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After 752-day wait, Haley Anderson 6.1 seconds from gold

Aug 3, 2021
Clive Rose/Getty Images

TOKYO – It was the longest wait of all.

Two years and 21 days after becoming one of the first two women to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team for Tokyo, USC’s Haley Anderson set her alarm for 3:45 a.m. on August 4. 

At 6:30 on Wednesday, she jumped into the 84.75-degree water at Odaiba Marine Park to swim seven laps around a rectangular course.

Less than two hours later – 1 hour, 59 minute, 36.9 seconds to be exact – it was over.

For the third time in three Olympics, Anderson finished as the top American woman in the open water 10-kilometer race. This time, she placed sixth, 6.1 seconds behind the winner, Ana Marcela Cunha, the tattooed Brazilian who owns 10 world championship medals in distances ranging from 5K to 25K.

“That was a pretty tough race,” said Anderson, who from 2009 to 2020, trained with USC coaches Dave Salo and Catherine Kase. “I was in there till the end.”

Ultimately, she said, “You never know who’s going to be on top. That‘s what makes open water exciting. All the unknowns.”

Anderson came into the Games as the world championship silver medalist from the race that qualified her for Tokyo, back on July 14, 2019, in South Korea. It made her just the fourth woman in history to qualify for three Olympics in open water. Each time, she was a medal contender.  

In her Olympic debut, in 2012 in London, Anderson was a 20-year-old Trojan who earned the silver medal behind Eva Risztov of Hungary by four tenths of a second – but the family bragging rights went to her older Alyssa, an Arizona Wildcat, who swam the preliminary heats of the U.S. Olympic 4 x 200-meter relay in the pool and won gold eight days earlier, while Haley was training off-site in Canada.

Four years later, in Rio, Anderson was determined not to let an Olympic gold medal be decided by a ripple. She placed fifth.

In Tokyo, Anderson seemed unfazed by sixth.

“It was a great race,” she said moments later, still wearing her white USA cap and sleeveless full-body swimsuit. “I'm really happy with how I fought through to end.”

Even at the highest level in a 10-kilometer swim, athletes typically spend the bulk of the race drafting to conserve energy. At the midpoint, Anderson was well-positioned in a seven-woman lead pack, 8.7 seconds behind Leonie Beck of Germany who was pulling the aquatic peloton from the front.

By the bell lap, Anderson was still in medal contention.

In the end, however, she couldn’t catch Cunha, the runner-up Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands or Kareena Lee of Australia who placed third in a race where the medalists were separated by 1.7 seconds.

“My goal was to stay comfortable for as long as I could and put myself in a good position for that last lap,” Anderson said.

“We knew coming in it was going to be pretty warm,” she said, referring to the water temperature. “It was within [legal] range. We did some acclimation, training in a hot pool. And we were in Hawaii so that helps with humidity. But I always train outdoors in California the water stays kind of warm so I felt decently prepared for water.”

Medal or not, she said, “I felt pretty good the whole way.”