By Nancy Heslin
It’s been the most spectacularly competitive ÖTILLÖ swimrun season to date with neck and neck finishes in the Men’s, Women’s and Mixed divisions in Hvar, Utö and Isles of Scilly. The July 7-8 weekend in Engadin promises to be equally a nail-biter as Golden Bib racers look for their fourth consecutive wins. Here’s what to expect.
In the Men’s division, George Bjälkemo and Pontus Lindberg of Team Garmin will have some fierce competition from nearly 100 teams including last year’s winners, Bröderna Bäver, aka the Ekman brothers, who finished in 5:16:11.
“We didn’t start the season with the Golden Bib in mind, nor does it add any pressure,” George reveals. “It’s unlikely that we can win six consecutive races because if one of us gets injured or sick that would be the end of it.”
Pontus, 41, adds, “Since it’s not just about performance, we don’t dwell on the Golden Bib that much and see it more as fun should we take it all the way. Regardless, this year is definitely competitive out there but mostly super friendly.”
Pontus and George, who both have a background in long distance triathlon at a professional level, will go hard for a win next weekend but say they have no time objective. “Each course is really different so we do change our strategy, even during the race, depending on how it develops,” George, 37, explains.
“Overall, Utö has been our best performance so far. Everything fell into place on the day and we were able to actually enjoy the last part of the race.”
In the Mixed Team, Thule Crew with Martin Flinta and Helena Karaskova Erbenova will be chasing ÖTILLÖ World Champions and 2017 Engadin Mixed Winners Daniel Hansson and Kristin Larsson (Team Outdoorexperten & Swedish Armed Forces) to keep their Golden Bib and secure win number four.
Newcomer to swimrun, Helena is a 2-time Olympian cross-country skier who started with the XTERRA Triathlon and now is competing in swimrun. The 39-year-old connected with Martin, 44, after XTERRA 2014. “Helena was the only woman I couldn’t manage to catch up with so I asked her to race with me in my adventure racing team, Thule Adventure,” Martin recounts.
“We have been racing together ever since then and have won a stage at Adventure Racing World Championship, the Andalucia Bike Race and lots of events in China and Malaysia.”
Martin says their best performance was in fact Helena’s first swimrun in Hvar, Croatia. “After that first long swim, we were 6 minutes behind, so we had to figure out how pick up the pace – and we won the race!”
For Helena, Utö was Team Thule Adventure’s best race. “We’d been fighting side-by-side the entire race with Team Say No To Doping. Martin was sick and couldn’t tow me as strong as the other races. But I think our strategy is always the same: do our best.”
Last year at Engadin, Martin placed 2nd in the Men’s division, 13 minutes behind the Ekman brothers. “I really like the mountains and am good at altitude running and at only 48 kilos, Helena is all muscle and big lungs, so we will be flying up the hills this year. But the overall winners at Engadin 2 years ago, Daniel and Kristin, who also placed first in category last year, will be very strong as well in the Mixed category.”
Says Helena, “I saw the Engadin video from last year and I think it will be a very exciting race in beautiful nature. I love the mountains, the long uphills and technical downhills, but I am a little worried about the high altitude and cold water.”
Martin, who started with track and field before switching to triathlons at the age of 19, says ÖTILLÖ swimrun is a friendly sport. “We have friends on the other mixed teams but at the start, we are rivals and our only focus is to win. It’s better to win by one minute and be fresh for the next race than to win by 20 and be wiped out!”
Former Swedish Junior Swim Champion Fanny Danckwardt has taken the ÖTILLÖ Women’s division to a whole new level this season. As Team Envol, the 28-year-old won both Hvar and Utö with Desirée Andersson but decided to abandon the quest for the Golden Bib to run with friend Susie Moonan at Isles of Scilly – which, by the way, she also came in first.
“I never planned on racing for the Golden Bib this year,” Fanny insists. “My main goal has always been to win the ÖTILLÖ World Championships. Then, of course, when the news came out about the Golden Bib and Desirée and I had already won two races, it was very tempting to go for it.
“However, I had decided to do Isles of Scilly with Susie months before and we were really looking forward to this race and trip together, and it just didn’t feel right to cancel on her.”
Fanny says she’s always had an open dialogue with Team Envol about every competition. “Desiree perfectly understood my decision and said she would probably have done the same thing in my shoes. It’s always going to be hard balancing the friend aspect and the competitive aspect in swimrun, but it also makes the sport even more interesting.”
Fanny agrees it’s exciting to see more competition in the Women’s category, and points out that despite this, “I think the swimrun spirit is truly upheld even in the toughest situations. We are all great friends around the competitions and respect each other on the course – maybe even chatting a bit and encouraging each other when we encounter another team during a race.”
Although the Barcelona-based athlete won’t be competing at Engadin as she heads to Sweden for a family reunion, she cites the biggest difference in her performance this year is the work she’s put in on her running. “For the first time, I’ve followed a much more structured approach and progressively increased the amount of running training during the spring. I can totally feel the results as I can now hold a higher pace more comfortably.
“Also, I think my success is due to my mental dedication and support from Team Envol and Head Swimming.”
Fanny may not be at Engadin next weekend but the competition amongst the women will still kick ass with Desirée Anderson teaming up with Diane Sadik as Team Envol, Team Garmin with Michelle Nyström and Helen Maalinn and Team Head Swimming’s Ulrika Eriksson and Helena Sivertsson all chasing last year’s winners Team Öra – Salli Carlfjord and Charlotte Eriksson.
ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN SWIMRUN LIFE MAGAZINE ISSUE #8 (JUNE 2018)