Souhan: Isn’t it amazing what Olympic athletes will endure?

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 26, 2012 - 2:07 PM

This British swimmer reminds us what many athletes pay to compete.

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British marathon swimmer Kerri-Anne Payne

LONDON - Keri-Anne Payne was the first athlete from Britain to qualify for the London Olympics. She's favored to win a gold medal on home soil. But even in the country that gave us the slow-motion glory of "Chariots of Fire," she's unlikely to become the subject of a feature film -- or even a poster.

What Payne does is not picturesque. Sometimes, it's not even safe. What Payne does is remind us just how much some athletes are willing to endure for their craft, and their country, and a piece of gold.

Payne, the silver medalist in marathon swimming (10 kilometers) at the Beijing Games, has swum through jellyfish and past sharks. She competes in open water, meaning she might pass a dog's body, as she once did in China, or battle with "ducks and reeds'' near each buoy, as she did on Wednesday morning while testing the "Serpentine'' marathon course in Hyde Park Lake.

With the Opening Ceremony scheduled for Friday and her race for Aug. 9, Payne will spend two more weeks slogging through the lake water while training, immersing herself in the Olympic experience, as well as the Hyde Park mud.

"I can assure you that as a marathon swimmer I've swum through things way worse than ducks and reed,'' Payne said. "I think it just depends on the person and how strong-willed you are. I'm glad I did it today. It's not the most glamorous of sports, but that's fine. We're all prepared when we get into it.''

Most Olympic athletes say they'd do anything for a medal, but would a marathoner run past lions? Would LeBron James attack the rim if it was guarded by bats?

"I've been through a couple of interesting open-water swims,'' she said on Wednesday. "One was in Melbourne, in 2007, for the world championships. ... There were thousands and thousands of jellyfish in the water -- and all the size of dinner plates. It was pretty difficult, to be honest. It took a lot of mental strength for me to get in there and swim because usually the day before the race we'll swim the course once, do one lap, just to check and see if everything is good.

"That time I got in the waters and swam maybe 300 meters before I completely freaked out and had to be pulled out. But I knew that if I wasn't there somebody else would happily step into my place. Open-water really shows you how to be tough.''

So do sharks. "Another time we were swimming in Hong Kong in an absolutely beautiful location, but we were swimming past these big buoys, and when I asked what the buoys were for, they said those were the shark nets,'' she said. "And we were swimming right by them. So I kind of made sure I stayed in the middle of the pack for that one. Then, down another river in China, well, everyone keeps mentioning that there was a dead horse. There were no dead horses.''

Pause.

"Just a dead dog," she said.

Live humans can be bothersome too.

"You can imagine that there are 25 guys and 25 girls starting on a pontoon and they're trying to get to the same place, so there's always going to be a little, um ... friction,'' she said. "But nine times out of 10, it is an accident if someone hits you as they swim past. You have a boat with a referee on it that follows you the whole way around, and they have the same system as football [soccer]. You have two yellow cards and a red card, and if you're seen to do something wrong or something that they think is dangerous or untoward, then you'll get a yellow card.''

Isn't it amazing what Olympic athletes will happily endure? Payne kept describing the obstacles she encounters in the water while using the word "brilliant,'' in that endearing British style, to describe volunteers and the course.

"It's really nice water to swim in,'' she said. "What was quite amusing was swimming through all of the reeds and getting quite tangled in them, but I've overcome that now.''

And the temperature?

"It was,'' she said, "quite brilliant.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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