Only minutes from the finish, Barron Heating's kayaker paddled past the racer for Team Aeromech Takes Flight, clinching victory in a neck-and-neck Ski to Sea race Sunday, May 27.
For the second year in a row, Zsolt Szadovszki, kayaker for Barron Heating, was first to cross the finish line at Marine Park in Fairhaven. It was the 10th time since 1996 that Barron finished first.
The Barron team had to survive a brush with disaster to pick up the win: Their mountain biker, Colin Cares, took a wrong turn near the end of the next-to-last leg that ends at Zuanich Point Park.
"I just found myself at a dead end and turned around," Cares said. "I don't know if I had my head down, or the officials weren't ready or what."
The misstep allowed the Team Aeromech mountain biker, Steve Fisher, to take the lead, but the Aeromech kayak hit the water no more than a minute or two ahead of Barron.
In the women's division, Boundary Bay Brewery took its 13th straight win, despite an early challenge from a new team that formed with the goal of beating them: Team Fast and Female.
The race was back and forth between Barron and Aeromech, and at the end, the two teams finished only seconds apart.
"I don't know if we get much closer than that!" hollered John Barron, company owner, who hugged Szadovszki after he finished. "This year, what a photo finish. It just doesn't get any more exciting than that."
Cares, of Boulder, Colo., breathed "a big sigh of relief when (Szadovszki) managed to close it down and pull it out," Barron said.
The Boulder biker's wrong turn turned another potential Barron's runaway into a squeaker.
Fisher, Aeromech's mountain biker, said he had been so far behind Cares that he never even saw him and didn't realize Cares had gone off course.
Neither did Szadovszki, who didn't hear the announcement that the Aeromech mountain biker took over the lead. When the first biker came in, Szadovszki ran out to meet him and grabbed his timing chip. Fisher didn't realize it was the wrong kayaker and tossed the timing strap. As Szadovszki picked it up, the crowd was yelling it was the wrong team. Szadovszki quickly realized his error and handed the strap off to Aeromech kayaker Eric Moll
Moll, of Olympia, stayed ahead for most of the kayak leg across the bay, with Szadovszki following in his wake before passing him with about three minutes of paddling left. Moll described the last leg of the race as incredibly tight, with choppy water keeping things interesting.
"It was a good neck-and-neck battle," Moll said. "It was awesome. It was close - closest race I've been involved in."
Aeromech, an Everett company that works in the aeronautics industry, essentially took over the sponsorship of the Boss Construction team, which took second last year and first the year before. Though the sponsor was different, many of the racers were the same, and so was the level of competition as the team fought to defeat Barron.
"With such a close race, you always want to win," Moll said. "They brought it really hard today, and they deserve to win."
Though winds on the bay shortened the kayak leg by roughly 1.5 miles, the weather was pristine at the start up on the mountain.
"This is the best weather I've ever seen up here," said Brian Gregg, Barron Heating's cross-country skier, who is training for the 2014 Olympics.
Gregg, of Winthrop, was the first person to cross the finish line in his leg, 10 seconds ahead of the No. 2 finisher from R.B. Wick's Warriors.
Aeromech's downhill skier Max Taam of Aspen, Colo., passed three skiers on his way up the hill to secure first place for his team after two legs.
"It's a long race," Taam said of Ski to Sea. "I didn't want to win by a second. I wanted as big a gap for my teammates as I could get."
Because of high winds and waves, race officials shortened the kayak leg, the seventh and final leg, resulting in a roughly 91-mile overall race.
"It was rough," said kayaker Gabe Newton, of R.B. Wick's Warriors, who took third place. "It's like a half-hour sprint into the wind."
Wick's Warriors was a new name in the top finishers this year. The team was put together by Bellingham resident R.B. Wick, who sponsored five teams in Sunday's race.
"This is the best investment I can make," Wick said. "This is incredible. We got on the podium. This is a race in a little corner of Washington and I'd put it against any other race out there."
Technical troubles made most of the results of the Ski to Sea race incorrect or incomplete. Race organizers say it might take days to correct and post them all. Look for results at this Ski to Sea webpage.
Bellingham Herald reporters Kie Relyea, Ralph Schwartz and John Stark contributed to this story.