Ous Mellouli will be the first swimmer to compete in both a pool and a lake at the same Olympics.
Clearly, the Tunisian swimmer prefers being able to see the bottom, which definitely won’t be the case when he competes in open water at The Serpentine.
No wonder some locals derisively refer to it as “The Turpentine.”
“The water looks pretty murky,” Mellouli said. “It’s not very inviting.”
Hyde Park, the serene urban oasis in the center of London, will be the unlikely site of this rough-and-tumble sport making its second Olympic appearance.
There will be a party atmosphere in the park Thursday for the women’s 10-kilometer race, as boisterous and loud as some of the famous concerts that have been held there. Britain’s Keri-Anne Payne is the defending world champion and looking to add to her country’s expanding medal haul with the games winding down.
On the men’s side, Mellouli hopes the bronze he won at the pool in 1,500-meter freestyle was just a warmup for only the third open water race of his career, the men’s marathon on Friday.
“This has never been done before,” he said of his pool-lake double. “I’m very excited to do it.”
More excited than he is about actually racing in The Serpentine. He wouldn’t be diving into this lake without a medal on the line.
“Not unless I absolutely have to,” he said, breaking into a smile, “and that is the case here.”
Actually, the water quality notwithstanding, this is nothing daunting for swimmers who are used to competing in towering waves and nasty storms, who are willing to contend with everything from sharks in Hawaii to jellyfish in Australia - not to mention the occasional elbow from a rival swimmer. Even the water temperature has warmed up a bit, providing ideal conditions.
A little too ideal for some.
“This is like pool swimming,” said Germany’s Thomas Lurz, a five-time world champion and 2008 bronze medalist, looking out at water that was slick as glass Wednesday. “I like it when it’s choppy.”
The Serpentine is a 28-acre lake that snakes through the park, populated by plenty of ducks and fish that are jokingly known as “British piranhas.”
“I normally do a lot of fishing in fresh water, so this is not a problem,” Lurz said. “I know all the types of fishes.”
The ducks shouldn’t be an issue, either. A Croatian coach was feeding one at the water’s edge Wednesday, but the fowl were a bit disconcerting to U.S. swimmer Haley Anderson when a bunch of them got together.
“I swam through a group of ducks,” she said. “I got really scared because I didn’t know if they would attack me or not. Fortunately, they didn’t.”
While Londoners are known to flock to The Serpentine for a refreshing dip on those rare warm days in the British capital, the water in the narrow, twisting lake really isn't all that attractive up close, despite efforts to clean it up for the Olympics. Algae sprouts along the shoreline. Foam sprinkled with tiny bits of rubbish collects around the temporary dock that will serve as the starting and finishing line.
“It’s still a little brown and tastes funny,” Anderson said. “Hopefully I won’t taste too much of it.”
Safety has become a major issue in open water since the 2010 death of American Fran Crippen, who suffered a seizure and drowned while racing on a sweltering day in the Middle East. Even more shocking was the fact no one noticed Crippen was missing for two hours, leading to safety improvements that were very much evident on the eve of the women's marathon.
Dozens of lifeguards paddled around the lake in kayaks, keeping an eye on everyone.
“It changed after Fran died,” Lurz said. “You see more and more safety. There are more security boats and lifeguards. Sometimes there are scuba divers on the turning buoys to see if something is wrong.”
Crippen’s memory will be weighing on the minds of all the swimmers, but especially the American team. Alex Meyer, who will compete in the men’s race, was one of Crippen’s best friends. He was there on the day Crippen died, pleading with officials to launch a search when his buddy didn’t turn up at the end of the race.
“I felt like the best way I could honor him was by achieving the goal we both shared,” Meyer said.