Moesha Johnson Joins A New Wave Of Australian Distance Swimmers On The Road To Paris

06 February 2024
Written by: Ian Hanson OAM

Australian open water swimming reached new heights in the choppy waters of Port Doha (Qatar) on the opening day of the 2024 World Aquatics Championships with Gold Coast 26-year-old Moesha Johnson’s at times brutal battle to qualify for the Paris Olympics.

Johnson’s fighting fourth place finish in a frantic finale to the Olympic qualifying 10km marathon will see her make her Olympic debut in Paris alongside fellow Queenslander Chelsea Gubecka.

For the first time since open water’s inclusion in the Olympic Games in 2008 in Beijing, Australia will field two female competitors on the River Seine this year after Gubecka qualified with her silver medal finish at last year’s Fukuoka World’s, making her a two-time Olympian after her debut in Rio in 2016.

Johnson had stolen what looked like a winning break inside the last kilometre of the race with a blistering burst that left the lead group led 2016 Dutch Olympic champion and training partner Sharon Van Rouwendaal, napping.

And when Rouwendaal and a field of some of the world’s best, mounted their final challenge, it was the late bloomer Johnson, who had to dig deeper than ever to hang on.

Van Rouwendaal, Spain’s Maria de Valdes, Portugal’s Angelica Andrea and Brazilian legend Ana Marcel Cunha swamped Johnson in a flurry of arm and legs in a case of every woman for themselves.

And in the end, it was the experienced Rouwendaal (1hr:57:26.8) who out-touched de Valdes (1hr:57:26.9) with Andrea (1hr:57:28.2) taking the bronze and Johnson and Cunha dead-heating for fourth in 1:57:31.10.

Cunha will head to France trying to defend her Olympic title from Tokyo with the 31-year-old qualifying for her fourth Olympics, while Johnson earns a place at her first Games with a Top 13 finish.

“It just hasn’t sunk in, “Johnson said after the race of her life. “That was such a hectic race, I was getting bashed out there … people on top of me and people under me, I just had to hold on towards the end.”

And from Van Rouwendaal, who said she had to keep her confidence during every lap ?

“Although, I made some mistakes in the last few laps losing a lot of spots and dropping to fourth and and fifth…. swimmers like my training partner Moesha Johnson were gliding and performing very well as I know she is very good at pacing. As I got closer to her (towards the finish) I was like… ‘sorry’ but I have to get this.”

For Johnson, her Olympic berth is a reward for perseverance, a swimmer who for so long had been a bridesmaid in distance freestyle in Australia and who had plied her trade over the past decade firstly under Gold Coast coaches Graeme McDonald and renown British and Australian Olympic coach Chris Nesbit.

But in 2022 with Nesbit taking an opportunity to leave a successful pool and open water program he built up at TSS Aquatic on the Gold Coast and take on the head coaches’ role with the Carlile organisation in Sydney, his Olympic squad had to seek new coaching arrangements.

And for Johnson her next port of call was celebrated Olympic coach Michael Bohl and his Olympian assistant coach in Janelle Pallister (nee Elford) with the Griffith University program –out of the Swimming Australia HUB at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre.

Until this preparation saw her join the successful European distance program headed by Germany’s distance maestro Bernd Boukhahn and alongside Olympic champion Van Rouwendaal.

In an interview with Swimming World last year Johnson revealed how she had become addicted to the challenge of Open Water.

“There are so many variables to it that putting things from theory into practice is really hard,” said Johnson.

“So every time I go out there I feel like I haven’t pulled together my perfect open water race yet so I’ve become addicted to perfecting the art of open water after a very steep learning curve at the start.

“The 2022 World’s campaign was (only) my fourth 10km swim ever and my first ever international 10km race.

“It was like being thrown in the deep end, certainly a steep learning curve that I know there is so much room to grow still.

“I’m excited to see where all the skills I’m learning and all the areas that I’m racing in and the different situations and seeing how I can pull together the understanding I’ve got of open water swimming.

“I would not call myself a seasoned open water swimmer yet but I’m starting to feel more comfortable with playing around with tactics and different things when I’m out on the courses now.

“In Europe it’s not pool swimming and open water swimming it’s distance swimming which is encompassing 800m up to 25km and for me we haven’t really seen it in Australia yet.

“But it is something that all my competitors and even people I’ve swum with overseas for a block for training, they are starting to (move that way).

“Realistically the transition from pool to open water in training has not changed that much.

“It crossed over quite nicely and it’s actually more the racing in open water that has really been the big shift.

“Even like last year when we had our National Event Camp the coaches sat us down as the distance group and said as a culture in swimming in Australia, we really want to bring it together as distance swimming.

“We don’t want to have pool swimming and open water swimming we just want to bring everyone together as distance swimmers under that one umbrella.

“Open Water is a beautiful community, made up of pure work and pure toughness and with that comes a lot of respect and brings a lot of camaraderie and they are all quite humble achievers in a way.

“It is a great team to be part of and I believe it has the potential to become such a public event. I’d like to see the sport grow so much with a re-imagination and showing the world how tough we are when it comes to distance racing.”

Moesha Johnson has certainly delivered on her learnings and her own expectations and the belief of those around her, like Swimming Australia Performance Manager Greg Shaw.

With the Paris selection on the line Shaw knew he had a live one  on his hands, Moesha saying: “I want a piece of this.”

She took a large chunk in Doha to realise an Olympic dream after a lifetime of laps….and you get the feeling there will be another large slice coming in Paris.

PHOTOS COURTESY: Wade Brennan Photography (Wade’s Photos)

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