By Margaret Maccoll
“I’m so happy,“ Noosa’s newest Olympian Kareena Lee told Noosa Today this week from isolation in Brisbane as she discussed the day when the planets aligned and she won a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Normally we don’t talk about a strategy until the day of the race,“ Kareena said but before leaving her coach John ’JR’ Rodgers behind in Darwin following a pre-Olympic training camp, he suggested her winning tactic.
“Get in the top six so you can see any breaks and with a kilometre to go “pick up the pace and don’t look back,“ he said.
In a 10km race you have to be flexible because “different things happen in races“ and you don’t know the game plans of the other competitors, Kareena said, even though she had “raced every one one of those girls before“, but in this instance, the plan worked perfectly.
“I was able to stick to the plan through the race,“ she said.
Kareena placed herself in the middle of the field in sixth position in a washing machine of splash. From the vantage point she was able to keep an eye on her competitors.
“It’s a rough place to be but it’s where you use the least amount of energy. You get dragged along by the pack,“ she said.
“I just tried to keep relaxed and calm.“
The leaders went out fast.
“It picked up the pace for everyone,“ she said.
Kareena said the water was murky with little visibility but she noticed fish jumping from the water before she started the race and could hardly believe it when one crashed into her.
“One was getting ready to jump out of the water,“ she said. “It jumped at my chest. I was shocked. That’s never happened before. I looked up at the officials .. like … did you see that?“
When Kareena dived into the water in Tokyo, it was the first time she’d competed internationally in almost two years because of Covid.
Kareena finished seventh in the World Championships in 2019 to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I was less than one second off a medal,“ she said. “I believed I could medal on the day.“
Being Kareena’s first Olympics, she had nothing to compare the experience with and Covid had made it an Olympics like no other.
“There were a lot of people walking around,“ she said. “Everyone had masks in place. There were sanitisers everywhere and booths and screens.
“We stayed within the Team Australia building as much as possible.“
She was surprised at the amount of walking needed to go to the dining hall or transit buses.
“I was walking 7-8km a day. One day I walked 15km. I don’t do that much walking,“ she said. But the walking worked in her favour, tiring her out so she had a good night sleep before her 3am wake up call on race day.
“I woke up feeling happy and happy to race and grateful to be there. I was just in a really good place. Before, I had a training camp in Darwin. I was doing the best training sessions I’d ever done, and sauna sessions to be able to deal with the heat.“
Throughout the two hour race, swimmers grab their specially prepared fluids handed to them on poles and down them as quickly as possible while hardly missing a stroke. For Kareena it was a mix of carbohydrates and electrolytes prepared with the advice of a dietician.
“It’s about staying hydrated. The water was almost 30 degrees (Celsius),“ she said. “It’s hard to keep liquid down in the heat.“
While her coach was back in Australia, she was assigned a coach Chris Nesbit and water performance manager Greg Shaw from the Australian Olympic Team who assisted her during the race, provided her “feeds“ and cheered her on.
Kareena’s Olympic dream began at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when she watched Susie O’Neill win a gold and three silver medals. Her first open water race was in 2012 when she was 18 years of age. In 2014 she made the Australian national team.
“That was the first time I thought I could go to the Olympics,“ she said.
Since qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, Kareena’s training has involved more pool racing than open water which she credits for increasing her speed in the water.
Each week her training schedule involves swimming 70-80km in two- to two-and-a-half hour sessions as well as three gym sessions, three cycling sessions and three yoga sessions.
All the preparation culminated in success last week in a nail-biting finish.
The race was won in the final hundred metres when the three medal winners broke from the pack and sprinted to the finish.
“It was so close at the end,“ Kareena said.
Brazilian Marcela Cunha touched first, winning gold, followed by Sharon van Rouwendaal from The Netherlands, then Kareena.
“I felt so privileged to stand on the podium with those girls,“ Kareena said.
“The girl who won gold is the greatest open swimmer of all time. The girl who was second was the reigning Olympic champion.“
Kareena hopes to take a break once she gets out of quarantine before having a chat with her coach about where to next, and the 2024 Paris Olympics are definitely in her sights.
“I’ve never been to Paris,“ she said. “And I’d love to go.“