Lee wins historic marathon swimming medal

Kareena Lee (r) has won Australia's first-ever Olympic marathon swimming medal with bronze.
Kareena Lee (r) has won Australia's first-ever Olympic marathon swimming medal with bronze.

Being hit by a large fish couldn't prevent Australia's Kareena Lee charging to win a historic bronze medal just 1.7 seconds behind Brazilian winner Ana Marcela Cunha in Olympic marathon swimming.

Lee and Rio Olympic champion Sharon van Rouwendaal sprinted to the timing wall together, with the Dutch defending champion just pipping the Australian for the silver medal by 0.8 seconds in the 10-kilometre open water race at Tokyo's Odaiba Marine Park on Wednesday.

It's Australia's first-ever Olympic medal in marathon swimming.

"I don't really think I've processed how it feels - it's just incredible," 27-year-old Lee said.

"It was the goal going in to come out with a medal and doing it at my first Olympics is incredible."

With swimmers starting early Wednesday in water temperatures already at 29 degrees - just under the allowable limit of 31 degrees - Lee was in touch with the leaders throughout.

The Queensland school teacher made her move on the final lap, breaking away with Cunha and van Rouwendaal.

Competing at her third Olympics, Cunha's winning time was one hour 59 minutes 30.8 seconds.

Lee admitted she did still get one surprise - being struck by a large fish, with a number spotted jumping out of the water along the course.

"It jumped up and hit me (on the chest) - I didn't know what it was at first and I was like 'Woah'.

"I was watching them jump out before but I didn't think one would actually hit me."

After the race Lee was quickly on the phone to John "JR" Rodgers, with the 82-year-old legendary swim coach unable to travel to Tokyo due to poor health.

"We did it JR. We did it," Lee told Rodgers, who was watching from Noosa in Queensland.

He replied: "We were never in doubt - you swam the race to a tee".

Lee said she had prepared for the conditions by training in a heated pool and taking daily sauna sessions, while she also spent time in Darwin before travelling to Tokyo.

"We were expecting the water temperature to be about 31 degrees because that's what it was at the test event," she said.

"So I've been training in a pool that was 31 degrees and the last couple of weeks leading in I went to Darwin which is similar air temperature to here."

Lee missed qualification for Rio when she was pulled from the 2015 world championships suffering a combination of asthma, dehydration, hypothermia and a facial injury.

But she knew the Tokyo course suited her after winning the 2019 Olympic test event, which was halved to five kilometres with the water temperature averaging 30 degrees.

Australian Associated Press