Graham O'Grady and Gina Crawford raced home winners at the Port of Tauranga Half at The Mount today, with O'Grady announcing himself as a world class athlete over the half distance in equalling the race record while defeating former world champion Terenzo Bozzone and 9 times winner Cameron Brown.
Conditions were near perfect at the hot holiday spot, but for the winds which troubled athletes on the swim and bike legs, in a race played out in front of a huge crowd of triathlon fans and sun soaking holiday makers enjoying a great day for the 24th running of this iconic event, one that doubles as the Tri NZ National Long Distance Championships.
O'Grady led out of the water after an impressive swim, clocking 22 minutes and 35 seconds for the 1.9km in Pilot Bay. Chasing hard were Callum Millward and Terenzo Bozzone some 46 seconds back, with Cameron Brown in the third group, 2 minutes 34 seconds behind O'Grady.
Positions stayed largely the same on the 90km bike leg, with O'Grady extending his lead on the chasers to head out on to the run with a handy but not insurmountable lead of one minute and 14 seconds over a chasing trio of James Bowstead (the big mover on the bike with a fastest 2:06:38 split), Callum Millward and Bozzone - with Bozzone losing vital seconds when having to retreat 12 metres to pick up a stray bike shoe.
By the halfway point it was down to two with Bozzone and O'Grady running side by side but O'Grady made his move on the second lap around the base of The Mount to break the former 70.3 world champion and head to the finish and a share of the race record of 3:47:54 set by Nathan Richmond in 2006.
"I had a great swim and rode strongly and looked to make a move at about the 30km to go mark knowing that sometimes a chase group can back off a little thinking of each other and the run and that is the way it played out.
"It is always nice to have a buffer and settle into your own rhythm, I knew that Terenzo and Callum would be coming at me fast and sure enough Terenzo ran really well over that first 5km. I was a bit hesitant to go with him but my coach Keegan (Williams) gave me an earful when I went past him heading into the mountain so I worked hard, stuck there and believed in myself."
The win is all the sweeter for 30 year old O'Grady, one of the nicest athletes in the sport, after he had his title stripped two years ago for a failed drugs test(O'Grady was subsequently cleared of any wrong doing after poppy seeds were found to be the cause of traces of morphine and was not suspended) and then injury ruled him out last year.
"I think this is a great win, a perfect race for me. I have worked hard, I have had great races every now and then and known the potential is there but this result is pretty special and will give me confidence, especially against such a class field with Terenzo and Cameron, they are the best in the world. Hopefully I can keep this roll going through the year and race well at the world championships."
Both Brown and Bozzone were gracious in defeat, with Terenzo enjoying an embrace with his new wife at the finish line following his wedding last week.
"That was fast from the word go, a disappointing swim by my standards but was then trying to minimise what I could on the bike but the boys rode real well today and Graham put a superb race together to get a deserved win."
In the women's race it was as expected a close battle out of the water between Jo Lawn and Gina Crawford, the two exiting almost side by side from Pilot Bay with Crawford clocking 26 minutes and 33 seconds, 7 seconds ahead of four time champion Lawn.
But that was the last time Crawford was challenged as the 32 year old simply rode and then ran away from the field with Lawn left in a battle with Candice Hammond for the minor placings, with Hammond winning that battled thanks largely to an impressive 1:22:11 run split, the quickest of the elite women.
Crawford was imperious as she clocked up a great day's work in preparation for Challenge Wanaka in two weeks time, crossing the line looking like she could well have been on a training exercise, even finding time to collect baby Benji on the way so he could share the moment with mum.
"I didn't feel tired, I felt really good which is a good sign I think. I tried to go up another gear but my strength is the ironman pace and the fact I can hold that pace. For years I have done under nine hours in the ironman but struggled to go under four and a half hours in the half which is really weird but lately I have started to enjoy the shorter distance a little more.
"I have always struggled on the flat courses but I enjoyed the bike today, I am more aerodynamic than ever before. I only wanted to come to this course if that was good, I didn't want to be caught up in a pack, I like to be out there and push it myself and do a time trial which will get me strong for the rest of the year.
"The weather was perfect and the run course is fabulous with such a great holiday crowd supporting you the whole way round and the run around The Mount is just beautiful."
A total of 1335 athletes took part throughout the day, with those eligible chasing Triathlon NZ national long distance age group titles in their respective five year age categories.
Full results and splits will be posted at www.tgahalf.co.nz
Port of Tauranga Half
1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21km run
1 Graham O'Grady Kinloch 3:47:54 equals race record
2 Terenzo Bozzone Auckland 3:48:45
3 Cameron Brown Auckland 3:53:01
4 James Bowstead Auckland 3:58:26
5 Rob Creasy New Plymouth 4:01:37
1 Gina Crawford Christchurch 4:15:10
2 Candice Hammond Cambridge 4:18:08
3 Jo Lawn Auckland 4:21:05
4 Hilary Wicks Auckland 4:31:04
5 Amelia Rose Watkinson Auckland 4:32:06