Open water swimming legend Petar Stoychev recovered after veering off course to win the 7km Bell Buoy Challenge in cold and choppy conditions at the MTN Nelson Mandela Bay Splash Festival in Port Elizabeth on Sunday.
The Bulgarian multiple world champion completed the out and back course in 1:33:47, with Durban’s Luke Nisbet second in 1:34:42 and Pretoria’s Tyron Venter third in 1:38:32. Michael Marais, who placed fourth in 1:45:31, was the first local back on shore.
The women’s race was won by Australia’s Melissa Gorman, the current world champion, in 1:41:00. New Zealand’s Brenda Russell took silver in 1:48:58 and PE’s Rebecca Newman bronze in 1:49:30.
Stoychev misinterpreted the marshals’ instructions and passed the beacons at the start on the wrong side. After being redirected, he was stone last and more than a hundreds metres behind the rest of the field.
The 33-year-old showed his pedigree as he set off in pursuit of his rivals, reeling them in one by one. He rounded the bell buoy at the halfway mark in seventh position with Venter leading at that point.
Stoychev caught up with the South African 25km champion just before three-quarter race distance and was never challenged again. Nisbet also found his stride in the challenging conditions to catch and pass Venter in the last kilometre.
“I was disadvantaged by maybe a minute or two due to the confusion. I had to push really hard to catch the first swimmers, really hard,” a happy Stoychev said after the race.
He said the sizeable swell made his job even tougher. “Sometimes I couldn’t even see the way. I just kept on repeating to myself that I must keep pushing, pushing – that I must win this race.”
The tall Bulgarian, the only person to cross the English Channel in under seven hours, said he really liked the race. “If they (the organisers) invite me, I’ll be back. Yes, of course.”
“It was the farthest that I’ve ever raced, so I’m happy with second,” said Nisbet. “Going out was nice with the wind at our backs and with the runners. I tried to conserve energy for the second half.”
Venter said he “pushed the pace” from the start to make everyone “uncomfortable”. He led the pack at quarter and half distance, but eventually surrendered the lead to the fast-charging Stoychev and then second to Nisbet.
“Luke’s background in surf lifesaving certainly gave him an advantage today, in these conditions. The last half was probably the toughest conditions I’ve ever encountered. I was really struggling to find a rhythm in the swells.”
Gorman got off to a fast start and was on Venter’s shoulder at the quarter-distance hot spot. “I sprinted for the first hot spot and then settled into a good pace. It was really tough coming back and much colder than I’m used to.”
For more information, visit www.splashfestival.com or follow the event on Facebook or Twitter.
Full Stop Communications
On behalf of:
MTN Nelson Mandela Bay Splash Festival