We had to cool down – and fast. Because a water temperature of 28 degrees is ideal for relaxed splashing around on vacation, but it becomes a challenge if you want to push your physical limits for an hour, swim as fast as you can and ultimately crown yourself with World Cup gold . But Florian Wellbrock mastered the hardships in the sea off Fukuoka with flying colors and just as cool as his open water Olympic victory in the heat of Tokyo. The reward: his second world title in Japan, his sixth overall – and an ice bath in the paddling pool.
Stretched out on all fours and holding a cold Coke bottle – this is how Germany’s flagship swimmer enjoyed his success at 45 degrees in the sun and did something good for his muscles. Because regeneration is a must. Especially if, like Wellbrock, you complete a competition program at these World Championships that is second to none and after two gold medals you are far from satisfied.
The same applies to Leoni Beck, who at the age of 26 is in the form of her life and celebrated her first world title in individual races in Japan. It was she who had submitted: World Championship gold over the Olympic ten kilometers on Saturday, Wellbrock then delivered on Sunday. World Championship gold over half the distance early on Tuesday morning – two hours later Wellbrock also left the competition behind. The German national anthem was played twice within eight minutes at Momochi Seaside Park in Fukuoka, after which Beck and Wellbrock posed for gold photos together.
The two have thus won four titles in four competitions, a historic success: never before have there been four world championship titles for the same nation over these distances. And then there was also the youngster Oliver Klemet (21), who made his contribution to the German festival with third and fourth place. No doubt: Germany is an open water power. “The athletes support each other. The staff is always there and gives fire. That’s the key to this year’s tremendous success,” says Wellbrock. And the party is far from over – neither for the three athletes nor for the German pool swimmers afterwards. In any case, the golden early days of Fukuoka should give everyone a boost.
Because even the boldest optimists hadn’t expected such a strong performance. Sure, Wellbrock, Olympic champion over ten kilometers and defending champion over half the distance, had started both distances as one of the gold candidates, Beck was one of the favorites for the podium places, had won bronze in 2019 and silver in 2022. But that Wellbrock would win both open water races for the first time at a World Championships and, above all, that Beck would succeed in the same feat – no one could have assumed that. In addition, Klemet showed with his first international medal that young people grow up.
“The fact that we are so superior here: fantastic! I’m thrilled,” said long-distance national coach Bernd Berkhahn, who also trains Wellbrock and Klemet in Magdeburg. “The superiority is amazing. I didn’t think it was still possible to win quadruple gold with the power density that exists internationally and with the science that we use.”
Beck initially held back in both of her races, only to then relegate the competition to places in the end. She impressed over the five kilometers on Tuesday with a long final sprint and 59:31.7 minutes, ahead of the Dutch Olympic champion Sharon van Rouwendaal, who trains with Wellbrock and Klemet at Berkhahn in Magdeburg. The two world championship gold races of the 25-year-old Wellbrock, like the Olympic open water competition in Tokyo, turned into a demonstration of power. There he was the first German swimmer to win Olympic gold in open water and also ended a long dry spell: the Magdeburg man was crowned the first German Olympic swimming champion since 1988.
Before he wants to follow suit in Paris in 2024, he first came up trumps at the World Cup: right from the start, without weaknesses, and in the end he once again clearly distanced himself from the competition. The warm water, the heat outside: he didn’t care much. “I’m not deterred by the tough conditions. I know that I’m very good at it,” said Wellbrock after his victory in 53:58.0 minutes in front of Gregorio Paltrinieri from Italy.
So that what is so strenuous looks so easy, Wellbrock trains about 90 kilometers a week. “I think I’m doing myself a disservice by adding up the hours. It’s enough for me when I know how many kilometers I’ve done at the end of the week – and that sometimes shocks me a little,” he says with a laugh.
Wellbrock knows exactly what he wants. And what he has to do for it. Born in Bremen, he was not one of those high-flyers who always celebrated victories in their childhood and youth and shone with an extraordinary talent. When it wasn’t enough for him to be among the national leaders in his age group, he decided: something has to change. “I also wanted to be German champion,” Wellbrock told WELT. He decided to go to Bernd Berkhahn in Magdeburg because of the better training conditions. He was 17 years old at the time and had to find his way around alone in a foreign city and with life in a sports boarding school. It wasn’t easy, as he says. Wellbrock was dissatisfied and overwhelmed. “I asked myself: if I do everything to myself that doesn’t suit me right now, and a truck runs over me tomorrow – then I’ve lived shitty the past time. For nothing,” he says. A phase through which he fought his way through, sought and found answers. Even the Olympic disappointment of his debut in 2016 did not stop him, but strengthened him: first world title in 2019, Olympic victory in 2021, short course world record over 1500 meters. And now the world titles number five and six.
It was not clear at the time of going to press whether he would also be fighting for gold in the mixed relay on Thursday or whether he was recovering for the pool competitions. Beck is definitely starting and is now concentrating entirely on the open water. The mixed competition there is a guarantee of success: at the premiere in 2009, the German team came third; It won in 2013, 2015, 2019 and 2022. Because the Germans were good in open water even before the Wellbrock era, but not to the same extent. Back then, when Thomas Lurz dominated the scene in an impressive way for years and fished twelve world titles out of the open water between 2004 and 2014. He was denied Olympic victory, but with his silver in 2012 he prevented the zero number of the German swimmers in London.
Lurz was a role model for Leoni Beck, and in 2008 she joined his training group in Würzburg. His achievements have “motivated and inspired her,” she says. Still active in the pool in 2016, but dissatisfied with her Olympic debut in Rio, she tried her hand at the longer distances in open water and convinced there in 2021, finishing fifth at the Olympics.
The forge of the other German long-distance aces – in open water as well as in the pool – is Magdeburg with Berkhahn as a home trainer. Over the years, under his leadership, a stronghold for middle and long distance athletes has developed there that is unparalleled in the world, attracts young athletes and produces new types of success. Like Clemet. As in the pool, the great hopes Lukas Märtens and Isabel Gose. Sarah Wellbrock, formerly Köhler, was once drawn to Magdeburg. The Olympic bronze medalist over 1500 meters was also considered a great hope for Paris 2024, but recently had to end her career due to ongoing shoulder problems. Her successor is already ready: Isabel Gose, European Champion over 400 meters freestyle, who will take part in the World Championships on Sunday.
The “Berkhahn Group”, as Wellbrock calls his Magdeburg team, also includes open water swimmer Rob Muffels, who has already won World Championship medals, and Mykhailo Romanchuk since the start of the Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine. Wellbrock brought his competitor to Magdeburg when the war began. Another top-class athlete who pushes the daily training. Wellbrock, Märtens, Romanchuck: In the second week of the World Championships, they will go from training partners to competitors for medals in the pool. A situation that benefits everyone. In the pool as well as in open water.
The long open water tradition in Germany should also be an important point for the current successes over the five and ten kilometers. “The knowledge, the training and the tactics were always passed on and developed. Of course, there is also the work at the various bases,” says Lurz. He believes the dominance will last for now. “Of course you can’t always talk about titles,” he says, “but Fukuoka shows with the results of Oliver Klemet and Lea Boy that we already have other internationally strong top players with us. And there are already some talents among the youngsters.”