Open-water marathoner elbowing her way to the Olympics

Canada’s highest-ranked, female, open-water marathon swimmer could be heading to the London Olympics this summer to become the first competitor for Canada in the sport.

The 10-kilometre, open-water marathon became an Olympic event for the first time during the Summer Olympics at Beijing in 2008.

“I’m bringing out the elbows.”

—Zsofia Balazs

Zsofia Balazs, 21, said she has more focus this year and will not let her fear of open-water competition stop her from reaching her goal of competing for Canada at the Olympics.

“When you’re swimming in a pool you have your own lane; no one’s messing with you… In open water that’s not what happens,” Balazs said. “It was this year when I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not letting you guys (other swimmers) push me around anymore and I’m bringing out the elbows.’”

The director of communications for Swimming Canada, Martin Richard, says athletes who swim in open-water races deal with very different conditions than pool competitors.

“Marathon swimming is pretty much a free-for-all, like a triathlon. Everyone swims in the same lane because there are no lanes, just a body of water,” Richard said.

Balazs moved to Canada with her family from Hungary in 2004. She started swimming when she was three years old and tried her first open-water race in 2006 in Quebec for the Canadian nationals.

Since then, Balazs went from being ranked 42nd in the world in 2008 to her current standing of 14th in the world in the 10-kilometre, marathon swim.

Balazs swims twice a day, seven days a week, at the University of Toronto Athletic Centre. Linda Kiefer has coached Balazs for the past five years and said she has noticed a remarkable change in Balazs’ determination this year.

“She’s grown up. Literally it’s been since like December and we’ve been waiting for this to happen,,” Kiefer said.

Balazs competed in two World Cup competitions in Brazil and Argentina for the 10-kilometre marathon in January. Balazs placed 14th in Santos, Brazil, and she came in 10th place in Pantagonia, Argentina, only six seconds behind the winner. Balazs became the top-ranked Canadian female in the sport after those competitions in South America.

“The way we selected our Olympic qualifier team, we based it on performances at three World Cups,” Richard said. “In Portugal, we’ll have two males and two females competing for Canada to then try and make the Olympic group.”

Balazs will head to Portugal this June to compete in her last Olympic marathon qualifier. She will have to place in the top 10 in order to go to the summer games in London this year.

“I’m actually surprisingly confident and I can look at it and say, ‘I actually have a good chance here,’” Balazs said. “Before it was always just something you’re chasing and now it’s almost in reach so you just want to keep chasing it.”