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Swimmer’s 56-Hour London Odyssey Comes Down to Seconds

German swimmer Britta Steffen
Britta Steffen of Germany, reacts after she competed in the first semifinal heat of the Women's 100m Freestyle on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre in London on August 1, 2012. Photographer: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

It took Ann-Marie Hepler 56 hours to travel from a remote island in the Pacific Ocean to the Olympic Games in London, where the 16-year-old swimmer spent just over 28 seconds competing in the pool.

Hepler traded a 25-yard (23 meter) saltwater pool in the Republic of the Marshall Islands for a 50-meter one inside the 250 million-pound ($389 million) Aquatics Centre in the east end of the U.K. capital. Her two-day journey to London included layovers in Honolulu and Washington.

“I’ve come here to improve my time,” Hepler said in an interview before the event. “Since this is my first one, I’m just here to get myself out there and experience it. I think we’re one of the furthest but it’s definitely worth it.”

Hepler swam the 50-meter freestyle in 28.06 seconds, improving on her qualifying time of 28.43 seconds and finishing third in her heat. The heat was won in 27.74 seconds by Joyce Tafatatha, a 14-year-old from Malawi who is the only swimmer in the qualifying group younger than Hepler.

Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands, winner of the 100-meter freestyle last night, was fastest in the heats today with a time of 24.51 seconds. She’ll go through to the semifinals along with swimmers including defending Olympic champion Britta Steffen of Germany, holder of the world record at 23.73 seconds.

8,362 Mile Flight

The Marshall Islands competed for the first time at the 2008 games in Beijing with five representatives, including U.S.- born 800-meter runner Haley Nemra. The country sent four athletes on the 8,362 mile (13,457 kilometer) trip to London. The islands are 181 square kilometers, about the size of Aruba.

“The Marshall Islands are 12 hours ahead of here,” said Hepler’s coach Amy LaCost. “We were physically exhausted when we got here” on June 15 after departing on June 13.

Some athletes at the Summer Games have traveled even further than those from the Marshall Islands. Nazario Fiakaifonu, who lives 1,731 miles south of Hepler, is one of four Olympians competing for Vanuatu.

The 24-year-old arrived in London for the Summer Games two days after leaving his home town of Port Vila and traveled via Fiji and Seoul.

“It was a long, long trip,” said the 271-pound islander judo athlete. “When you come here you’re very tired and you have to flow and catch up with the rhythm.”

Island Archipelago

He’s flown more than 10,000 miles to fight Marius Paskevicius of Lithuania in the over 100-kilograms judo competition at the ExCeL Arena today. Like the Marshallese, he doesn’t expect to be the first athlete to get Olympic glory for his country.

“A medal would be very good for us, but I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m a realist. I’ve been doing judo seriously for two years. My aim is to promote my country, to represent proudly my flag and I’ll do my best because I trained hard for this event.”

Vanuatu, slightly larger than Connecticut, is an island archipelago of more than 80 isles, of which about 65 are inhabited, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Book. Several of the islands have active volcanoes and it has a population of about 227,570.

“I train hard but the athletes from around the world, France, England they have a qualified person who prepares them, good facilities,” Fiakaifonu said. “In my country we don’t have these kinds of things; we train with what we have.”

Saltwater Pool

Marshallese swimmers train in a pool which isn’t competition length and is filled with saltwater compared with the less buoyant freshwater used in Olympic pools.

“In freshwater we sink so we definitely always have to work on keeping our hips up,” the freestyle swimmer said.

Hepler, who was born in the capital of Majuro, shares the Marshall Islands with around 62,000 other people, making it one of the least populated countries in the world, according to a United Nations report. At home she lives 30 seconds from the beach and bicycle is the favored method of travel, she said.

In London, “there are cars and it’s loud and you drive on the opposite side of the road,” the swimmer said at the Olympic Village. “It’s very different back at home. It’s hot all the time.”

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