COLUMBIA — When Micha Burden retired from swimming after graduatingfrom the University of California-Berkeley in 2004, she thought her swimming career was over for good. She started going to nursing school and had no plans to get back in the water.
But she couldn’t kick the sport. She swam in ocean races in Southern California, she swam in lifesaving races, and she swam on a Masters team, an organization for swimming and competitions among adults.
Then one phone call changed her life.
One of Burden’s friends had been pushing for her to try open water swimming, a relatively new sport in the U.S. When it was announced that the 10-kilometer open water race was added to the Beijing Olympics’ event schedule, he sent her an e-mail.
“I didn’t really think that much of it,” said Burden, who was in Columbia this weekend to swim pool events in the Missouri Grand Prix. “And I was talking to my dad on the phone, and I said, oh, open water’s just become an Olympic event. He called me about a week later and was like, quit your job, start swimming. I was like, what are you talking about? And he was like, I’ll support you, just go for it. So I didn’t really think that much about it. I just always wanted to try to make the Olympics, and so I just quit my job and started swimming again.”
Burden began training, getting back in shape after two years out of competitive swimming and learning an entirely different kind of racing.
“Its taken a lot of races and a lot of mistakes, and I think with open water, it’s so strategic that it’s not about who’s the best athlete or the fastest swimmer. It’s really about being patient and having a strategy and sticking to your strategy,” Burden said. “It took a lot of failures for me to figure out how I need to race in open water.”
Burden competed in every event she could. She traveled to Brazil, Dubai and London, and swam in several races in California.
“The Europeans have been doing it for years, and the best have been competing for 10 years, so I’ve had to sort of learn as much as I can in two years to be competitive with someone that has 10 years of experience behind them,” she said. “I definitely have more to learn, but I’ve made great leaps and bounds in the short amount of time that I’ve been doing it.”
One obstacle Burden had to learn to deal with was swimming in a pack. With the pushing, pulling, elbowing and kicking that goes on in open water races, the sport, often called marathon swimming, sometimes resembles a wrestling match more than competitive swimming.
“When I first started doing open water, I felt like I had to be more aggressive and I had to retaliate when someone hit me, and I’ve never done a very good job of that,” said Burden, who suffered a broken rib in a race in Brazil three weeks ago.
Officials, stationed on boats, can wave yellow warning flags at aggressive swimmers or red flags to kick out the offenders, but things can be tough to make out when the swimmers are packed so tightly together.
“The officials can’t see anything,” said Chloe Sutton, Burden’s teammate on Mission Viejo Nadadores and a competitor at the Missouri Grand Prix. “Everyone’s hitting each other, elbowing, everything’s really crazy. Swimming in a tight pack like that, waves come and just knock everybody around. It’s hard to stay out of people’s way.”
Burden’s patient race strategy and all of her hard work — the swimming, the weight lifting, the running — finally paid off in October, when she won the 10K Open Water World Championship Trials in Fort Myers, Fla. Burden and Kirsten Groome, who placed second in the event, will travel to Seville, Spain, for the World Championships, held April 29 to May 4. The top 10 swimmers in the 10K race in Spain will compete in the Olympics, and if neither American swimmer places in the top 10, one can qualify at a race in Beijing in June by placing in the top 15.
“When I was done with college, everyone was so excited to be done with swimming and be done with school, but I was disappointed,” Burden said. “I wanted to keep swimming, and all I ever wanted to do was be a professional athlete. So when I had the opportunity to start swimming again, I didn’t think. If I actually had thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it, because not only did I have to get back into shape but I had to become a distance swimmer and try to be successful in an event I had never done before. But just the opportunity to do that was too great to walk away from.”
Burden is now sponsored by TYR, a swim gear company, and will continue to train for the world championships and attend any pool meets in which her Mission Viejo Nadadores compete. But her eyes are firmly fixed on being in Beijing on Aug. 8 for the inaugural Olympic 10K race.
“The Olympics would be an absolute dream come true,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about it and dreaming about it since I was a little girl, so to be there and compete there would just be ... I don’t even know how to describe it. I don’t really know I would feel, it just seems so amazing.”