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Russian Ilchenko claims first Olympic open water gold

20 August 2008

BEIJING – Russian teenager Larisa Ilchenko used her usual tactics to win the inaugural 10 kilometres open-water Olympic gold medal on Wednesday and suggested that South African amputee swimmer Natalie Du Toit should also get a gold for courage.

Ilchenko, 19, came from behind to pass the long-time leaders Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten of Great Britain in the closing stages to add gold to eight world titles in the past years.

Du Toit, who lost her lower left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001, placed 16th, more than a minute behind the winner.

"It would be great if she would get a separate gold medal. Hopefully she will win one day," said Ilchenko.

Du Toit didn’t get a medal, but a Chinese picture with a swimmer on it from the regional government.

"For me the Olympics are a dream come true," said the 24-year-old Du Toit. "I want to race against able-bodied athletes, I don’t want anything free. I worked hard for this and don’t want a free ride."

Du Toit said she was not fully satisfied with her result because she wanted to finish in the top five. But her cap got caught at a buoy and she missed a feeding stop which prevented a better result.

Ilchenko clocked 1 hour 59 minutes 27.7 seconds, with Payne beaten by 1.5 seconds in the silver position and Patten taking bronze, 3.3 seconds off the pace at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park.

"I didn’t really have any tactics, I just played it by ear," the unbeatable Ilchenko said through an interpreter. "My tactics do not bother me. I can’t let someone else take my medal."

Payne said the Russian’s tactics were perfectly alright: "This is the Olympics, there should be no hard feelings."

The two Britons were happy with their choice to lead for most of the race as it kept them out of trouble in the often rough sport, especially at the buoys.

"This is swimming, not boxing," said Ilchenko in reference to "very aggressive swimming" from Brazilians Ana Cunha and Poliana Okimoto.

Patten and German fourth-place finisher Angela Maurer also exchanged some words.
Maurer admitted "I am no angel either" while Patten said "that is part of the race" and "I got the medal."

All three medallists paid tribute to the courageous act of Du Toit, who had qualified for Beijing by finishing fourth at the world championships and will also compete at the Paralympics next month in Beijing.

"I find it very hard as an able-bodies athlete, she is an amazing role model. I have utmost respect for her," said Patten.

Payne named Du Toit "an inspiration that you can do whatever you want to do."

Du Toit struck a similar line, saying "I am not a campaigner, I am just realizing my personal dream. There were people who said it is not possible, you set the goal for yourself."

She said water was the best element for her and the disability and that you could not compare her case to that of double-amputee compatriot sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who competes with prosthetics and failed to qualify.

"It is very different, I wouldn’t understand his situation and he wouldn’t understand mine," she said. "I get into the water and switch off. I am completely free in the water."

Du Toit said she will now train for the Paralympics where she wants to match her five gold medals from 2004.

Wednesday’s race was the first time that open-water swimming was held at the Olympics, although it has been on the world championship calendar since 2001.

The men’s 10km race will be held at the same venue on Thursday.

[dpa / Expatica]

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