Eva Risztov wins open water race

LONDON -- Eva Risztov retired from swimming after the 2004 Olympics, upset with her results and tired of the pool.

Good thing she changed her mind.

On Thursday, the Hungarian became an Olympic champion.

Risztov led most of the way in a grueling open water marathon at Hyde Park, holding off a desperate bid to chase her down by American Haley Anderson. The big crowd was hoping for a gold medal from world champion Keri-anne Payne, but the British swimmer finished fourth.

Risztov reached up with her right hand to touch the timing pad, beating Anderson by four-tenths of a second after nearly two hours of racing around The Serpentine. The winner climbed out of the water, smiling and looking fresh as can be.

She even flexed for the big crowd at Hyde Park.

That was a far cry from Risztov's attitude after the Athens Games, where she failed to win a medal in any of her three events. Most galling was a fourth-place showing in the 400-meter individual medley, leading her to retire for three years.

"I lived an ordinary life," she said.

Then Risztov decided to give open water a try.

"I chose this option because I missed out on an Olympic medal," she said through an interpreter. "I thought I was capable of winning a medal."

A gold, at that. The winning time was 1 hour, 57 minutes, 38.2 seconds.

Anderson was right on Risztov's left shoulder coming to the line but couldn't overtake her. The American stuck up her left hand to nick the pad just behind the winner, also slapping it with her right hand just to make sure she had the silver.

"Of course, I'm disappointed that I missed out on gold," said Anderson, whose sister, Alyssa, won a relay gold in the London pool. "But I gave it everything I had. I'm happy with the result."

Martina Grimaldi of Italy disappointed the crowd, which lined the lake in one of London's iconic royal parks, claiming bronze in the 10-kilometer race ahead of Payne, the Briton.

Grimaldi finished in 1:57:41.8, while Payne's lunge for the pad wasn't quite fast enough. She missed the podium by four-tenths of a second, failing to give Britain not only its first swimming gold of the London Games but any medal at all. She was the silver medalist in Beijing.

Angela Maurer of Germany, the other swimmer in the lead pack, faded over the final meters to fifth.

Payne said she was caught off guard by the fast pace and made a mistake when she stopped at the feeding station on the third lap. In open water, swimmers tuck gel packs into their suits and are handed drinks on long sticks as they go by the feeding areas, usually flipping over on their backs like otters to take a few sips before flipping the bottles away.

"I wasn't expecting quite so many people to go quite so early," Payne told reporters, wiping away tears. "Open water swimming is all about who makes the right decision at the right time. Unfortunately, I made a couple of wrong decisions."

She also was caught up in rough swimming, which threw off her rhythm.

"I'm not really a fighter. I'm more of a lover," Payne said. "I got hit quite a few times in the face. We were all swimming in such close proximity. It seemed like a pretty violent race from the start."

The home country has just one chance left for a swimming gold, the men's open water marathon Friday.

After being disqualified from an event at last year's world championships for reasons she still doesn't understand, Risztov was leaving nothing to chance this time.

She figured if she was racing out front, there was no way to pick up a red card from judges overseeing the rough-and-tumble sport, where it's not unheard of to get an elbow to the face or a kick to the ribs.

"I decided to make it a very clean race," Risztov said. "If I am leading, they can't say I did anything."

Risztov was out front after the first of six laps around the narrow, 28-acre lake, which curls through Hyde Park. She dropped back to third on the second lap, then took the lead for good on the third.

She and four other swimmers eventually broke away, setting a pace that forced rescuers to yank South Africa's Jessica Roux onto a boat on the fourth lap when it became apparent she couldn't go on.

Roux was covered in a blanket and taken away in a wheelchair when she got to the shore. Brazil's Poliana Okimoto also dropped out, leaving 22 swimmers to complete the race.

The 20-year-old Anderson has only been swimming open water for about two years, and this was her first major 10K event.

Not a bad debut.

"Open water is growing and gaining more attention," Anderson said. "You kind of have to be crazy to do it, but it's rewarding."

There were extensive safety measures, with several boats tagging along beside the swimmers and plenty of lifeguards in kayaks -- a reminder of the tragedy that struck the new Olympic sport less than two years ago.

American Fran Crippen suffered a seizure and drowned during a race on a sweltering day in the Middle East. Officials didn't even know he was missing until a teammate, Alex Meyer, noticed he never got to shore. Crippen's body was found about two hours later, and Meyer hopes to carry on his legacy in the men's Olympic race.

This was the second Olympics for open water, which made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Games. While the sport is often contested in rough seas, London organizers chose a picture-perfect setting right in the middle of the bustling city.

The conditions couldn't have been better -- a sunny day with temperatures in the 70s and no waves to contend with. The water was a bit murky but cleaner than it was for a test event. Three families of royal swans were temporarily removed from the lake, but plenty of ducks were still around. As Risztov headed for the final turn, one of them fluttered out of her way.

Tens of thousands of fans turned out to make it a party in the park, accompanied by thumping music and increasingly desperate chants of "Go Keri-anne!" The crowd drifted away quietly when it was over, disappointed that Payne failed to win a medal.

"I tried absolutely everything I could," she said. "It didn't quite go as I was hoping it would."