Thomas Lurz (28 November, 1979) is a German open-water swimmer, and is one of the greatest in the sport’s history at the 5km and 10km distances.
Lurz became a fixture on the international stage in 2005 when he won his first 5km world championship in Montreal, and in a remarkable streak still going in mid-2011, he has not been beaten since at this distance in a FINA world meet. His six consecutive 5km gold medals most recently include the 2009 World Championships in Rome, and the World Open Water Championships at Roberval, Canada in July, 2010.
His performances in the 10km event are no less impressive – gold at the 2004 and 2006 World Open Water Championships in Dubai and Naples respectively, gold at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, and silver medals at World Championships in Montreal (2005) and Melbourne (2007). 2009 capped an incredible year for Lurz when he won the 2009 FINA 10km Marathon Swimming World Cup, taking first place in no less than nine of the 13 meets. He didn’t place in the 2010 World Cup, swimming in only three of the eight events, but in those three he placed first in two of them and second in the third. As of July 2011, he leads the 2011 World Cup points ranking by some distance, having won in Santos, Brazil, placing second in Cancun, Mexico, and ending third in Setubal, Portugal.
Unsurprisingly, he’s been peerless in Europe, winning both the 5km and 10km events at the 2006 European Championships in Budapest, the 10km at the 2008 European Open Water Championships in Dubrovnik, and both events once again in the 2010 LEN European Championships in Budapest. His 10km victory in Budapest in August this year was particularly satisfying after his sixth place finish two weeks earlier in the Open Water Championships in Canada, since a technicality required him to compete in swimming trunks against competitors clad in full-body suits (as was the case in Canada).
Lurz’s phenomenal accomplishments have been rewarded with three Open Water Swimmer of the Year awards from Swimming World Magazine (2005, 2006, 2009), as well as two LEN European Long-Distance Swimmer of the Year awards (2007, 2009). And far from being a one-trick pony, he also managed somehow to squeeze in a number of German 1500m and 800m titles, even breaking the national 800m record in 2008.
2011’s calendar includes the World Swimming Championships in Shanghai, where he will defend his 5km and 10km titles, as well as the conclusion of the FINA 10km World Cup, but it’s 2012 that Thomas has his sights fixed on, and the one accolade that is missing from his incredible legacy thus far – an Olympic gold.
Six world championships in a row. That’s just in one event, the open water 5km, in which – through June 2011 – he’s unbeaten in a FINA world championship for six years. This is no mean accomplishment, and there are few athletes (in any sport) that can make such a claim. With a weekly regime that requires 11 training sessions covering a phenomenal 110km, to stay at the top this long is nothing short of remarkable. And yet when asked how he does it – in virtually every interview – Thomas Lurz gives his characteristically measured and down-to-earth answer: that he simply enjoys it. And of course, his dream to win an Olympic gold medal.
Aside from the lonely training routine, open water swimming is a very different sport from its more glamorous pool cousin. Besides the longer distance, swimmers have to deal with two additional challenges – fellow swimmers, and the conditions. Without lanes to separate swimmers, it’s a very physical sport, and competitors jostle for position, often bumping and disrupting their rivals. Sometimes this goes a step further than ‘accidental’ contact, requiring a far greater degree of vigilance on the part of officials than indoor swimming. Then there are the natural environmental challenges – waves, heat and cold, jellyfish, even sharks.
In the final race of the FINA World Cup in 2010 in Fujairah, UAE – one that Lurz won – the conditions eventually took their ultimate toll, and American Fran Crippen succumbed to the extreme heat and died. Thomas had claimed the race should never have taken place under the circumstances, and in a gesture of solidarity, he subsequently led a group of swimmers in making demands for improvements in the regulation and monitoring of open water races. Just three months before his death, Crippen had paid Thomas the ultimate compliment at the World Open Water Championships in Roberval, Canada: “Lurz is the fastest open water swimmer in the world and I want to be the fastest open water swimmer in the world. I admire Thomas, he is tough but always fair, he always races hard and he makes me a better swimmer.” It’s a very tight community, sharing the same values and passions. And, as Thomas says, “We’re a bit wild.” As a reflection of this tightness, he questioned the absence of a commemorative moment of silence in the first FINA race after Crippen’s death, at the World Cup event in Santos, Brazil.
Out of the water, Thomas has a number of interests, perhaps chief among them his love of skateboarding. It’s a nightmare for brother and coach Stefan – an accomplished ex-open water swimmer himself – who in his goal to keep Thomas injury-free, has managed at least to get him to avoid risky maneuvers, if not give up the pastime entirely. He also enjoys fishing in his time off, using the quiet moments to help hone his race tactics, another of the important and different aspects of the sport when compared with indoor swimming. He also has a degree in social education, and wrote his final paper on the influence of the social environment on competitive sports, drawing from his years of experience in international around the world.
On his left arm he has a tattoo of his father’s birthdate, added soon after the death of his father, who was a swimmer himself and a primary inspiration for him. On the other arm is a motto adopted by a German swim team he was part of some years ago: Together we can do it. Fellow team member at the time Stefan has the same tattoo.
Unusually, one of his culinary passions is McDonalds, and one ambition after he stops swimming competitively is to open an outlet of the fast-food chain. “It’s a simple place that works, where you know what you’re going to get,” he says in his typical straightforward manner.
But you can bet that won’t be before he’s given the chance of an Olympic gold in London one supreme, Lurz-like effort.