Alec Rukosuev felt the pressure.
The 31-year-old Russia native knew he was a favorite _ both odds-on and sentimental _ in Sunday's St. Anthony's Triathlon, the first Ironman qualifier of the season. He knew people still remembered his 1992 win _ and disqualification for drafting, in his first major triathlon as a professional _ and he wanted them finally to forget.
And after three straight years of crossing the finish line second, the Apopka resident wanted the rush of winning his favorite race.
"I was a little afraid of it, in some ways because I wanted it so much," he said. "If I didn't win it today, I didn't know what I would do."
He didn't have to think about it. Instead, Rukosuev smiled ecstatically and waved his suntanned arms like a bobbling airplane as he crossed the Straub Park finish line after 1 hour, 50 minutes, 54 seconds.
This time, no one was in front of him. Wes Hobson of Boulder, Colo., who Rukosuev easily outran in the last portion of the event, came in 1 minute, 18 seconds later.
"That," Hobson said, "is the strongest I've ever seen Alec. And I'm very, very happy for him."
Michellie Jones, an Australia native who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., won her fifth straight St. Anthony's Triathlon in 2:04.33. For much of the race, she competed alone against the clock.
"I like racing like that _ that's my style," the 28-year-old said. "Today, it kind of felt like a time trial."
Colorado Springs' Gina Derks, who often trains with Jones, finished :02.31 behind her.
Jones has not finished lower than third in a triathlon since July 1993.
"Winning five in a row, man, that's unreal," she said. "If you had asked me if I would believe it six years ago (when she finished second in her first year at St. Anthony's), I never would have."
Rukosuev swam one of the best first legs of his career, he said, as he kept pace with Olympic swimmer Lars Jorgensen of San Diego and heaved himself out of Tampa Bay just behind him.
Hobson didn't exit the water until almost 45 seconds later.
"That's when I lost any chance I might have had to win it," Hobson, 31, said. "My plan was to come out of the water at least even with Alec, then try to blow ahead on the first 5 miles (of the bike) and hopefully build a lead he could not catch up with."
Instead, Hobson spent his energy making up an almost two-minute deficit on the bike course. The duo never had a pack to break away from _ the closest biker was easily out of view by the fifth mile of the 24.8-mile course _ but Hobson never managed to banish Rukosuev, either.
That's when Rukosuev, a lighter, quicker runner, realized the win almost was in sight.
"I knew it would be a miracle if he kept up with me on the run because he's better on the bike," Rukosuev said. "When I kept with him on the bike, I really thought I had it."
Rukosuev tore into the 10-kilometer run with zest and outpaced Hobson after the first mile.
"As I was nearing the end, I was really just kept trying to focus," Rukosuev said. "I was getting so happy that I caught myself thinking about a victory speech in my head. I just fought to keep those thoughts out of my mind until I crossed the line."
He finished to thunderous applause and hearty congratulations, well ahead of 59 other professionals, 1,361 amateurs and 89 teams.
"My strategy was to go as hard as I could for as long as I could," he said.
"I am just so glad I finally won it."
And relieved. The pressure's off.