Words: Kyle Gilham | Photo: Balint Vekassy
Canoeing enjoyed one of its most successful years ever in 2013 with the sport crowning four South African World Champions, and a whole new generation of stars emerging from the domestic ranks.
Darling of South African sprinting, Bridgitte Hartley, rocketed South African canoeing into global sporting headlines in 2012 with her stunning bronze medal in the women’s 500m K1 final at the Olympic Games in London. In 2013 she refocused her long term plans on Rio and took something of a backseat for much of the year.
limited international appearance at events such as the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships did however see blonde missile power her way to a commendable eighth position in the women’s 500m K1 A Final, despite poor health hampering her build-up to the event, whilst the likes of Tiffany Kruger, Kerry Shuter and Esti van Tonder looked to fly the country’s flag at the World Cup events.
A young, twelve-man squad of the country’s emerging sprint talents also headed for Tunisia recently for the African Sprint Championships and a fourteen medal tally, including three golds and eleven silvers, once again stamped the country’s mark on the continental showcase and gave many of these future stars much needed international exposure and confidence.
2013 was, however, a year when the bulk of South African paddlers’ top performances came in disciplines that are the country’s traditional strengths – surfski and marathon.
The 2013 ICF Canoe Marathon World Champs took place on the flat waters of Lake Bagsvaerd in Copenhagen, Denmark in September and saw a huge South African team laid siege to the event.
The Masters Cup that precedes the World Champs every year saw Team SA take 4 gold, 5 silvers and 2 bronze medals, before the spotlight shifted to the Juniors, Under 23s and seniors at the Worlds proper.
In the men’s K1 race all eyes were on Hank McGregor, twice winner of the world k1 title, and hungry to bounce back after being controversially disqualified at last year’s World Champs in Rome.
Behind the scenes there was panic as McGregor went down with a head-cold ahead of the race, and the team doctor said it was a 50:50 call as to whether he should race or not. He got onto the water to warm up, felt good and opted to start.
After a great start McGregor soon found himself up against the sports pacesetters.
"Cyrille Carré was taking up the pull at the front and has recently been the K2 1000m World champion so I knew that he was fast. I managed to take him quite easily in the challenge and then I thought right there and then that it was a defining moment and I knew that I just had to maintain my composure not only mentally and physically, be economical.
"I am always trying to dominate the race physically, mentally but after I wasn't feeling great I knew that I just try and keep everything cool.
"One minute you hear the crowd screaming, the next minute you hear nothing, you can see the finish line but it isn't coming any closer and you know the opposition is right there and it's there for the taking it is just a matter of taking it. Closing a race off in style is something that everyone wants to do but for me I didn't know what to do because there were so many emotions going through me. It was pure contentment - I couldn't have asked for a better way to finish off a World Championship."
Into the final lap, and McGregor has to try and shake of the Spanish reigning world champ on the last portage.
"I ran like hell and put back in and I knew that Alonso, the Spanish defending World champion, was there about two boat lengths behind me so used that time that he was catching cup to recover and got around the last turn and it was basically a free-for-all from there to the finish. It was a 400m straight pull and he was on my wave and I could hear the crowd, it was a huge crowd and the screaming travels across the water even more, and I knew he was going to come and I just kept increasing the pace and waiting for him.
“I got to about 30 strokes to go and I was holding back from looking and as I kept going I broke the spell and glanced and realised that he wasn't on the wave and I can't really explain the feeling, but it is pure satisfaction," the three time World Champion said.
McGregor labeled the moment as the greatest of his career, with his dad and new wife in the stands to share the moment with him.
McGregor’s triumph was fresh off the back of Under 18 girls rising star Kirsten Flanagan’s faultless silver medal efforts the day before whilst fellow 2013 Varsity College SA Schools Surfski champion Kenny Rice was the top placed South African junior boy in a brave and hard-fought seventh.
Prior to McGregor’s cherry-on-the-top performance two other young South African talents were involved in one of the tussles of the competition with triple Dusi Canoe Marathon champion Andy Birkett and his fellow KZN ace Brandon van der Walt went head to head for the Men’s Under 23 title.
Having pulled away from the rest of the field, it was soon clear that neither was willing to surrender in the closing stages of the titanic battle and a last gasp surge from second placed van der Walt meant it was a photo finish with Birkett eventually emerging victorious by just a couple of centimeters and claiming the Under 23 Men’s World title in his maiden marathon expedition.
With emotion running high on the marathon front, Canoeing South Africa has also just received confirmation that Camps Drift, the home of Natal Canoe Club in Pietermaritzburg, will host the marathon world champs in 2017 with a World Cup in 2016 and spate of other top marathon events in the run-up to these huge championships also on the cards.
The South African canoeing year was also defined by the first ever International Canoe Federation-sanctioned Surfski World Championships which were held in Portugal in July.
Surfski is a sport dominated by South Africa and Australia and it was these two nations that made up the lion’s share of the competitive field at this year’s first ever official showdown.
The women’s race was totally dominated by South Africans, with a determined Michelle Burn holding all the cards in the closing stages. It wasn’t to be for the Amanzimtoti resident though as drama erupted in the final hundred meters of the clash, witnessed by consistent global pacesetter Michelle Eray, who since the Beijing Olympic has been the world’s most consistent female surfskier by far.
"I looked to my left and I saw two paddlers bee lining out for the final can and it was Dominic Notten with Michelle Burn on his tail and I realised that she must have missed the final can and it is a weird position to be in because when you win a race you want to win it in the most stream-lined way possible either from the front or catching the others from the back so to have the opportunity for a first place right in front of me I obviously took it with both hands."
A South Africa one, two, three with Eray taking the first ever world title from Burn and Cape Town’s Nikki Mocké.
The win was huge for Eray, who has since moved to USA where she heads up their canoeing high performance programme.
In the men’s race a strong field of South Africans squared off against a potent Aussie contingent, with some of the world’s top sprinters in the mix and keen to take advantage of mild ocean conditions.
It was however Capetownian Sean Rice who had done his homework on the course best and found himself controlling the race at the front.
"When I looked over the support boat and a South African lady (who I didn't know at the time) looked at me and put a huge South African flag over the bow of the boat and that is when I sort of knew that I had the title in the bag and so I thought that if the media boat had the confidence then I was ok so I just enjoyed the last kilometre or so."
Rice has been at the vanguard of the global explosion of surfski racing, and has seen it become increasingly competitive and professional in recent times.
"Growing up going to races as a 19-year old there would be two or three other guys and I could pick up some podiums and make a bit of a living and now five years later you go to a race and you are scratching to make the top 10 as a nineteen year old so the sport has got a lot more professional and internationally I am seeing more and more athletes competing."
Numerous local surfski events regularly boasted fields of world class proportions with many a intriguing battle unfolding in KZN, the Eastern Cape or the Western Cape’s waters throughout the year.
The local surfski scene was capped off in ideal fashion for the later globally crowned Sean Rice and Michelle Burn as they claimed the men’s and women’s SA S1 Champs titles for 2013 respectively.
Over and above the World Champs, SA paddlers shone internationally throughout the year with the likes of Hank McGregor, Sean Rice and Dawid and Jasper Mocké all claiming podium finishes across the globe.
McGregor claimed victory in the Dragon Run in Hong Kong, finished second in the Perth Doctor in Australia and third in the Mauritius Ocean Classic, Rice won the US Champs and came within seconds of winning the Molokai Challenge, Jasper Mocké won the Perth Doctor, finished second in the US Champs and third in the Mauritius Ocean Classic, and Dawid Mocké won the Mauritius Ocean Classic, to continue South Africa’s status as one of two powerhouses of the surfski scene globally.
The local river marathon racing scene is still the heart and soul of paddling in South Africa and 2013 again attracted thousands of enthusiasts to the country’s rivers in search of their piece of the action.
The year got underway with the hugely popular N3 Toll Concession Drak Challenge in Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal and did Mother Nature get things off with a bang!
Torrential rainfall in the small catchment area overnight meant the uMzimkulu River went from worryingly low to a raging torrent of boat-eating swells. Organisers were forced to make the tough decision to reduce the field to only A-grade paddlers with a revised, shortened course on the flooded river later opened to the more social participants.
With triple defending champ Hank McGregor ruled out of the clash due to international surfski duty, it was the turn of Under 23 star Grant van der Walt to shine as the now highly regarded ace soared to his maiden senior K1 victory in one of South Africa’s majors, overcoming Len Jenkins and his younger brother, Brandon, along the way.
The ladies Drak encounter saw Abby Adie cruise to victory ahead of Robyn Kime and Jen Theron.
The three day-long iconic event from Pietermaritzburg to Durban – the Dusi Canoe Marathon – was once again a hugely anticipated affair as all of the country’s top elite paddlers looked to add their name to the record books.
A fairytale first two and three-quarter days and an incomparable running display throughout by Sbonelo Zondi had everyone egging on the young Shongweni ace as he looked set to become the first ever black paddler to win the event on his own.
It wasn’t to be though as disaster struck in one of the final obstacles which saw Zondi thrown from his boat and into the water, leaving his title hopes in tatters.
The door was then opened for the ever-present McGregor and Under 23 upstart Lance Kime and it was Kime who eventually hung on to claim his maiden Dusi victory and mark his arrival as a serious force to be reckoned with on the South African river racing scene.
It was a golden day for the Kime family all-round as Lance’s sister Robyn came home to clinch the ladies title and in so doing set a new record as the first siblings to win the Dusi in the same year.
Having suffered repeated mechanical issues which saw him claim fourth place, Andy Birkett then teamed up with a heart-broken Zondi for The Unlimited Non Stop Dusi – the Dusi in a day – and, determined to make amends for their Dusi disappointments, the pair powered to a record shattering victory ahead of Loveday Zondi and Siseko Ntondini.
The KZN action then switched to the uMkomaas River with the legendary Umko Canoe Marathon seeing a curious battle unfold at the front of the field. McGregor and regular K2 partner Grant van der Walt claimed the first of their year’s combined victories ahead of Len Jenkins and Cam Schoeman and Ant Stott and Jakub Adam whilst newly-wed Hilary Bruss and her doubles partner Abby Adie claimed the women’s title.
The year’s river action in the Western Cape got underway with the Swartland Canoe Marathon which also played host to the 2013 SA K1 River Championships and saw veteran top performer Graeme Solomon claim the men’s national title and Michelle Eray the women’s.
The gruelling Berg River Canoe Marathon saw a fascinating four days of toing and froing develop at the front of the men’s race as the absence of nine-time winner Hank McGregor and the presence of British marathon ace Ben Brown set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.
Brown claimed stage one’s victory however a dramatic near-drowning incident on stage two saw him out of the title race and instead handed the advantage to Lance King with Solomon and Under 23 star Ivan Kruger chasing hard.
A tactically sound final two days handed King his maiden Berg title whilst the women’s crown was eventually claimed by Jenna Ward after her captivating battle with the Western Cape’s Kirsten Penderis.
The Cape season-ending Breede River Canoe Marathon men’s race was claimed by Tom Schilperoort and Jasper Mocké with Alexa Cole and Kim van Gysen adding their names to the year’s victors’ list by claiming the women’s title.
The Eastern Cape paddling and partying festival known as the Hansa Fish river Canoe Marathon then took centre stage as the country’s top doubles crew, many of whom were returning from a tiring yet memorable Marathon World Champs trip, battled it out at the hugely popular Cradock-based event.
McGregor and van der Walt once again showed their superiority as they cantered to victory ahead of Len Jenkins and local lad Greg Louw who narrowly overcame a flying Tobias Bong and Tomáš Slovák, the first of the horde of top class international crews home.
A dominant performance by Abby Adie and Anna Adamová over the two days of paddling heaven saw them claim the women’s title ahead of Robyn Kime and Bridgette Hartley and signalling the pair’s arrival as a force to be reckoned with come Dusi 2014.
The Vaal River Canoe Marathon was the stage for the 2013 SA K2 River Marathon Championships and the Gauteng showpiece provided the perfect first hit-out for new Dusi 2014 pairing Hank McGregor and Jasper Mocké to showcase the unquestionable ability to switch from marathon and surfski mode to the requirements of rive racing.
Donna Tutton made a welcome return to competitive paddling when she and Abby Adie claimed the women’s title.
On the international front Hank McGregor claimed the Avon Descent in Australia whilst Cam Schoeman and Andy Birkett did South Africa proud at the Descent of the Sella River in Portugal.
Under 23 Maritzburg local Don Wewege continued to fly the South African flag on the slalom front, competing in numerous local and international events with aplomb.
Stu Hogg, who suffered debilitating injuries from a car crash in 2008 and having led the way for South Africa’s Paracanoeists at the 2012 Paracanoe World Championships, continued his remarkable and inspirational efforts by, with the assistance of his fellow paddlers and an unwavering determination, completed the Hansa Fish for the first time, paving the way for fellow paracanoeists in the future.
2014 returned the best results of the new millennium for South African canoeing, and with major events tee’d up for the next three years, culminating in the 2017 World Marathon Champs in Pietermaritzburg.
More info can be found at www.canoesa.org.za