Australia’s top surf athletes return to Coolum this weekend for rounds three and four of the Nutri-Grain Iron Man series.
With only three points separating the top three men – Shannon Eckstein (35 points), Zane Holmes (34) and Pierce Leonard (32) – points will be vital in the march towards the final at Coogee on February 22.
Kristyl Smith leads the women’s field on 36 points from Terri Sullivan and Naomi Flood, both on 33.
Despite a painful back injury, which forced him to take a week off training, Eckstein has declared himself a certain starter.
The 25-year-old won round one and was a close-up second to Southern Queensland Sunfish team mate Holmes in round two but revealed he competed with painkillers for a jammed facet joint in his back.
“The week off did it the world of good but I must admit ski paddling is a little difficult and I grimace every time I paddle through a wave,” Eckstein said.
“It’s OK sitting upright in flat water but going through the surf is a bit tougher.
“I’m just going to have to prepare myself differently and be a bit smarter the way I go about things. I’m lucky I’ve had a good off season so my overall fitness should be fine.”
The three-time Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Ironman Series winner and three-time Australian champion is preparing for another showdown with rival, training partner and friend Holmes at an open Coolum Beach.
“I think we can expect a wave at Coolum for sure,” Eckstein said. “The cyclonic activity could well turn it on but Coolum is an open beach anyway, so there will be some swell.”
Kristyl Smith is the athlete to beat in the Ironwoman series after winning rounds one and two at Kurrawa last month.
Smith (Blue Fins) took a stranglehold on the women’s title with a thrilling come-from-behind victory in round two after looking at one stage as if she would have to take a back seat to in-form Terri Sullivan (Sunfish).
Sullivan opened up a big lead in the early stages of the concluding board leg in race two and looked set to take the round before Smith mowed her down thanks to a helpful wave.
It was an up-and-down race for Smith, who was dumped from her ski while trying to catch a big wave as she vied for the lead with Naomi Flood (Hammers) and had to swim back to the beach.
“Once I lost my ski I thought the whole field would come past but when I got up I saw I was third and thought ‘I can still have a crack’,” Smith said.
Round three kicks off from 10am Saturday and round four from 11am on Sunday.
Saturday’s round will be broadcast nationally by the Seven Network on the following day. Sunday’s round will be shown on Sunday, February 15.