PE-born racer psyched up for first pro event

KYLE Buckingham is relishing his new status and keenly anticipating his first outing as a professional when the Ironman 70.3 South Africa takes place in East London next Sunday.

The talented 30-year-old triathlete joins the professional ranks after peaking as an amateur when he was crowned world champion in the Kona Ironman in October.

Under the guidance of Ironman specialist Raynard Tissink, it was always Buckingham's intention to turn pro this year and he is now looking forward to his first race as a professional.

While he said yesterday his preparations had gone well, the PE-born Buckingham, who is based in the Western Cape, is not putting any pressure on himself.

By achieving a series of outstanding results as an amateur, Buckingham was able to successfully apply for a pro licence, but he says life is much the same as before.

"It's still much the same in terms of training, but being a pro, I have been able to attract a few more sponsors and the big difference is you can make money from the races and make a bit of a living," he said.

"To qualify for the world champs in Kona is about earning enough points on the pro circuit.

"So I have some new goals to work towards and I will definitely be targeting the PE Ironman in April as one of my big events."

Meanwhile, Buckingham can expect some serious competition when the Ironman 70.3 takes place next week.

The field is sold out and a strong professional contingent is set to take the stage.

Champion Bart Aernouts returns to a happy hunting ground this year. Last year, Aernouts continued the proud Belgian legacy at the race by emulating previous winners Marino Vanhoenacker and current Ironman world champion Frederik van Lierde and he must be considered one of the top contenders.

The big twist last year was the last-minute withdrawal of James Cunnama, but the SA star, who also has strong links with PE, is fresh off his fourth place finish at the World Championship in Kona – the best ever finish for a South African – and will target a good showing in East London.

Cunnama's best performance came in 2010 when he finished second.

Another world-renowned athlete to look out for is 2005 Ironman world champion Faris Al Sultan, who will be racing in East London for the first time.

The German was scheduled to compete last year but withdrew late in the race week due to illness.

The women's field takes on a familiar look and should be as exciting as ever, with the top three from last year all returning, along with some previous podium finishers.

Champion Jodie Swallow, from Great Britain, has made this race her own by winning a hat-trick of titles since 2011.

The former Ironman 70.3 world champion seems to get better every time she returns to East London and only a brave person would bet against her claiming an unprecedented fourth title.

Despite her obvious class, the women's pro field is strong, featuring former champion Lucie Reed, last year's runner-up Susie Hignett, Belgium's Tine Deckers and Switzerland's Simone Braendli.

The SA hopes will be riding on Claire Horner and Dianne McEwan. Neither athlete had a particularly smooth time last year due to a combination of injuries and bad luck.