The chilly Tiburon Mile is one of swimming's most high-profile events

Credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport
Although its September and the open-water swim season has more or less come to a close, the years most competitive and perhaps most prestigious ocean race has yet to occur.

On Oct. 6, the upscale town of Tiburon, Calif., will host the third annual RCP Tiburon Mile.

An intense race beginning from the remote Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and spanning across a brief but very cold and current-prone 2,000 meters to the Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon, the RCP Tiburon Mile has become one of the most cutthroat and popular events on the ocean swimming circuit.

This is in no small part due to the tireless promotional efforts of its organizer and founder, Robert C. Placak (the RCP in RCP Tiburon Mile). Placak, a competitive swimmer and current masters participant, began the event as a way of spicing up the sport of ocean swimming. He wanted a faster, colder, rougher, meaner race that was not only a challenge to open-water enthusiasts but equally as enticing to world-ranked pool swimmers. He also was looking for a way to give back to the swimming community and support a worthy charity, which is why proceeds from the event go to the Special Olympics.

But why would current Olympians and world-ranked competitive swimmers brave the sub-60 temperatures of San Francisco Bay, potentially injuring themselves and enduring the humiliation of being beaten by lesser-known open-water swim stars? For the opportunity to win the generous cash prize offered to the top finishers (male and female), which has grown to $10,000 this year.

It is rare that the relatively young sport of ocean swimming would have such a cash-reputable platform from which to entice swimmers and spectators from 20 different countries. But Robert Placak has worked endlessly to make his namesake event the prime stop on every serious swimmers event lineup.

I wanted to make the sport of ocean swimming fun, more exciting, more competitive," Placak says. "Its important to get the community involved, and to raise money for a good cause while offering people the chance to participate in what I hope will become a world-class event."

Over $30,000 was raised and donated to charity last year.

Indeed, due to Placaks P.T. Barnum-style promotional efforts, the RCP Tiburon Mile has earned the respect and interest of several high-profile swimmers. Brooke Bennett, a triple Olympic gold medalist, handily won the womens event the last two years and is returning to three-peat this year, albeit with stiffer competition. Her Olympic teammate and like gold-medalist Lindsay Benko, along with Netherlands Open Water World Champion Edith Vandijk, are scheduled to race. On the mens side, nine-time NCAA champion and former South African Olympian Ryk Neethling will attempt to defend his title from last year, faced with competition from 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Chris Thompson, Australian distance legend and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Grant Hackett, U.S. Open Water National Team members John Flanagan and Mark Leonard, and Russian World Open Water Champion Evgueni Bezroutchenko.

These swimmers may never have bothered to take time out of their training to commute to San Francisco and brave the Bay were it not for the cash prizes ... or Placaks generous offers to cover some of their expenses. His hand-picked, all-star cast is only required to appear at a pre-race swim clinic, press the flesh at a competitors dinner the night before the race, and go for the purse the following morning. It is this fact that has created mild controversy in the swimming community and caused certain swimmers to avoid the event altogether.

While it is certainly a meet-organizers right to recruit and host star athletes who elevate the profile of an event, allegations of harvesting swimmers have surfaced in local swimming circles, although no one is willing to go on record and lodge their complaints. Placak is undeterred.

There will always be people who complain, but you know, theyre just not willing to enjoy the thrill of the hunt and the challenge of high-level competition," he said. "I want to bring together the worlds best pool and open water swimmers, because it elevates the entire sport, raises the bar, and everyone ends up being a winner: the swimmers, the community, the charity. People who dont see that are just shortsighted. We raise money for a good cause, and give everyday people the opportunity to participate in an event alongside world-class athletes. Its the true athlete that relishes this top level of competition.

Isolated gripes aside, Placaks event is rapidly filling up its entry slots as the Oct. 6 race date nears. Randy Eickhoff, a masters swimmer and part-time lifeguard who works full-time as an executive for Korn/Ferry International, is eagerly looking forward to the challenge of this years race his first and doesnt understand what the fuss is about.

If you hold races in difficult conditions, you might be able to attract sponsorship and TV coverage," Eickhoff said. "Why not give incentive to the best athletes to come and compete regardless of age? As much as I enjoy winning a race, I enjoy the knowledge that the best athletes are there competing. If a promoter can find a way to draw money and sponsorship to an event, then the competitors should have an opportunity to share in prize money.

The event itself is launched in Olympic-sized proportions, allowing even novice entrants to feel like an integral part of elite-level competition. Competitors who enter the elite division have their names emblazoned on color-coded swim caps (the better for TV crews to identify leaders from escorted media boats), and a crowd of spectators five people deep awaits finishers at the carnival-like atmosphere of the finish-line in the small harbor at Tiburon. Everyone is given a race packet with local sponsor materials and merchant giveaways, and the boat ride across the race course to the Angel Island Start allows for recreational athletes to mingle with the likes of Olympic champions. The race start itself is as egalitarian as it gets, with everyone in every division starting at once with the single sound of a shotgun fired by the commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club (where the race finishes).

I loved the fact that as part of the elite division I was given the opportunity to race against some real swim stars, says Jenny Cook, a participant in last years event. But if I were to do it again, I think Id enter the masters division where I have a better chance of placing and at least winning my age group.

As intimidating as this competition sounds, there is also plenty of room for the Average Joe to get his feet wet and rise to the challenge (and privilege) of swimming an organized, legitimate course in San Francisco Bay. Anyone who is anxious or inexperienced with open-water strategy is encouraged and invited to attend the four-hour pre-race Swim Clinic held the Thursday before at a nearby college.

In Placaks words, it will be one of the best clinics ever, and judging from the guest list, he is not exaggerating. In addition to Bennett, Hackett, Thompson, Benko, Flanagan and Neethling, Olympic Gold Medalist Amanda Beard and National Team member Mark Leonard are scheduled to speak.

Placak makes a point of allowing swimmers of every ability to race in his event. While entries are filling up fast and he has more than 700 committed participants this year, he has promised to keep building his dream race for years to come.

I think that this year I can say that this race may be the fastest, most competitive open-water swim event in the history of the sport," Placak says excitedly. The assembly of these world class swimmers can only help the sport and bring excitement and attention to it. Which is one of my primary goals."

Controversy (real or imagined) aside, it seems that Robert C. Placak is well on his way to achieving that goal.

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