Iron man.Swimming is one of those sports that only seems to matter every four years, and then mostly, it would seem, because people will watch anything Olympic put in front of them. It is all the stranger because swimmers are among the few athletes that can rise, however briefly, to true super-stardom - Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe are just the most recent examples.
Part of it is how many medals an elite swimmer can win at a single tournament (witness the huge interest engendered by Phelps' attempt to set the single Olympics gold medal mark in Beijing), but it is also the grace and fluidity of swimming that mesmerises the watcher.
Bulgaria's Petar Stoichev does not have the speed burst of a Phelps or Thorpe, but he belongs in the swimming pantheon alongside them for his endurance exploits.
In 2011, Stoichev won his 11th consecutive open-water marathon swimming World Cup, despite making less of an effort than in previous years - at the age of 35, he felt his list of accomplishments would not be complete without a world title.
"This 11th world cup came as a present because I missed several starts before the world acquatics championships, I was lagging behind and I did not hope to catch up with three starts remaining," Stoichev told website dnevnik.bg in a recent interview. "But then I had three very good events and, fortunately for me, leader Andrea Volpini lost points and gifted me the title."
Earlier in his career, Stoichev, had focused almost exclusively on the marathon swimming world cup and his record in the world championships reflected that, with only five bronze medals and one silver between 2000 and 2010 for, arguably, the best open-water swimmer of his era. He finally won gold in the 25km race in Shanghai earlier this year.
"After three or four world cups, I had decided that it was time to win a world championship, but every time something would go wrong and I would fall short. It is as if the championship in Shanghai was my last chance," Stoichev said.
His record in the Olympics has also been spotty, failing to qualify for the final in the 1500m race in each of his three Games in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. Then again, 1.5km in a pool is probably too short a distance for the man who routinely swims 30km in cold lakes and holds the current record time in crossing the English Channel, becoming the first person to do so in less than seven hours in 2007.
Even 10km, the longest Olympic swimming race, introduced in 2008, is short by Stoichev's standards; he finished seventh in Beijing, 17.5 seconds behind winner Maarten van der Weijden.
In London, where he will be competing in his last Games, he plans to make a bigger splash.
"From this point on, I am putting all my efforts into preparing for the Olympics," he said. "Swimming marathons are behind me. I want to focus on the [10km] Olympic race, improve some of the aspects of my swimming and get better results."
Stoichev is yet to secure a place in the London Games, but plans to swim in several 10km competitions early next year before the Olympic qualifiers. Before that, however, he said he might undergo nose surgery to improve his breathing, which could shave off valuable seconds off his finishing time.
"The question is how long I will be out. One doctor says a week, others say two to three. This why I am now hearing all opinions, in order to decide whether and where to have the operation," he said.
With or without the operation, Stoichev figures to be one of Bulgaria's few hopes for a gold in London, the only other athlete close to a safe bet being five-time world champion wrestler Stanka Zlateva, the only athlete to finish ahead of Stoichev in this year's Bulgarian sports personality of the year poll. Stoichev was also third in the Balkan sports personality of the year vote, as voted by sports journalists from the Balkans, behind Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and Croatian skier Ivica Kostelic.
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