe viral and bacteria counts.

But on August 16, he'll happily dive in and spend almost two hours fully immersed, in a quest to win a second Olympic medal in open water swimming. 

"You think Rio is bad," asks Weinberger, laughing. "There's places 20 times worse."

Weinberger missed gold by just 5 seconds at the London Olympics. (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

His worst list includes an ocean race in Mexico were biblical swarms of sand flies left swimmers covered in bites.

"I was in bad condition after that," he said. "You're itching for days and days."

Then there was Barcelona, where he emerged at the finish line with painful welts all over his arms and legs from fighting through schools of stinging jellyfish.

And, perhaps the worst of the worst, a freshwater race, also in Mexico, which put two of his teammates in hospital and left Weinberger sick as a dog, fighting a gastrointestinal infection for weeks.

"I was almost hospitalized too because of just how much bacteria was in the water," he said.

"Generally, swimming in sea water you don't get sick like that because it self cleanses. But fresh water, that's what can get you."

So by Weinberg's reasoning, 10 kilometres in the Rio ocean should be a swim in the park, all things considered.

Rio Olympic open water competitors will do four laps of a 2.5 kilometre course in the waters off Copacabana Beach. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

It's also a race he feels he has a decent shot at winning. 

To prepare he's put in countless hours at Vancouver's seaside Kitsilano pool, weaving in and out of the recreational swimmers.

In heavy training he was racking up as much as 22 kilometres in a single day, and 100 kilometres a week.

To put that in perspective, it takes 730 lengths of huge Kits pool to cover 100 kilometres, the kind of mileage guaranteed to induce what swimmers refer to as "black line fever" — the mind-numbing and unavoidable consequence of having to stare at the bottom of a pool for endless laps.

"That's the hardest part," Weinberger admits. "Keeping my head focused and not getting bored. I try not to think of going home and playing video games, which is what I would prefer to do."

Open water swimmers have to get used to contact and dirty tricks that can occur while swimming in a pack. (The Associated Press)

The monotony is part of the reason coach Steve Price reason recruited two part-time training partners for Weinberger.

Hau-Li Fan and William Walters are good swimmers in their own right, but with Weinberger their job is to play the disrupters.

Price believes the eventual gold medal winner in Rio will be the swimmer who can best maintain stroke efficiency for the entire 10 kilometre distance, something that can be very difficult in a race usually won or lost in the chaotic confines of the pack, and where physical contact and dirty tricks — including being pulled on, pushed down or even punched — are a given.

"It can get pretty rough," said Price. "So [Fan and Walters] swim behind and beside Richard during training. They'll try and cut in front of him and create the conditions you have to deal with in open water swimming."

Fittingly, Weinberger has nicknamed his training mates "The Assassins."

"The Assassins don't normally go the same mileage as me but they'll throw on the fins [so they can keep up] and come in on one of my sets," he said. "They'll battle me, swim on either side and squish me so I have to practice holding my stroke."

Weinberger says he is tougher than most of his competitors and is hoping for big waves and cold water conditions on race day in Rio. ((Sang Tan/Associated Press) )

"They've meant a lot to me," he added. "I haven't had a training partner for five or six years. To do this all alone can be really lonely."

Weinberger won't be lonesome in Rio. Like in London, he expect a pack of 10 swimmers to break away in the final two kilometres of the race. He then expects the final 200 meters to be a churning frenzy, with as many as six swimmers sprinting for the medals.

Weinberger has raced in Rio twice and loves the course. In his mind the only thing that could make it better is punishing conditions — bad weather, cold water and heavy seas.

"I always hope for the toughest conditions because I know I can handle them better than my competitors," he said matter-of-factly.

Consider it the result of being trained by assassins. 


Karin Larsen


Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster who covers news and sports for CBC Vancouver.