December 20, 2011

With the Olympics right around the corner, most athletes have the Olympic trials at the front of their mind.

But Alex Meyer is not like most athletes. The open-water swimmer is the first American swimmer to have qualified for the 2012 Games. While he is still training hard, Meyer, 23, can relax just a tiny bit, knowing that he will be representing the U.S. in London next summer.

"Honestly, I'm so happy that all of that is behind me now, because it was a pretty stressful time, as anyone who is contending for the Olympic trials can tell you," Meyer said. "It can be a pretty stressful burden to carry around, just thinking about that you still have to qualify."

Meyer typically swims events such as the 10-kilometer and the 25-kilometer in open bodies of water. That equates to around two to six hours, depending on the event, of fighting the outdoor elements, attempting to swim straight, avoiding the elbows and feet of other swimmers around you and staying focused for the duration of the race.

"At times it can be pretty mundane -- any athlete in any sport has those days where they don't feel like doing it," Meyer said. "Especially being a distance swimmer, distance swimming is a lonely sport in itself. That's something you have to get used to."

The longest Olympic pool race is the mile -- 1500 meters, or 30 laps in an Olympic pool -- which takes Meyer a little over 15 minutes. It's hard to compare pool races with open-water races, because all the swimmers are nicely contained in lanes with black lines dictating their straightest course. Meyer also says the tactics and strategies differ for pool swimming and open-water swimming.

"When I dive in for a mile, I can have a race plan and execute a race plan, hold a pace and go at the race a certain way," Meyer said. "Nothing anyone else does will physically affect how I swim my race. On the other hand in open water, the race will dictate how you need to swim. There's a lot of analogies with cycling -- drafting from the pack and conserving energy, when and when not to move and all of those things -- which are unpredictable."

Those are just the physical differences. Swimming for hours on end can really weigh on a swimmer mentally.

"You have a lot of time to convince yourself to give up or to let something as little as a suit malfunction or someone on your feet drive you absolutely nuts," Meyer said. "[In open water] you need to keep your head on. It's constantly almost a huge internal battle going on between 'Oh, I want to quit,' and 'Oh, I need to keep going.' You have a lot more time to think."

However, one benefit to swimming open-water events is the Olympic qualification process. The number of competitors from around the world is capped at 25 swimmers, and a maximum of two are allowed from each country. The first 10 of that field qualify at the world championships the summer before the Olympics; Meyer finished fourth at worlds, automatically qualifying him for the 2012 Olympics. For pool swimming, only the top two swimmers in each event, often out of a field of upwards of 100 swimmers, qualify for the Olympic team.

Meyer graduated in 2010 from Harvard University, where he swam collegiately (he typically swam the mile). He remained in Cambridge, Mass., to train with his coach Tim Murphy, who is also the 2012 Olympic open-water coach, and to chase his Olympic dreams.

"I felt like the next logical step to pursue this Olympic dream was to go to Mission Viejo [Calif.] or go to Michigan, one of the big programs there," Meyer said. "But I pretty quickly realized that Tim is my coach, these [Harvard] varsity guys are my boys, my friends and my life is here [in Cambridge] -- this is where I belong. Tim has gotten me this far, and I felt like I couldn't leave him."

Right now, Meyer is training full-time. On a typical day, he will work out with the Harvard varsity program in a long-course pool setup -- Olympic pools are 25 yards by 50 meters, and can be arranged for either length. In the afternoon, he will either swim a short-course practice with Harvard or, weather permitting, swim open water at the famous Walden Pond near Boston. However, with winter approaching, Walden Pond's temperatures have dropped too low for Meyer to train regularly.

"You can get everything you need from the pool," Meyer said. "Right now the most important thing is getting fit and you can do that in a pool."

Because open-water swimming isn't contested in a pool, the event is not as publicized. The 10-kilometer swimming event isn't even shown on prime-time television.

"When I tell people that I swim the 10-kilometer, they ask, 'Oh my gosh, how many laps is that?!'" Meyer says. "I have to explain that it's not in the pool, it's open water. Everyone knows what pool swimming is, so we like to see ourselves as not necessarily as a different sport, but a different event within swimming."

Meyer, however, says the average person can relate to open-water swimming more than pool swimming.

"People go to the beach or go to the lake down the road and swim there more often than they do going to an indoor facility and swimming up and down a 50-meter pool," he says.

On Oct. 23, 2010, open-water swimming made headlines when U.S. swimmer Fran Crippen died during a race in the United Arab Emirates. The water temperature was said to be at dangerously warm temperatures, and the swimmer supervision was at a low. Meyer, a good friend of Crippen's, was 'that guy' to whom the media asked what should be done to counteract this problem.

It's challenging when your sport is dragged onto international headlines for something so morbid, but Meyer answered the media with standard, honest answers: change the maximum temperature, have more lifeguards and safety boats, etc. But in reality, it's hard to set one common standard to make each unique race safe. USA swimming and other swimming governing bodies around the world are receiving criticism for not making these races safer, but it's actually all part of the open-water racing experience.

"It's hard to make rules like that quantifying exactly what you need to have for each race because open-water racing is different," Meyer said. "You want those different challenges presented by different conditions and different factors.

But from now until the Olympics, Meyer is going full steam ahead, focused solely on the race in London. He is still admittedly an unrecognizable face to the common person on the streets of Cambridge, where he lives and trains, but, depending on his success, that may all change after next summer.

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