Ana Marcela Cunha won gold in Tokyo by a razor-thin margin over a grueling 10km swim (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Name: Ana Marcela Cunha
Country: Brazil
Sport: Open water swimming
Previous Olympic experience: Beijing 2008, Rio 2016, Tokyo 2021
Social Media: Instagram

Who is Ana Marcela Cunha?

Ana Marcela Cunha is considered an icon in her sport. Since making her elite debut as a 14-year-old at the 2006 South American Games, and winning two golds, Cunha has earned the title swim fans in Brazil give her: “Queen Of The Sea”.

Seven-time world championship gold medalist. Six World Aquatics Marathon Swim Series titles.

Three years ago in Tokyo, she filled the biggest gap in a formidable resume in one of the most memorable events of the last Summer Olympics. After 10 kilometers of open water swim across Tokyo Bay the gold medal came down to a 200-meter freestyle between Cunha, rival world champ Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands and Australia’s Karenna Lee.

The Brazilian powered through to win by .9 of a second after nearly 2 hours of fighting off a world-class field.

Cunha won in Tokyo by getting the best of a marathon that was decided by a sprint (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“We arrived here wanting this medal as much as you can,” Cunha said about the win after that race. “Around 10 days ago, I said to my coach, to win this race will be very difficult for my opponents, because I want it so hard, so much and I’m really well prepared.”

Since the gold medal triumph, she has prospered and had to persevere. She swam the 2022 season with an injured shoulder during a World Cup win that would require surgery after the competitive season. Her 2023 effort began with a rehab but ended with her slowly but surely regaining her edge. She did not net a single win, but did earn bronze in her return to competition last May and stayed competitive.

Out of the water, she snagged a win of a different kind. During the 2022 competitive season, she went public with a relationship with personal trainer Juliana Melhem. Last April, as she prepared for her return to racing, the two were married. “The most sure yes ever!” Cunha exclaimed over Instagram.

While being out about being lesbian, such public declarations have been unusual for her in the past. She admitted in previous interviews that she was afraid to even hold hands with a partner in public because of possible reaction.

Cunha has been more vocal since her nuptials and return to competition last year. ” I am a lesbian and I didn’t hide my preference. But I didn’t comment either. Now, it’s different”, she stated in an interview with O Globo last September. “I married the love of my life, Juliana, and together we are more than involved in the LGBTQ cause.”

She also relayed a story that led her to speak out more. Cunha received a letter from a parent who said their fourteen-year-old daughter came out to them sparked by the example of her favorite athlete, an athlete who made her first big splash at age 14.

“It’s stories like this that show that I have a voice, that I can inspire people,” Cunha noted. “Because I’m an athlete, my voice goes far, crosses doors that were previously closed. I want to amplify my voice, help those who are willing to be helped. I want to be a reference.”

Last week’s win at a World Cup event confirms Ana Marcela Cunha will be ready for Paris (Photo by Emanuele Perrone/Getty Images)

Ana Marcela Cunha at the Paris Summer Olympics

2024 has seen Cunha return to form in a bid for an Olympic repeat. In February, her fifth-place finish at the World Aquatics Championships confirmed her place on the grid for the Olympics. At the World Aquatics World Cup event in Italy last week, Cunha led a Brazil 1-2 in winning the event at 2 hours, 2 minutes. She was a half-minute ahead of second-place Viviane Jungblut, who will also be a part Brazil’s unit in the event for Paris.

There’s no question that Ana Marcela Cunha is excited for the challenge of trying to win a second Olympic gold medal. There is a lingering question about if the 32-year-old swimmer will cap a remarkable career in Paris.

“As long as I’m happy and continue to progress, I don’t want to set a date,” she answered to France 24 in March. “I want to avoid the countdown.”