Monday, November 9, 2009

Breaking The 7-Hour Barrier In The English Channel

This is a reprint and update from a previous article, but we always enjoying writing about epic marathon swims:

Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria set the English Channel record in August 2007 in 6 hours, 57 minutes and 50 seconds. The personable and outgoing Petar, who is now an Athlete's Representative with FINA, became the first person to cross the Channel to break the 7-hour barrier. Petar's historic swim is an example of the determination possessed by all successful English Channel swimmers - but the story behind his swim is equally interesting.

Two months before his record-breaking swim, in June, Petar and his support team patiently waited on the English shore for the right conditions. With funds, patience and time running out, he returned home after ten straight days of cold, windy and rainy weather.

Disappointed but undaunted, Petar told his boat captain, the renowned Michael Oram, Honorable Secretary of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, to call him if the conditions look favorable after the 2007 professional marathon swimming season was over. [Note: In hindsight, we believe that competing in several marathon races under all kinds of weather conditions and venues where he pushed himself to his physical and mental limits for 7-9 hours while racing against the world's fastest pro swimmers was an ideal preparation for the English Channel.]

Like the six previous years, Petar competed on the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix circuit and captured his seventh consecutive world professional marathon swimming title. After the pro circuit was over, Petar went on vacation to the Black Sea with his pregnant wife and set his sights on the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Beijing for 2008. "I was relaxing, just enjoying the beaches and only swimming a little."

On Tuesday afternoon, August 21st, Michael unexpectedly called Petar and told him the conditions looked favorable for a Friday swim. Excited, Petar started to call around for air flights to England as soon as he got off the telephone with Oram. However, no tickets were available for a few days. He was also worried that he had not been swimming enough for a record attempt. "I had to find five tickets on short notice, including tickets for my wife, sponsor and a cameraman. We finally arrived around mid-day on Thursday and met Michael in Dover," said Petar.

"Tomorrow looks good," advised Michael who was getting his boat prepared when Petar finally arrived, a bit tired but anxious.

Petar went for a warm-up swim at a nearby pool in Dover and unexpectedly met long-time rival, Yuri Kudinov of Russia. "Yuri told me he was also getting ready to swim," recalled Petar. Earlier, Yuri had beaten Petar at the World Swimming Championships in the 25K races. Yuri was acknowledged by many as one of best marathon swimmers after compiling three 25K victories at the 2001, 2005 and 2007 World Swimming Championships, beating Petar each time. "On Friday morning, I woke up and had breakfast and coffee," said Petar. "Then I went down to Shakespeare Beach to get ready [for the Channel]."

Petar started at 10:11 am under fair – but not perfect – conditions. Unbeknownst to Petar, Yuri started 25 minutes behind him and started to chase him down. "After the second or third feeding, I was told Yuri was closing in on me," recalled Petar. "I imagined that I would set the English Channel record and then only have it for a few minutes before it would be broken by Yuri."

Petar took it as a challenge and the race for the record was on. All day long, Petar surged and Yuri responded. Back-and-forth the battle went between the two finest marathon swimmers in the the most famous channel in the world. The athletes were wasting no time at their feedings and constantly maneuvered their course. It was as much a physical battle between two of the fastest marathon swimmers in history as it was a tactical match between the escort pilots. It was clear that the conditions were made for a record attempt, but the Channel would have to hold up for a record to be set – no matter what pace Petar and Yuri were swimming.

"It was like a race. The distance between us was almost constant throughout the Channel." Towards the end, Petar pulled slightly ahead. "Over the last 2 hours, I was considerably faster and was able to finish 8 minutes faster than Yuri." Petar finished at Cap Gris Nez at 6:08 pm with Michael at the helm and Alison Streeter, the 'Queen of the Channel', as one of the official observers.

"I will always be the first man to complete the Channel in under 7 hours," said Petar as he talked about swimming the 1500-meter freestyle and the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim in Beijing. "If I do not get a gold medal or place in the top 3 at the Olympics, then no one will remember me. In some ways, the Olympics require some luck because it is a race that happens only once every four years...but people always remember the English Channel."

"Continuing my career will depend on my results at the Olympics," continued Petar. "I have a 3-month-old daughter now and I must work for my family. Ultimately, I want to become a member of the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee and work to develop marathon swimming around the world. Back in 1993, I did my first race. I wanted to have a chance to travel all around the world and meet different people. I have been to beautiful and exotic places because of marathon swimming. When I studied geography in school, I could never imagine that I would be able to travel to places like Canada, England and Asia."

Footnote: Petar ultimately went on to carry his country's flag as Bulgaria's flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremonies, swim a lifetime best in the 1500-meter freestyle in the 1500-meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics (15:28) and place sixth in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim only a few days later. He has since went on to win his ninth consecutive FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix title - an unprecedented feat - and is currently serving ably on the FINA Technical Open Water Swimming Committee and was inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame this year.

Petar's course against the Channel can be seen on left, courtesy of his pilot Michael Oram. Photo above of Petar courtesy of Petar by Skip Storch at the 2009 International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame ceremonies. Yuri's swim, also one of the fastest swims in history, was highlighted by Pavel Kuznetsov below. In Pavel's video, you can see how close Yuri's boat started after Peter. You can also see the full Russian-language version here.

Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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