What a difference four years can make.
Back in August of 2012, Richard Weinberger – who grew up in South Surrey and formerly swam with the Pacific Sea Wolves – was a wide-eyed 22-year-old rookie on Canada’s national swim team, eyeing his first-ever Olympic Games.
It was there, in Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park, that Weinberger – considered by some to be a contender but hardly a favourite – burst onto the open-water scene with a bronze-medal winning performance in the men’s 10-km marathon swim.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Weinberger, now 26, is again taking aim at the Olympic podium, as the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro approach.
But unlike London four years ago, this time bronze won’t do.
“I’m really excited to compete for my country again, and hopefully win gold. That’s all I’m shooting for this Olympics – gold,” he told Peace Arch News last week from Toronto, where the Canadian national swim team had convened for a media day.
“I’m not going there trying to just win a medal, or finish in the top-five or any of that.
“I’m going for gold and that’s it.”
His gold-or-bust approach makes sense, considering the experience he’s gained in the water since London.
Weinberger – who learned to swim in Saudi Arabia, where his commercial-pilot dad was once stationed – placed fifth in the 10-km race at 2013 FINA World Championships, missing the podium by just seven-tenths of a second, and would have likely been in the top-three had he not missed a buoy mid-race. He also placed fourth at 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto – missing bronze by one-tenth of a second – and posted a top-10 finish at 2015 World Championships.
Results aside, he says he’s simply a far better swimmer than he was four years ago.
“Overall, I’m just a more mature and more developed athlete now,” he said.
Now living in Kitsilano – he trains at UBC after years living and training in Victoria – Weinberger said he’s also more in tune with his body, and takes better care of himself than he did as a younger swimmer.
“I’m a lot more focused now than the last time. I’ve been doing great things at the pool, but it’s also now about what I do when I get home from training,” he explained.
“Now, I get right on my nutrition, and I’m way better with my sleep – these are things I didn’t really worry about before.
“I literally won the bronze medal last time drinking chocolate milk and eating pizza and McDonald’s. This time around, everything is way different, way better.”
While Weinberger has spent much of the year training in Vancouver, he did fare well at a competition six weeks ago in Hungary, finishing third in the 10K despite a lack of rest or adjustment to the time zone.
Last week, he took part in another Olympic tune-up race in Roberval, Que., and will head to Rio earlier this month. The Olympics begin Aug. 5, and Weinberger’s race is set for Aug. 16.
“Everything I’ve done has been with a focus on Rio. A lot of other competitors aim to peak for different events throughout the year – things like European championships or World Cup events, if they’re in the money – but for me, it’s been all about the Olympics,” he said.
“I’m pretty anxious, but I just want to get into the water and throw down. I’m not the type of guy to plan too much – I’m a doer, so I just want to get out there and do the race and let the things that are going to happen, happen.”
Almost since Rio was announced as host city for the 2016 Games – and certainly in recent months – the city has been in hot water over water conditions and the outbreak of the Zika virus. Many of Rio’s waterways are polluted and, according to reports, filled with debris, bacteria and in some cases, sewage.
Health concerns have caused a handful of high-profile Olympians – Canadian tennis star Milos Raonic and U.S. golfer Jason Day among them – to pull out of this month’s competition.
Weinberger, however, remains unconcerned.
“I was there a year (ago) at a pre-Olympic race, and I had the opportunity to take some supplements that counteract any bacteria. There were a bunch of safety measures taken,” he said, adding with a laugh that, just to be safe, he drank a can of Coke after his race.
“That would’ve killed anything in my stomach, too.”
When it comes to health issues that envelop these Games, he suggests it’s easier for players of Raonic’s and Day’s ilk to quit because the Olympic Games are not the pinnacle of their respective sports, as opposed to open-water swimming, which is only thrust into the spotlight every four years.
“These golfers and basketball players who are copping out – they have bigger competitions and they make millions of dollars every year. But we’re open-water swimmers… we aren’t out there driving around in our Ferraris. You aren’t going to get to see (open-water swimming) in any other place than the Olympics,” he said.
“It’s only the third Olympics we’ve had the 10K and it’s really blown up – it’s pure, raw athletics – so we aren’t going to miss it.
“It’s going to be a great race – one of the best (events) of the Olympics.”
Weinberger isn’t the only Rio-bound swimmer with ties to the Semiahmoo Peninsula. Hillary Caldwell – a former White Rock resident now living in Victoria – is also en route to Brazil, where she will compete for Canada in the backstroke.
Like Weinberger, Caldwell also competed at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Distance runner Luc Bruchet – an Elgin Park Secondary alum –will also be in Rio at his first-ever Olympics, having qualifed for the men’s 5,000-m race in July.
Other Surrey Olympians in Rio include field-hockey player Sukhi Panesar, Johnston Heights Secondary alum Christabel Nettey (long jump) and gymnast Shallon Olsen.