SIX-TIME Pier to Pub winner Sam Sheppard was rapt to see a bumper crowd of about 25,000 rally behind Lorne and its iconic ocean swim in the wake of the Christmas Day fires.
Fire destroyed 116 homes in the Otways on December 25, with Lorne one of the major towns affected by the blaze.
But despite weather forecasts predicting more threats of bushfire in the lead-up to the 36th annual GMHBA Lorne Pier to Pub, a bumper crowd nearing 25,000 people descended on the coastal capital to watch a field of 5000 competitors tackle the 1.2-kilometre course.
Sheppard posted the fastest time ever recorded at the iconic event, just falling short of the magical 10-minute mark with 10 minutes and two seconds.
He said given the adversity the region had faced over the past few weeks, the day was one of his most memorable.
“Congratulations to everyone that came out and swam today; it’s great to see so many people out there giving it a go and to Lorne for putting on such a great event,” Sheppard said.
“It’s so great for the town after the devastation of the fires on Christmas Day, it’s just a really good event to help the economy and really raise the spirits of the town,” he said.
The win was a record-equalling sixth title for Sheppard, 24, who started his open-water experience as a nipper just down the coast at Jan Juc.
“I was pretty happy with my start and was super confident that I’d be able to get a wave and that’s where my surf skills really come in handy, coming up the beach,” he said.
“If I had known I was that close to the 10-minute mark I probably would have sprinted up the beach instead of just jogging but I’m just really happy to get the win, that wave at the end was a sweet way to cap off my fourth win in a row,” he said.
In the women’s race, Harriet Brown stormed home, finishing third overall among the mixed Superfish, to claim her fifth title in another record time of 10:51.
“I love this event and every year I love doing it, trying to win it and beat as many boys as possible,” Brown said.
“I got caught up a little in the pack which always happens, the boys are pretty rough out there and just wanted to beat as many of them as I could and hope that no girls could keep up with that pack that I was in as well,” she said.