Thomas Lurz: ‘In swimming you need to have ability to accept pain’
Lurz retired two years ago as one of the most decorated distance swimmers of all time, two Olympic medals (10km) and 12 World titles in the open water confirming the German’s status as a great of the sport.
The ability to tolerate pain, believes Thomas Lurz, is essential in competitive swimming. He should know. Lurz retired two years ago as one of the most decorated distance swimmers of all time, two Olympic medals (10km) and 12 World titles in the open water confirming the German’s status as a great of the sport.
“In swimming in general, you need to have the ability to accept the pain,” he said here on Friday. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100m, 200m or 25km: they (the sprinters) have their pain; we have ours. It hurts like hell. The only way you can resist it is hard training.”
Even the hardest training, though, could not ease the distress Lurz felt as he swam to victory in the men’s 25km open water race at the FINA World championships of 2013. “In my life, I swam 25km only once and after the race I told myself, ‘I will not do it again. This is a crazy distance’,” he said. “The race lasted four hours and 47 minutes. The first hour was OK and then I started thinking that I had to finish 20 more kilometres. ‘What am I doing here?’ I thought.
“I only remember going round in circles in the harbour in Barcelona. I can’t remember anything else. The only highlight was that every 20 minutes I got water and an energy drink from the coach. The arms were burning like hell and the salt water made my mouth swell up. I was thinking: ‘It is nonsense to swim here. 25km in the harbour. Makes no sense. Why why why?’ But in the end it was fine.
“After 20km, I saw the finish and I felt much better. I swam hard. That showed me how important it was to be mentally fit. There’s no reason why the arms should hurt less after 20km than after five. It’s always here in the head.”
Lurz is now pursuing an MBA from Dusseldorf’s WHU university, and was in the city to interact with businesses as part of that programme. In his time here, the 37-year-old met former Indian swimmer Hakimuddin Habibullah, and visited veteran coach Nihar Ameen’s Dolphin Academy.
Training to prepare himself for the rigours of endurance swimming, Lurz stated, was something he enjoyed. “I didn’t have many problems with the mental part because I was always hungry and couldn’t wait until the competition,” he said. “The most important training session for me was the one on Christmas evening because I knew that somewhere in the world, someone else was not training at that time.
“Maybe it didn’t make a difference to the body that I was training on my birthday, on New Year’s Eve and on Christmas day. But I knew mentally that I was training hard.”
This hunger, though, was missing in German children today, Lurz felt, something that perhaps contributed to the nation’s failure to win a single medal in swimming in Rio. “Maybe many swimmers or athletes are not hungry anymore. Because in Germany, they get everything: the young kids get an iPhone, a PlayStation, a TV. They say: ‘Why do I need to train 12 times a week? I have everything.’ This is a problem.”
His bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics and the silver in London are etched in Lurz’s memory but another race lingers, for a different, tragic reason. In 2010, at the 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup in Fujairah, the UAE, the American swimmer Fran Crippen died, having drowned due to heat exhaustion. It was a race Lurz won. “It was a sad, tough day because I raced with him for many years and knew him well. I realised he was missing after the race. I touched the wall, turned around, and saw other swimmers come. I didn’t see him. Maybe he went out, I thought.
“Then I saw his backpack and felt something was wrong. FINA made changes after that race and today there are guards, divers and boats, but at that time it wasn’t like that. Dubai (Fujairah) was hell. The water temperature was 36 degrees and outside was even hotter. When you lose consciousness in a road marathon, it’s not that dangerous. But in water, you drown and die.”
It was a nightmare, Lurz said. “When you see someone dying, it’s hard. We had another race that week and everyone cancelled it. It was tough to get over this and focus again. I still have the images in my head. I remember, after the race we dived into the water again and tried to see if he was around. He wasn’t.”
Maybe many swimmers or athletes are not hungry anymore. Because in Germany, they get everything: the young kids get an iPhone, a PlayStation, a TV. They say: ‘Why do I need to train 12 times a week? I have everything.’ This is a problem.”