BRITISH COLUMBIA

Canadian open-water swimmer looks to defend Pan American Games title

07/08/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 07/08/2016 05:59 EDT
VANCOUVER - After yet another marathon training session in his home pool, Richard Weinberger slips on an Amon Amarth T-shirt and gets ready to chat.

Olympic medallist open-water swimmer and Swedish melodic death metal band come together in one sleek surfer dude package.

"I went to the concert with my sister," Weinberger said enthusiastically. "It was pretty awesome."

Viking metal — Amon Amarth comes from the Sindarin name of Mount Doom in "Lord of the Rings" — has not always been the music of choice before competition for the mellow 25-year-old Weinberger. Trance or progressive house used to be his pre-race soundtrack.

"Recently I'm into more of a darker metal phase," he explained. "I bounce back and forth."

Weinberger may be cueing up Amon Amarth's latest album, "Deceiver of the Gods" — "music that revels in muscular intricacy and a near-chewable sense of drama," according to the Guardian — on Sunday as he looks to defend his Pan American Games title.

He is one of seven Canadian defending individual Pan Am champions at the Games.

Weinberger, who won Olympic bronze at the 2012 London Games, and his fellow open-water swimmers will race six 1.67-kilometre laps at the Ontario Place west channel. The women will do the same Saturday.

Swimming 10 kilometres in open water might seem like a watery Mount Doom for most. But Weinberger embraces his gruelling discipline.

One, that's where his talents lie as a swimmer. Two, he likes the strategy of the race. And three, he just likes to challenge himself.

"It's pretty brutal but you're normally caught up in the race. You have a lot of distractions."

That can include mind games. Weinberger says there are mental highs and lows in every race, which are balanced by the hours of training.

Then there are the other swimmers. Open-water racing can be a contact sport.

"Anything under the water is legal," he said. "Whatever the officials don't see, people can get away with. But generally you're working on efficiency and strategy. It's very exhausting to throw punches at each other."

It's all in the spirit of competition. Weinberger says the swimmers are actually a band of brothers who often eat together before races.

There have already been red flags raised about the 2016 Olympic course off Copacabana Beach due to pollution. Weinberger isn't too fazed, however.

"Part of the sport is expect the unexpected," he said.

In London, that meant swimming through "seaweed and duck crap" in Hyde Park's Serpentine lake.

Weinberger will get a first-hand look at the Rio course next month at the Olympic test event. He won the London test event.

Like marathoners, open-water swimmers train alone and then compete en masse. After hours of swimming lengths, Weinberger savours the strategy of the actual race — drafting behind rivals and then, like a bike race, pondering whether to make a break or follow one.

Such decisions, made while the swimmers are pushing their body to the brink of exhaustion, can make or break the race.

Weinberger's winning Pan Am time four years ago in Mexico was one hour 57 minutes 31 seconds, just 0.3 seconds ahead of American Arthur Frayler.

Weinberger pushed the pace at the two-kilometre mark, trying to squeeze the pace out of rivals like Frayler. As the competition neared its close, Frayler caught up and started drafting behind him, only to run out of race as he started to catch the Canadian.

"It's 10K, it's not 10.1K," Weinberger said with a laugh.

The race was held in the Pacific Ocean, with water temperatures nearing 30 degrees Celsius.

He swims in a full body suit during races, saying it helps the stabilize the body core. He reuses them, mainly to keep costs down, but pulls out a new one for all the big races.

Times are unimportant in open-water swimming, says Weinberger. It's all about what's happening in that particular race.

A race can meander along and then turn into a final sprint. If Weinberger feels like it, he will crank up the pace at a spot of his choosing.

Zoning out during practice is a good way to buffer the pain. But in a race, you have to feel engaged to stay in touch with what's happening.

Weinberger, who shifted his training base from Victoria to Vancouver in early 2014, has spent time this year honing his skills with top American competitors south of the border.

He had been training with Ron Jacks at Pacific Coast Swimming but now works under Tom Johnson at the Swimming Canada High Performance Centre. Weinberger credits Jacks for helping his career — and sheltering him — but says it was time to move on.

"I feel this move was necessary for me to do a lot of growing up and learn the things that actually go on in sport," he said. "The reality of sport."

Weinberger wanted to be in charge of his training, rather than just be part of it.

Born in Moose Jaw, Weinberger learned to swim in Saudi Arabia while father, a pilot, was based there. His parents now split their time between Arizona and Mexico.

Weinberger marches to his own drum. For example, the night before the London race he didn't sleep well the night before and stayed up late watching "silly cat videos."

He may be a tad eccentric but Weinberger is no slouch. He aims for nine to 10 workouts a week, each at least eight kilometres.

The six-foot-two swimmer says he weighs 165 pounds before a workout and 158 to 160 after one.

Given his workout regimen, he likes his groceries. A nutritionist is helping him with that.

He reckons he hasn't done less than 80 kilometres a week this year and plans to keep raising the ante. That includes improving his kick to improve acceleration.

"I'm doing things now that I didn't even think were possible before."

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