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Open water swimmers gain valuable experience in return to racing

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ABU DHABI – Toronto’s Kenna Smallegange and Olympian Hau-Li Fan of Vancouver were Canada’s top finishers as the FINA/CNSG Marathon World Series wrapped up Thursday in Abu Dhabi.

Fan finished 40th in the 69-swimmer men’s field, three minutes, 9.8 seconds behind Olympic and world champion Florian Wellbrock of Germany. Wellbrock won the Grand Finale of the nine-leg series in 1:48:09.4, a comfortable 2.6 seconds ahead of Italian Domenico Acerenza. Hungary’s Kristof Rasovszky took bronze, 14.2 seconds behind Wellbrock.

Smallegange came 32nd in a field of 49 women, 46 of whom finished the 10-km marathon race in Yas Bay. That was five minutes, 20 seconds off the pace set by Leonie Beck, who completed a German sweep with a winning time of 1:58:17. Olympic champion Ana Marcela Cunha of Brazil was second, 2.3 seconds behind, followed by 2016 Olympic champion Sharon Van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands, 5.10 off the pace.

“It was really nice to be back in the water,” said Smallegange, whose last open water event with Swimming Canada came in November 2019. “My goal was to see what I was capable of. I’m happy with where I am, but there’s still a lot of work we need to do, so that kind of just showed me that. I’ve learned so much, so I’m really grateful.“

Fan, who finished ninth in his Olympic debut in Tokyo this summer, said his result Thursday was “definitely a bit of a downgrade.”

“It was quite challenging, a lot of people,” said Fan, who swam with the main pack for the majority of the race. “It’s really important being able to get out in front. It’s definitely something that I’m still working on because the front-end speed was really what decided that race I think.”

Fan’s High Performance Centre – Vancouver teammate Raben Dommann came 47th, 6:54.2 behind Wellbrock. Dommann was disappointed with the result but welcomed the return to open water racing, which has been extremely limited for Canadians during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wasn’t in the place that I wanted to be on the first lap. I worked really well on two laps I thought, and worked my way back up, but it cost me a lot of energy and when I got dropped from the pack I just couldn’t get back up there,” said Dommann, whose last major competition came at the FINA World Championships in July 2019.

“Maybe it didn’t go how I wanted it to but it’s nice to be back in this environment and realize what I do this for and what I want to work towards. I want to be back here again, so I have to do what it takes to be better and get back here again.”

Eric Brown of Montreal’s Pointe-Claire Swim Club rounded out the Canadian contingent, finishing 58th among 62 finishers, 11:59.6 off the pace. It was just the third 10-km marathon of the 19-year-old’s career.

“It started off rough. I would have liked to stay with the pack a bit more, but it was a really fast race. After a bit I had no more in the tank, so I dropped back a bit and then after that it was really tough,” Brown said. “I got to see a bit what it’s like. I’ll take away a lot from that and we’ll see next time. It shows me what it takes to be in that front pack.”

Open Water Head Coach Mark Perry put Canada’s performances in perspective.

“They’re obviously not the results we wanted but I think it’s been important for us to get back and race. Hau-Li is the only one that’s been able to race in the last two years,” Perry said. “In Europe, racing’s continued pretty much right through the pandemic. These guys have been able to do quality races week on week on week and we haven’t been in a position to do that.

It was also a short turnaround for the Canadian contingent, facing time zone changes of nine to 12 hours with only two full days of training after travel.

“With the time difference for us, we’re basically racing in the middle of the night, and we knew it would be tough,” Perry said. “We came here to learn. You look at the results and think that wasn’t exactly what we’re looking for, but we’ve learned something. As a staff we’ve learned something and I think each of the swimmers has learned something that they can build on to move forward.”

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Meanwhile, Canada’s pool team began competition at the six-day FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi. Dommann said he enjoyed the experience of the open water team being alongside their pool counterparts at an international event.

“It was really nice to be here with the pool team,” Dommann said. “It’s kind of rare for open water that we get to work with the pool team. I grew up with Josh (Liendo) and Finlay (Knox) so it was just nice to be with those guys, see how they work and get a bit of a new perspective.”

The world short-course championships run through Tuesday. For further information visit: