Tuesday 15 July 2008

FINA World Cup Open Water Grand Prix, Jarak to Sabac Swim Marathon, Serbia, July 13th 2008.

Leaving home after work on Wednesday July 09, 2008, we set off for our hotel for the night at Heathrow, The Great Western, wondering what lay ahead for us over the next few days. What had started out in 2006 as a fundraising mission to swim the English Channel in my wife's year as the Mayor of Bury St Edmunds in 2006 - 2007, had now led me to Serbia to compete in a World Cup Open Water Grand Prix at the ripe old age of 45. All sorts of things were running through my head, but I had three main goals to accomplish on this trip. They were as follows in this order:-

1) I wanted to finish the 19KM swim. This may sound strange having swum the channel, but I had never sprinted non stop for 19KM before. This was an entirely new experience.

2) I wanted to complete the distance in under 4 hours. I had based this on the fact that my fellow Dover Harbour training buddy, Nick Adams, who I know is faster than me, completed the course in 2002 in 3 Hours and 36 Minutes. Therefore, if I could beat 4 hours, I would be happy.

3) I didn't want to come last. Any place other than last, and I would be happy. However, I would be competing against some of the top open water swimmers in the world, and this would be a tall order.

Day 1 - Thursday July 10, 2008

Beccy and I set off early on Wednesday morning for an Alitalia flight to Rome, followed by another one to Belgrade, Serbia. It was a special day as it was one year to the day since I swum the English Channel. It brought back many memories during the long trip to Belgrade.

Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by our driver holding one of the signs you see so many times as you step off a plane "PAUL HOPFENSPERGER". I waved at him, and shook hands, thinking he was our host Vojislav Mijic, but it turned out he wasn't, and following an Argentinian Swimmer not arriving, we set off for the 80KM drive to Sabac.

Passing in and out of consciousness through tiredness, I noticed that the countryside was very beautiful, and the villages reminded me of my Dad's home village of Pentling in Bavaria, Germany 30 years ago. There were Mellon stalls everywhere, and whole families riding on the back of horse drawn trailers through the villages. The smell of farm muck was everywhere. It was really nice to see how the people lived and worked and made a living selling Melons, Onions and drinks. It was also extremely hot. Having left England in the pouring rain, it was very sunny and about 35 degrees centigrade here.

Arriving at the Dvor Hotel in Sabac, we hauled our abundance of luggage up 3 flights of stairs to the reception where we were greeted by a very slim, pretty Serbian girl in a very short dress. Over the next few days, we found out that there were literally hundreds of very slim, pretty Serbian girls in Sabac, all with very short dresses on! It is certainly the place to go if you are male and single! Following a long tiring day which had started at 3.30am, we had some food, a beer, then went to bed to get a good nights sleep.

Day 2 - Friday July 11, 2008

Following breakfast at the hotel, we were asked to change rooms. This pleased us as just about everything in our room seemed to be broken. Having changed rooms, we headed off for the beach to see about some training.

Arriving eventually at the river Sava, I was really pleased to finally see where we would be swimming. The program said training would be between 15:00 to 17:00. Arriving there at about 13:00 Hrs., we had an absolutely excellent Trout and potato salad near the "beach" as it was called (even though it is a river). At about 15:00 Hrs., I looked around but could see no sign of training, or other swimmers. I sat on the wall, looking out at the river, trying to picture myself swimming in the race.

Above: On the "beach" at Sabac taking a first look at the course for the swim on the River Sava.

What was very strange about the river, was that it contained what we affectionately came to term over the next few days, "Green". Close up it looked like Water Cress, but had about 5 "tentacles" and was heavier than Water Cress. However, that's the only way to describe it. The river's edge was fully of it, but men, women and children were all swimming and playing in it. It did not look very inviting. Eventually, at about 15:15 I decided it was time to get in.

The funny thing about our sport is the costumes. In the depths of winter and to swim the channel in 15 degree water, we wear swimming trunks. In the 36 degree centigrade Serbian sun, with a water temperature of 26 degrees centigrade, we wear leggins! Anyway, with my feet being burnt on the metal pontoon, I dived into the "Green" and set off on a 1 3/4 hour, approximately 5,500 Metre swim.

At about 3/4 of an hour, I bumped into 3 Serbian male swimmers and the Argentinian female swimmers Marianela Mendoza and Noelia Petti. It was a real workout as they were extremely fast swimmers.

Above: Beccy fed me from the pontoon while I stood in the "Green" before...

...setting off again up towards the bridge, and back again. It was horrible swimming through the "Green". It was really thick, stuck to every orifice available in your body, and worst of all, went in your mouth when you breathed. Still, us hardened open water swimmers have to put up with this sort of thing don't we?

Above: Left - Marianella Mendoza and Right Noelia Petti, both from Argentina and regulars on the World Cup Grand Prix Circuit. "Green" was everywhere!

After the swim, we headed back to the hotel, showered then went down to the Restaurant to meet everyone including our host and event Director Vojislav Mijic. I had brought a Channel Swimming book from England for him as a present. Which I presented to him during our evening meal.

Above: Left, race Director Vojislav Mijic receives a Channel Swimming book from me.

At 21:00 hours, we all went into the very cosmopolitan city centre to be "presented" to the people of Sabac. This was a very extravagant affair with Serbian dancers on a purpose built stage, the flags of the countries of all the swimmers competing, and some very loud music.

Above: Vojislav Mijic's daughter, The wife of greek swimmer Gerassimos Pefanis and Gerassimos, me and Japanese swimmer Yuko Matsuzaki, waiting to go on stage.

Above: Beccy with English Channel World Record Holder, and seven times World Cup Champion, Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria.

One by one, the names of all the swimmers, starting with the girls, were read out. We all had a photo taken, climbed the steps then walked across the stage to wave at the cheering crowd. It was amazing and very humbling. Our camera started playing up a bit, and so the photos are a bit blurred.

They then played the Serbian National Anthem which Beccy managed to capture part of on video...

It was a very proud moment standing up there, especially as the Union Jack was there just for me as the only swimmer from Great Britain in the event.

At the end, there was a fireworks display, while many of the children wanted to shake our hands and take photos. It was something I will remember for a long time.

Day 3 - Saturday July 12, 2008

Walking through the town on the Saturday morning, we noticed many "FINA World Cup" posters dotted around the town in lit up display cases. On the poster, all of the swimmers names were printed. It was very surreal being in the middle of a foreign country with your name being plastered all over the town!

Above: The FINA World Cup posters which were in abundance throughout the city centre in Sabac.

At 12.00 Hrs., we had a civic reception with the Mayor of Sebac, who welcomed us all to the city. As Beccy had been Mayor of Bury St Edmunds the previous year, we brought the coat of Arms of Bury St Edmunds on a shield to give to him. He was very pleased with his gift.

Above: The Mayor of Sabac, receives a plaque with the coat of arms of Bury St Edmunds on, from the former Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Bury St Edmunds, Cllrs. Rebecca and Paul Hopfensperger.

Following the civic reception at the Town Hall we all had to have a medical before being allowed to swim. This involved sitting down with a female doctor, taking your shirt off and having your heartbeat and blood pressure checked while everyone else was eating their lunch beside you! As all of the regular World Cup swimmers competed in warm water, they were all very slender, fit very muscly and had not much fat on them.

When I sat down and took my shirt off in front of the Doctor the conversation went something like this (she spoke in a broken Serbian/English accent):-

Doctor: "Mmm? More muscle, less fat."
Me: "Sorry?"
Doctor: "You must have more muscle, less fat."
Me: "Ahh, yes, but-I-am-a-Channel-Swimmer. I-am-training-for-a-swim-from-England-to-France-to-England..." (I said in my best English with a Serbian accent).
Doctor: "I no care. Must have more muscle, less fat. Deep breath now please". She did the usual with her stethoscope while I sat there thinking to myself for a few moments.
Me: "It's very cold in the channel you know. 15 Degrees, not 27 degrees like here in the river Sava. I must have fat or I won't get across the channel and back.."

She took my blood pressure, said "Very Good" and off I went feeling very fat. We were given the Technical briefing about the swim, and the course etc., was all explained. The swim would start in the town of Jarak and end by the beach in Sabac where I had trained the day before. The course was as follows, and we would visit the start later in the evening.

That night we had a reception in the Mayor of Jarak's offices, then proceeded on to the starting point of the swim.

Above: With Japanese swimmer Yuko Matsuzaki at the starting point of the race.

Above: The view from the bank to the first bend. Some "Green" can be seen clearly floating in the river. We had been told that the military would be clearing as much as possible before the race.

Above: Food, and local entertainment at the restaurant at the starting point of the race.

Day 4 - Sunday July 13, 2008 - Race Day

We set off from our hotel in Sabac, to the starting point of the race we had visited the previous day. It looked entirely different. There was the starting pontoon, lots of people, roped off areas, desks, chairs etc. Everything you would expect at the start of such a major race. The sun was beating down and the air temperature was a scorching 39 degrees centigrade. The water was 27 degrees centigrade. This was going to be a tough race.

Above: With English Channel World Record Holder, Petar Stoychev before the race.

I had put plenty of factor 50 Nivea Children's water resistant Sun Tan lotion on prior to leaving for Jarak. I was number 21 and one of the very pretty translators printed the number 21 on both arms, both hands and both sides of my back so that we could be clearly identified in the water. After much stretching, vaselining and struggling to get on my very tight swim suit over the top of a very sweaty pair of legs, Beccy was called to the support boat (No. 21) and we were ready to go! It was very exciting.

Above: The FINA observer for my boat, which also contained a pilot, and Beccy who was my feeder and photographer.

One by one we were introduced to the crowd - "Petar Stoychev, Bulgaria....Paul Hopfensperger, England" etc., etc. As we were called, we walked down to the pontoon, ensured hat, ear plugs and goggles were 100% OK, then 10,9,8,....2,1, GO! We all dived in. After I surfaced, I checked myself to see if I had been kicked, bitten, scracthed or punched, but I was OK, and off I went.

The pace was very fast, but I didn't try to keep with them, I swum at my own pace, even though it was much faster than any normal swim I had ever done. That's if you can call 19km "Normal!".

Pretty soon, I could see the lead swimmers way up ahead of me, as I would expect, and I settled down. 1-2-3 breath right. 1-2-3 breath left etc.

I could see other boats, and my boat with Beccy, the FINA observer and pilot on board, but my right hand goggle had sucked into my eye and was too tight making my vision blurred. The left one had steamed up so I could see very little for the entire race. I had many things hit me, including a stick, a can and an empty bottle. It certainly made me jump, but I kept up the pace, which compared to my normal swimming, was relentless. This was after all a race.

For the first 3-4 feeds, I fed every 30 minutes, but at about 2 hours, I was starting to tire. "20" I shouted to Beccy, which we had agreed earlier would mean 20 minutes between feeds. I knew that a shot of 'Maxim' energy food every 20 minutes would fire me up again. Beccy told me afterwards that the pilot's name was Maxim which he found was hilarious. She also told me that every time he needed a pee, he got the FINA observer to hold the boat steady, while he jumped over the side to pee while hanging over the baot, then pulling himself back in again. I saw none of this, I was in the zone and was giving it my all.

At about 2 hours into the swm, the moment came which I had bargained on before the race. The ladies, who had started after the men went past me over on the right. I could just make out their arms going over, and their pace was just astonishing to watch.

Above: The women's race goes past me with all of their acompanying boats.

For most of the race up until 2.5 hours, I could see someone up ahead of me, but swimming at a similar speed. I thought it was the Greek swimmer, Gerassimos Pefanis, but it turned out to be the Italian swimmer Nicola Carradossi. I set it in motion to ensure that I caught him and beat him. Slowly, I caught him, and when he saw me he put a spurt on. We kept the gap for about 10 minutes, then I heard lots of shouting and waving of arms telling me to go over the other side of the river. I didn't understand what they wanted, couldn't hear beacuse of my ear plugs, and couldn't see properly, but my pilot boat was pushing me toards Nicola. We were so close together, we nearly touched, then I heard more shouting, Beccy was waving her arms, and a white board went up on Nicola's support boat. I was getting frustrated at not knowing what all the commotion was about and shouted to Beccy "What the F#'k is going on". They just wanted me to move over towards the other side of the river, but I thought I had done something wrong. I carried on swimming.

Suddenly, I saw Nicola stop for a feed and I sped past him not seeing him again until the end of the race.

I kept swimming, but my arms were getting ever more tired. I was still sprinting as fast as I could and as fast as I dare with still an unknown distance ahead of me. Then Beccy shouted "6KM". I shouted "What gone?" she replied "No left". I fed and thought to myself that I was over 2/3 of the way. I kept going. The FINA observer amused me constantly, because she kept stripping off down to her bikini then laying on the side of the boat. It took my mind off the tired arms I suppose!

When swimming the channel, you look for Cap Griz Nez. On this swim, I kept looking for the bridge. This is the bridge I had stared at from the beach in Sabac on the training swim, and it was about 1.5KM from the end of the race. I looked up, and there it was, about 2KM in front of me. Only about 3.5KM to go!

It seemed to take and age to come, and I told Beccy "Last feed just before the bridge". I was panting heavily and it was extremely difficult to get the Maxim fluid into me as I was breathing so fast. It was totally different to the channel. I took the last feed about 1KM from the bridge which was too far, as I started to feel hungry and faint with about 1KM to go.

As I got under the bridge, I looked up to try to see the finishing line which was a large hoop with ballons round it. I could just about make it out. My right goggle was really stuck in my eyeball socket, and the left one was still steamed up and hurting the side of my nose. I had picked racing goggles rather than long distance goggles, and was paying the price. My West Suffolk swim hat was sliding up over my forehead, and my arms felt like lead. I was wrecked.

Eventually I just about saw it. The finishing hoop was in front of me, and so was...GREEN! It appeared that the military, if they had moved it from the river as promised, had packed it all in the finish area. As I swum throught it, it must have been 6 inches thick. It was unbelievable. I had missed the funnel leading us into the finish area, basically beacuse I couldn't see, and had to go underneath the rope. But having slowed down, the Green was so thick, it was difficult to get going again. Also, my arms were just shot to bits. They were heavier than when I swum the channel last year. I went under the finish line, and didn't know what day of the week it was, I was so dizzy due to lack of food.

Above: Entering the "Green" at the finish line of the toughest race I have ever swum in.

A man was standing in the green, and I shook his hand thinking he was a swimmer, but he was in fact helping people out of the water/Green.

Above: Two buckets of cold water were poured over me to wash off the green at the end of the race.

Above: Tired, but extremely happy that I had completed the course, because at one stage, I didn't think I would! Beccy took the video below just after the race (just look at the state of my eyes):-

Within 1/2 an hour, I was back to normal, recovered and absolutely delighted to have completed the race in 3 Hours 30 Minutes and 19 seconds finishing in 21st place, with two other swimmers behind me, and one non finisher. That was 1/2 an hour quicker than my estimate before the race. I was exstatic to say the least. We went up on stage where we were presented with our medals. The crown prince of Serbia was on the stage (he is the equivalent of our Prince Charles).

Above: With our FINA World Cup Grand Prix finishers medal, which was just stunning.

Then I had the biggest shock of all. I was standing there minding my own business, thinking about the race and looking at all of the cameras and TV cameras, when I heard my name called out again. Vojislav Mijic called my name out, and presented me with a plaque:-

When I walked back to my place and took it out of it's case, it was a wooden backing with a carved frontice piece on with the following wording:-

I really was absolutely astonished and delighted. Not everyone got one and I'm not sure why I did. I had never been given anything so beautiful and meaningful as this before. I stood there and cried. Vojislav, if you read this, then thank you so much for such a beautiful gift. It is priceless.

Above: Winners of the women's and men's races collect their trophies and prize money.

Above: With the winner of the men's race Brendan Capell of Australia.

While being presented with the prizes, I was astounded to see Stoychez had come 5th! He had won the previous 3 Grand Prix, why had he come 5th I wondered? He did not look happy at all and I was told afterwards that he was winning the race and his pilot boat took him into some shallow water and off course, causing him to lose the race. I am not sure if this was true or not, but this is what I was told. I didn't see him again, so I could not ask him.

Above: With the three translators for the event, on the last evening before we left.

This really was a fantastic and unforgettable event, which both Beccy and I thoroughly enjoyed. The Serbian people are really friendly, as are all of the swimmers on the Grand Prix circuit. I would like to personally thank Vojislav Mijic for organising and hosting such a fantastic event. I would also like to thank Beccy, who as always is there supporting me, feeding me, and without her none of this would be possible. We have made new friends in many countries, and hopefully we will be able to do this again in the not too distant future.


Maggie said...

Wow ! amazing reading sounds like you both had a great time. I thought there was green algae in the loch where I train but I will never complain about it again ! lol

Well done on a brilliant swim Hoffy I bet that will be the first of many international swims for you

Congratulations :)


Hoffy Swims said...

Thanks Maggie. It really was an unbelievable experience and having been back over a day now, I still can't stop thinking about it. The "Green" was simply the weirdest thing I have ever swum through! Hope all is going well with you.

Speak soon.

Kind regards.


grumpyoldwoman said...

Fantastic. When I first started reading this blog I thought I would find reading about swimming about as interesting as watching paint dry - absolutely wrong.

I have no idea how you do it - or Beccy - it cant be much fun for her, but I am sure she is very proud of you.

Hoffy Swims said...

Grumps - I know what you mean, but honest, when you compete in and complete something like this, it makes all those cold Dover weekends worthwhile! Beccy really enjoyed the whole weekend also, and we would not have visited some of these places had it not been for swimming. Next stop Jersey for the Jersey to France swim. Beccy hasn't been there either (and she does enjoy her beer and wine on these trips!) LOL!

Speak soon.

Kind regards.


Enda Kennedy said...


Excellent report and well done, another great achievement. Im definetely there next year(lol).

Dont mind that doctor,she doesn't know what she is talking about. FAT FAT FAT. Tell her it is relaxed muscle, and a temporary relocation of your chest. See you sat

Enda Kennedy

Hoffy Swims said...

Enda - LOL! FAT FAT FAT! We like FAT as Channel Swimmers don't we!?

C U Saturday.

Kind regards.


Chris Pountney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Pountney said...

well done hoffy! very fast time. was that tide-assisted?

good luck for J2F!

Hoffy Swims said...

Thanks Chris. Yes, we swam with the flow of the river, but it didn't appear to be a very fast flow. Obviously it helped.

Didn't see you in Dover this weekend! Another 7 & 6 hour split channel completed. C U Next week perhaps?

Kind regards.


Anonymous said...

Hi Hoffy,

Very nice reading it brought nice memories in my head, congratulations for this swim, for the channel and for the next one. Hope to meet you again in the same conditions, well except the greeny experience maybe ;-) .... Please regards to Beccy! and hopefully we can keep in touch!

Best Regards
Aida Ponce

Hoffy Swims said...

Hi Aida

It was nice to meet you also, and I really enjoyed the entire event. It was something very special. I hope to see you again soon at another event. Please e-mail me at paul@hoffyswims.com and I will contact you offline.

Kind regards.


Steven Munatones said...

You mentioned here that this 19K race was the hardest swim you have ever done. Is that still true after your September English Channel swim? Congratulations on both swims.

Hoffy Swims said...

Hi Steve, and thanks for commenting. In a nutshell, I would say "Yes". Swimming the channel is more mentally demanding than physical. If you have trained for the channel, then the only thing stopping you getting across (other than the weather) is the mental side of things. The two World Cup Grand Prix's I have entered were both extremely hard physically because of the prolonged speed element of these swims, which I hadn't trained for due to my channel swim preparations. My second English Channel swim in September 2008, which started out as a two-way attempt, was only beaten by my mental attitude being in the wrong place after 20 minutes into the swim. I had mentally decided there and then, that a two-way channel swim was out of the question. And as you think...so you attract. Sure enough, when I got to France the swim back was not even in my mind. You can see from the photo of me on the boat after the swim, that I was in perfectly good shape physically, and physically could have swum back. However, mentally it was not even in my head to swim back.

I hope that explains it. Kind regards. Hoffy.

grant siedle said...

Congrats! You certainly have had some amazing experiences. Racing is always different to 'crossing a channel I guess because of the intensity. If you happen to be looking for other swims and fancy a trip to Australia - check out www.giantsofthebay.com.au!!

We are working hard to grow our swim and place it an an international event. We have an exciting tide to work with, beautiful clear waters, and less sharks than the Rottnest swim!!