Images courtesy Shane Myers
Ironman king Shannon Eckstein and the man who looks to be his nearest challenger, Kendrick Louis, have set up a showdown in the Nutri-Grain IronMan Finals later this month.
Eckstein today once again showed his competitive class and race smarts by pulling away from Louis to win the sixth and final round of the Summer of Surf Sports Nutri-Grain Qualifying Series at Surfers Paradise.
It was a performance that showed why the Northcliffe star is the greatest ironman of all time but also indicated the in-form Louis (Manly) is not far off the pace needed to cause an upset.
The pair, along with 18 other qualifiers for the Nutri-Grain IronMan and IronWoman Finals, will now fine tune their performance before racing for a share of $200,000 at North Cronulla on February 24-26.
The ironwoman final was taken out by North Bondi young gun Lizzie Welborn, who finished over the top of two of her childhood heroes, Courtney Hancock and Kristyl Smith.
Eckstein showed a rare moment of vulnerability early in today’s final.
He got away to an average start in the opening board leg before Australian board champion Hayden White (Currumbin) and Luke Cuff (Mermaid Beach) slipped out to a 10m lead at the first transition, with Eckstein and Louis in the middle of a big chasing pack.
“I really should have got myself onto the front wave in the board but missed it and had to work my way back into the race in the swim,” Eckstein said.
The swim leg proved pivotal in deciding the race, with White and Cuff coming back to the pack, while Eckstein, Louis, Matt Poole (Kurrawa) and Caine Eckstein (Northcliffe) took control.
Just as it looked like they would all reach the beach together, Eckstein extracted the most from a breaking wave to gain a small advantage, then coolly stood and walked into position to catch a broken wave that gave him a 15m lead.
From that point there was only going to be one winner, while Louis had the better of the race with Poole and Caine Eckstein to secure second place.
“Having the ski last really suits me,” Eckstein said.
“It’s really nice to have got the win here in round six of the Summer of Surf in front of a big crowd, but now the work starts ahead of the Nutri-Grain Finals.
“There will be a bit more hard training and a couple of key sessions, but mainly I’ll be trying to stay injury-free and healthy.”
Louis’s second place ensured he won the Summer of Surf Ironman series and he had no qualms about placing second to the master competitor, and also has his sights on North Cronulla in three weeks.
“I can’t complain about finishing second, especially behind Shannon,” he said.
“I was well positioned in the swim, then a couple of waves came along and Shannon got the best of them and we couldn’t catch him from there.
“Today does show me that I’m in good form and I’ll now target my training at the demands of racing over three days at North Cronulla.”
Poole took third place, ahead of Caine Eckstein, and Jackson Maynard (Currumbin)
With the top competitors already safely qualified for the Nutri-Grain IronMan Finals Series, the race for the five qualifying places from the Summer of Surf went on further down the pack.
Those places went to Tanyn Lyndon (Burleigh Heads Mowbray Park), Hayden White, Daniel Collins (Redhead), Wes Berg (BHMP) and Trevor Hendy Jr (Surfers Paradise).
The Summer of Surf Ironwoman final round saw one of the sport’s rising stars, Lizzie Welborn of North Bondi, paddle her way to victory ahead of two-time Australian champion Courtney Hancock.
The race looked to be in grasp of Hancock after the board and swim legs as she took a handy lead into the ski paddle.
But as the Northcliffe competitor headed south looking for waves to take her to the beach, 18-year-old Welborn aimed straight toward the finishing shute.
Hancock’s search for help from the sea proved fruitless and the two leaders found themselves on the same wave 20m from the beach.
With a sprint to the finish set to decide the race, Welborn was first off her ski and dashed away for one of her biggest victories.
“That’s how surf is, and I kept telling myself Courtney hasn’t crossed the line yet so anything can happen,” Welborn said.
“The swim was a bit tricky and Courtney got the best of the wave but I just had to keep going and do the best that I could.
“It’s a really competitive field and it’s great to have events like the Summer of Surf for us to compete in.”
Welborn said she would be working on her surf skills across the next three weeks ahead of the Nutri-Grain Finals Series in the hope North Cronulla turns on challenging conditions.
Hancock said she felt really strong throughout the race and her confidence has grown across the last few races of the Summer of Surf series.
After winning the Coolangatta Gold last October, Hancock missed the opening rounds but third and second placings in rounds five and six have her heading into the Nutri-Grain finals in good form.
“I’m really happy with how I’m feeling right now,” she said.
“For the next three weeks I’ll be having early nights, good food and no doughnuts or chocolate.”
Third place in today’s ironwoman final went to the oldest competitor in the field, Northcliffe’s Kristyl Smith, who won her first Australian Ironwoman title in 2005 when Welborn was just six years old, but has never won a Nutri-Grain title.
Australian Ironwoman champion Rebecca Creeds placed fourth to edge out Welborn for the Summer of Surf series title by one point.
The six qualifying places for the Nutri-Grain IronWoman Finals went to Lana Rogers (Noosa Heads), Smith, Emma Dick (BHMP), Naomi Scott (Manly), Tayla Puskaric (Manly) and Madison Spencer (Newport).
One wild card competitor to join each of the men’s and women’s fields will be announced this week.