Swimming Without A Spleen, Ana Marcela Cunha Wins Olympic Gold

Swimming Without A Spleen, Ana Marcela Cunha Wins Olympic Gold

Things were not looking good for Brazilian marathon swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha in 2019.

After facing the bitter disappointment of finishing 10th in the marathon swim at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in front of her family and fans in Brazil where her high hopes for a gold medal was dashed, she also faced surgery where her spleen needed to be removed.

A year before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics her spleen had to be removed. Realizing her Olympic dream was put on the back burner and other health priorities took precedence.

Fortunately, her surgery was successful and Cunha got right back to work, training as intensely as ever. She mustered enough speed and stamina to qualify for the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim and knew that she had another year to prepare for her Olympic redemption.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit – and it hit Brazil particularly hard.

In response, Cunha moved to Portugal to seek her Olympic dream. With all the pandemic uncertainty in Brazil, Portugal was her best bet.

She remained dedicated to her craft, spending several hours a day swimming up and back in a 50m pool, and doing all kinds of intene dryland and supplemental workouts.

When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year, Cunha had even more time to prepare. The delay worked out just right for her.

By the time, she lined up on the starting pontoon at the marathon swim in Tokyo Bay, she was as ready as ever. One of the shortest athletes in any Olympic swimming final, Cunha was arguably the one athlete with the biggest heart.

She swam a nearly perfect race at the Olympics, never out of the top three in a tightly pack of 25 competitors throughout the 10 kilometer course. She took over the lead from American Ashley Twichell on the third of seven loops and kept on pushing the pace after taking the lead.

She only temporarily relinquished the lead when German Leonie Beck burst into first, but Cunha hung closely and regained the lead for good on the last lap with long, powerful arm strokes and a powerful kick. She talked about her gold medal performance,

“This means a lot. [The victory] was due to many years working hard. I want it so much, so badly.”

The 29-year-old from São Paolo stood tall on the Olympic podium, saluting the Brazilian flag. Cunha explained her mindset during the race,

“We had to be cool or ‘cold’ as Europeans [are]. We are Latin people; we are hot, we are emotional people, so I had to be very cold mentally in the race to be focused and I had to win it myself. I knew I was prepared for that.
My family always believed in me and supported me in this journey. We are dreaming the same dream (with her coach). This medal means a lot to me. I will keep this medal in a special place and I have a plan to develop a foundation that will support the future dreams of swimmers. I think this medal will show new generations that swimming, and especially marathons, will allow many others to dream. I could speak for hours about this medal, but our time is short. I am thankful for the support of the Brazilian government and for many other sponsors, supporting me for so many years. Of course I must thank my club and my family.
I was able to give 100% of my skills and talent. In other competitions, I often said I could have done better, but I won’t say this [for this race]. I am exhausted. I am proud that it has been 13 years since my first Olympics [in 2008 when she finished 5th as a 16-year-old].”

Unlike several others in the race who plan on retiring, Cunha will continue racing.

“I am very happy in training for open water swimming. I am active and training with passion. That love will allow me to continue. Paris is just three years away. My mental preparation is as important as my physical training. My body and my mind are always connected and the most important is that I have always believed in myself.”

Olympic 10K Marathon Swim Results:

Gold: Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil, 29) 1:59:30.90
Silver: Sharon van Rouwendaal (Netherlands, 27) 1:59:31.70
Bronze: Kareena Lee (Australia, 27) 1:59:32.50
4. Anna Olasz (Hungary, 27) 1:59:34.80
5. Leonie Beck (Germany, 24) 1:59:35.10
6. Haley Anderson (USA, 29) 1:59:36.90
7. Ashley Twichell (USA, 32) 1:59:37.90
8. Xin Xin (China, 24) 2:00:10.10
9. Lara Grangeon de Villele (France, 29) 2:00:57.0
10. Finnia Wunram (Germany, 25) 2:01:01.90
11. Samantha Arévalo (Ecuador, 26) 2:01:30.60
12. Cecilia Biagioli (Argentina, 36) 2:01:31.70
13. Yumi Kida (Japan, 36) 2:01:40.90
14. Rachele Bruni (Italy, 30) 2:02:10.20
15. Anastasiia Kirpichnikova (Russian Olympic Committee, 21) 2:03:17.50
16. Paula Ruiz Bravo (Spain, 22) 2:03:17.60
17. Angelica Andre (Portugal, 26) 2:04:40.70
18. Kate Farley Sanderson (Canada, 21) 2:04:59.10
19. Alice Dearing (Great Britain, 24) 2:05:03.20
20. Paola Perez (Venezuela, 30) 2:05:45.00
21. Michelle Weber (South Africa, 24) 2:06:56.50
22. Krystyna Panchishko (Ukraine, 23) 2:07:35.10
23. Li-Shan Chantal Liew (Singapore, 22) 2:08:17.90
24. Spela Perse (Slovenia, 25) 2:08:33.00
25. Souad Nefissa Cherouati (Algeria, 32) 2:17:21.60