Vikes swimming star sets sights on Rio 2016

For Vikes swimmer Richard Weinberger, the past year has been the most demanding and rewarding of his life. Weinberger sought to achieve the dream of athletes around the world: to compete in the Olympics. The marathon swimmer got his chance and was rewarded with a medal at the London 2012 summer Olympics.

Weinberger has enjoyed success in marathon racing in the past few years. In 2010, at the age of 20, he took home bronze in the 10-kilometre open water swim at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in California. Weinberger followed this up at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico by winning gold in the 10-kilometre marathon, edging out American Arthur Frayler by 3/10ths of a second. But for Weinberger, the ultimate goal remained the Olympic Games.

Weinberger had to dedicate himself fully to his training as he prepared for the Olympic qualifiers.

“The sacrifice was my life,” says Weinberger. “It’s not a sport anymore when you get to this level, it’s a lifestyle . . . Throughout the year, we did 80–100 kilometres [of swimming] a week. I trained 10 times a week.”

He is quick to credit his friends for support, especially Zachary Parkes and Rachael Newman. “They were training with me through the whole summer. That was really sweet of them . . . It really helped me.”

Weinberger also had the guidance of Vikes swimming coach Ron Jacks, a former gold medallist at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and coach to several Olympians. “He’s a good guy. He knew what he was doing,” says Weinberger, who credits Jacks with being able to take his energy and focus it towards an Olympic goal.

Despite all the training, Weinberger’s dream was nearly cut short in the qualifiers due to a fluke accident. Just metres after diving into the water, Weinberger went to take off his cap (he is not a fan of swim caps). During this process, his goggles flew off as well, leaving him unable to swim in the salt water. Weinberger was forced to flip over and replace his goggles, dropping him from an early first-place position to dead last. This put him down, but far from out.

“I just kinda chipped my way back into it, focused on my physical and mental training,” Weinberger says of the setback. He charged back into the race and ended up placingsecond. Not only had Weinberger staged an amazing comeback; the result was also good enough to send him to the Olympic Games in London.

The Serpentine lake in Hyde Park was the stage for the 10-kilometre marathon swim on Aug. 10. Weinberger was among the favourites for a medal going into the race, along with Spyridon Gianniotis of Greece, Thomas Lurz of Germany and Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia, who had beaten Weinberger in the qualifiers. And as predicted, it was the four of them in contention as they neared the finish line.

“I knew we were going to break away at some point and that was going to be the race,” Weinberger recalls. “I knew I had a three out of four chance to get a medal.”

After a grueling 110 minutes of swimming, at a time of 1:50:00.3, Weinberger crossed the finish line in third place, earning him the Olympic medal he had dreamed of. He was edged out by Mellouli, who recorded a 1:49:55.1, and Lurz with a 1:49:58.5. Amazingly, the top three swimmers finished within seconds of each other.

Weinberger was proud that he could help out his country. “I’m happy with my bronze,”
Weinberger says. “Swimming as a Canadian athlete on the national team . . . it’s really rewarding. It makes you feel like you’re doing something for your country. It’s a great feeling.”

Weinberger was also proud to be a part of the entire London Olympic experience. “It was just another level — it was the top level. No words can describe just how much emotion, spirit, everything; the whole city was in on it.”

With the Olympics over, Weinberger now begins the transition back to school life, as well as going back to swimming in the pool with the Vikes. Vikes men’s swim team coach Peter Vizsolyi is excited to have Weinberger back.

“It’s something we’re pretty proud of,”
Vizsolyi says.

While Weinberger welcomes the challenge of a new year with the Vikes, he says marathon swimming is still where his passion lies. “I really prefer open water swimming ’cause of all the strategy involved . . . Every venue is different, every race is different. People try new things all the time, different feeds — just a different competition all the time.”

Weinberger won’t be absent from marathon swimming for long. In January, he will travel to Perth to take part in a 10-kilometre marathon race. In July, Weinberger will travel to Barcelona to take part in the Federacion Internationale de Natacion (FINA) World Championships. There he will go for a historic treble, seeking to win the five-, 10-, and 25-kilometre marathon races, something that has never been done before.

“Right now, he’s the fastest guy in the world,” Vizsolyi says of Weinberger. Mellouli’s and Lurz’s retirements help pave the way for Weinberger to enjoy more success on the international stage.

Looking further ahead, Weinberger says he plans to be at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “I definitely want to go to Rio … I really feel that I need to go back and prove myself and get the gold. I feel like I can be on top of the podium. I want ‘O Canada’ sung at Rio.” At just 22 years old, Weinberger feels he is in a prime position to compete down the road. “There’s this thing I call old-man strength. Coming from a boy to a man, you get way more strength and more endurance strength and speed and stuff. I’m just at the start of that, so when I’m 26 I’ll be in my prime and I’ll be ready to go for gold.”

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