World Canoe Marathon Championships, Rome, Italy, 19 – 23 September, 2012.

South African canoeists show their metal and are now ranked in the Top 5 in the World

Senior Men's K2 - Bronze medallists at World Marathon Championships - Simon van Gysen (standing, back) and Jasper Mocke (foreground).The 2012 World Canoe Marathon Championships that were held on the Tiber River in the Eternal City Rome), Italy, from Wednesday 19th to Sunday 23rd September, 2012, saw the largest team to represent South Africa in canoeing at a single venue and with an ROI (!) of 18 medals won, the most successful to date as well. SA are now ranked in the Top 5 in the World out of 40 participating countries. Over 60 SA paddlers were there flying the colours of the Rainbow Nation and backed by wives, husbands, partners, fathers and mothers, the total team compliment was over 90 people! That it was so successful, despite the disqualifications of two of their top paddlers in the senior men’s K1, was due to the mix of people all with one thing foremost in their minds – that was to perform and support to their best ability – and the maestro, Team Manager Steve Jourdan (now Manager of the Canoe South Africa Canoe Marathon Team for the 10th consecutive year), played his part to perfection, turning a team into a happy family. His ability to keep everyone smiling (whilst he was exceptionally busy with the admin of ‘running’ the team) is a testament to his easy going, happy style of management, which for a sports team, is definitely the best way.

Of the actual events and the success stories that were put up by the South African team – this started with the very first event of the championships on Wednesday 19th September, when in the K1 Women’s Masters, 55 – 59 years, Minnie Kretzschmar won a silver and Carrol Evans a bronze medal. This was followed by TC Smit bringing home silver in the K1 Men’s Masters 55 – 59 years, Rob MacLean a bronze in the 60 – 64 years and Radoslav Olsewski, the gold in the C1 Men’s Masters. In the other K1 Masters events, Angela Scruby grabbed a silver in the Women’s 35 – 39 years, Hilde Lapere a silver in the 50 – 55 years, Ernest van Riet paddled in an exceptionally tough event to win silver in the Men’s 35 – 29 years, whilst the incredible Lee McGregor, opting to paddle in the Men’s 50 – 54 years (Lee is entitled to paddle in the 60 – 64 division), pushed his 20 year younger opponents to the limit, only losing touch after the final portage and just over a kilometer from the end, to bring home the bronze for the SA Masters to rack up 9 medals on the first day of the Championships.

Thursday 20th September and Day 2 of the championships saw the Masters K2 events and again, in the first event of the day, Minnie Kretzschmar and Carrol Evans achieved a podium place, winning silver in their event. Alan Hold and Lee McGregor held off Rob Maclean and Enslin van Riet in their K2 event to win gold and silver respectively, whilst in the Women’s Masters 35 – 39 years, Angela Scruby and Cavill Cordes collected a silver, Ernest van Riet and Edgar Boehm raced to a well-earned bronze and whilst Colin Wilson and Nic Oldert (even with a torn calf muscle per kind favour of the excessively steep take-out slope) won bronze and in their 50 – 54 years category.

Other SA Masters positions at the WMC were:

K1 Masters Men –35 – 39 years, 7th Edgar Boehm. 40 – 44 years, 7th Wayne Wilson. 45 – 49 years, 4th Brad Fisher. 50 – 54 years, 5th Nic Oldert, 6th Graham Monteith, 15th Colin Wilson, 16th Ronald Pronk. 55 – 59 years, 9th Gary Atkinson. 60 – 64 years, 4th Alan Hold, 6th Enslin van Riet, 23rd Steve Jourdan. 65 – 69 years, 9th Mike Howard. 70 plus years, 5th Herve de Rouville, 6th Ray Bowen.

K1 Masters – Women – 45 – 49 years, Cavil Cordes.

K2 Masters Men – 35 – 39 years, 4th Wayne Wilson/Dave Hamilton-Brown. 45 – 49 years, 5th Graham Monteith/Brad Fisher. 50 – 54 years, Ronald Pronk/TC Smit. 55 – 59 years, 4th Ian Glass/Shaun Butler.

So, the SA Masters who paddled in Rome at the 2012 WMC, remain known as the ‘Turbo-ballies’!

The Juniors and U23 racing that was held on Friday 21st September was intense and here the Europeans, as expected, were very strong – especially in the U18 divisions where despite giving their all, Jordaan Zeelie (14th), Kenny Rice (19th), Emma Horner (13th) Kerry Segal (16th), were no match, but on the positive side, Kenny is still U17 and so has next year to look forward too.

In the U23 Men’s and Women’s section, this is where SA really rose to the top, with Grant van der Walt winning an exceptionally thrilling (and very hard) race – the Portuguese paddler that he edged out on the final sprint represented Portugal at the London Olympics a month ago and won bronze in the Senior Men’s K1 of these WMC’s. This race was thrilling in every aspect, the gold and silver medals being separated my mere 100ths of a second (Grant – 1:54:34:040, Pimenta – 1:54:34:620) whilst his younger brother, Brandon put in a cracker to end 4th in 1:54:56. Two SA paddlers in the Top 4 – a good sign for the future.

The Women’s U23 was just as exciting with respect to the top two paddlers, with SA’s Robyn Kime narrowly missing the gold to claim silver, but coming home on the slip of Eva Barrios (Spain) for another exciting sprint finish, the Spaniard recording a time of 1:42:17, Robyn, 1 second off the pace in 1:42:17. The 3rd placed paddler (from Belgium), recorded a 1:42:27. Esti van Tonder, a converted sprint paddler, also paddling in the Women’s U23 division, came home in 15th position.

In the Junior K2 events (there are no U23 K2 races), bar one team, both the SA boys and girls were overwhelmed, Craig Flanagan/Dominic Notten coming home in 13th place, Jordan Zeelie/Emile Theunissen 18th, the Junior girls trams of Kirsten Flanagan/Amy Hare (5th) and Kerry Shuter/Brittany Petersen were 12th. The showing of Kirsten and Amy was exceptional as they are still U16 paddlers and to take the top 5 (the winning time was 1:17:36, Kirsten and Amy, 1:19:51) and behind Hungary, Denmark, Great Britain and Italy was simply outstanding and just reward for the hard work that they have put in under coach Peter Cole this year. There is no doubt that they will record higher places in future international events.

Saturday 22nd September will long be remembered for how both the SA Men’s and Women’s paddlers showed the world that they are serious ‘Top Fivers’ (Men) and ‘Top Tenners’ (Women) in their respective events. There were also the unfortunate incidents that saw SA’s top two male K1 paddlers disqualified (for dubious reasons – writers belief) but this did not distract from canoe marathon racing of extreme excitement. But first, to the Women’s event, where Alexa Cole, despite having to fight her way onto the leading bunch (Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Austria and Norway) after a difficult start, was not able to match the pace in the final lap. However, she was by no way disgraced at all and in registering an excellent 7th place overall in 2:05:08 gives hera solid international ranking. When one notes that the winner of this race, Hungarian Renata Czay, had by the end of the Rome WMC won 19th medals in total at this and previous WMC’s, one can begin to understand just how potent a field this was. Michelle Eray, for months this year rehabilitating from a wrist injury and surgery for it, did extremely well to make the Top Ten, finishing 9th in 2:05:08.

The Men’s K1 – the Blue Riband event of any World Canoe Marathon Championships, was always going to be a humdinger, especially as the defending Champion, Hank McGregor of SA was in the line-up and with  the rest of the world still smarting over the way he so resoundingly beat them all in 2011 (when there were 5 World Champions in the Men’s K1 line-up!), along with Len Jenkins, also of SA, and a paddler of incredible ability, in a field of 42 K1’s (who couldn’t all fit onto the starting podium!), were going to be the paddlers that had to be beaten. McGregor, seeded in the prime spot by virtue of being the defending champion, blasted off the line at the gun to lead the field away from the starting ‘pool’, Jenkins attaching himself to the leading bunch which by the time they turned out of the sight of the spectators, consisted of about 9 – 12 K1’s!

After the down river buoy turn and the battle up-river against the current, necessitating paddlers trying every inch of ‘eddy’ water, and thus being at the mercy of being pushed into the banks and river boats/jetties, the stage was set for a first portage that could only really be one thing – brutal; with no quarter asked or given. McGregor reached the grass section in about 6th place and seeing his way forward blocked by those running in front of him, ran through the slightly longer ‘Seconding Area’ getting to the front of the bunch, such is his running speed. It also had the ICF official totally flustered, he trying to block McGregor when all the rules say is that there may be no seconding on the first lap – nothing about not being able to run through the (longer) seconding area! Jenkins was hot on his tail and the bunch that broke away after the end of the 1st portage gave the spectators an indication of where the main contenders in this race would be from – South Africa, Spain, Portugal, Hungary and the Netherlands. And so it was to be that as lap after lap was reeled off, it was paddlers from these nations that called the tune, whilst the second bunch joined and were broken from the leading boats on at least two occasions.

The portages were at all times particularly tense and tough, paddlers blocking one another on the water leading into and away from the jetties, jostling one another up and down the runways; purposefully running in front of faster runners – everyone was doing it, but only the South African’s were penalized! The Jenkins DSQ incident happened when he made a faster take-out at the 2nd take-out than a paddler in front of him, was blocked by that paddler in trying to get ahead up the narrow and very steep (40 degrees) steps and slope off the jetty ‘clashed’ with the other paddler, who lost his balance and fell onto the jetty. The McGregor DSQ incident was more generalized, he being his disqualified for supposedly over robust tactics at the put-in jetty. As one who watched the entire race, this was strange, as in the leading bunch, everyone was jostling the other and in each case, McGregor actually used the right hand side of the jetty to enter the water on each lap, where there was a space for only one canoe and he was the only person to use it in the leading bunch!

But back to the race (as the DSQ scenario’s only came about after it ended), as it continued at great pace and with the two South African’s in the leading bunch throughout. On the 6th portage (so with just a lap and a bit – approx 5.5km and one final portage to go), McGregor made his break on the portage and was well ahead of the field when he hit the put-in jetty, but as he got into his canoe, a fellow competitor, running onto the floating, plastic jetty, caused it to flex violently up and down, upsetting McGregor’s balance and he capsized into relatively deep water. Using his surf ski skills, he was able to quickly get back into the canoe and give chase to the Spanish and Portuguese paddlers who had broken away from him whilst he was recovering, but with a boat half full of water, it was always going to be a tough ask, even with his foot pump being worked with every stroke. But somehow, he clawed his way back into contention and coming into the final portage, was at the back of the leading bunch. On the portage though, and coming through from the back, he attempted to overtake the Spaniard, but was blocked up against the dividing rail on the portage area and again on the steep down slope of the take-out jetty, allowing the Spaniard and the Portuguese paddlers to get ahead and put those vital few meters between him and them that he just could not make up (after a gruelling lap with a half full canoe of water), so that he crossed the finish line 3rd overall and just seconds off the pace. Jenkins was two canoes behind to finish in 5thplace but with both being DSQ’d, their results were scrubbed.

The feeling of disappointment and outrage at these DSQ’s was palpable amongst the SA supporters as it had been such an exciting race and for it to end in this manner was felt to be a travesty. Debate over the controversy of McGregor’s and Jenkins’ continues to reverberate around the canoeing world and one cannot help but surmise that if the Italian Canoe Federation had arranged for half-decent take-out and put-in jetties, this would not have happened and McGregor may well have retained his title and Jenkins might also have been on the podium. So, expect reverberations over this incident to continue and one hopes that it will get the ICF to insist on the set specs and standards for canoe marathon racing and especially w.r.t. take-out and put-in jetties as well as the actual portage section (which in Rome, because of all the traffic or drenched paddlers, became a slippery, dangerous quagmire of mud, as the grass was worn away over the 5 days of racing), to be upheld and met.

The final day of the championships, Sunday 23rd September, was always going to be a cracker as the Senior Women and Men lined up for the K2 events. In the Women’s event, the two SA crews of Alexa Cole/Eloise Horne and Michelle Eray/Robyn Kime, whilst relatively unknown on the international canoe marathon racing scene (although Cole won a K2 silver in Australia in 2003 and Eray a K2 bronze in Hungary on 2007), they stamped their mark on this race by forcing their way onto the front bunch for much of the event. At the start though, it was Eray/Kime that made it onto the leading bunch, Cole/Horne having to go wide and use the side wash, but through grit and determination made it to the leading group to make it 5 K2’s that raced in a bunch for much of the race after the end of the 1st portage – Hungary x 2, Italy x1 and SA x 2 canoes. Unfortunately though, disaster struck the SA canoeists on the penultimate portage, when Cole/Horne put-in on the right side of the jetty where there was space for only 1 K2 but before they could get away, Eray/Kime also put in, resulting in a clash of canoes and paddles, allowing the 2 Hungarian crews and the Italians that vital break that they needed to hold off the tenacious South African’s. SA spectators were stunned with what they witnessed and even the British commentator mentioned that this lack of cooperation between the two SA canoes was inexplicable. Out of this clash, Eray/Kime managed to get away first, both crews racing alone over the final lap and portage to end their race in 4th, Cole/Horne coming home in 5th position and to the great disappointment of (themselves, no doubt) and the SA supporters, all of whom were convinced that at least one medal, maybe even two, had been a distinct possibility in this event. But this was not to be and left all pondering the ‘what-might-have-been’ factor.

The Senior Men’s K2 was seen by all as the opportunity for Hank McGregor to put behind the disappointment of his DSQ in the K1 event the day before, as he teamed up with the U23 World K1 Champion, Grant van der Walt (also his winning K2 team mate in many SA doubles events, canoeing and surf ski) and so the event was approached by all with great anticipation. The 2nd SA crew in this event, Simon van Gysen/Jasper Mocke, an unknown quantity in international canoeing circles, although both are in the Top 5 in the 2012 World Surf Ski series, approached the event in very much ‘below-the-radar’, mode but made a huge impression at the start by sprinting into the lead to head a gaggle of approximately 12 canoes in the leading bunch, leaving an almost incoherent commentator mistaking them for another crew (shades of the rowing commentator at the Olympic Games London 2012 over the SA coxless 4 team!) before asking publically over the air for more information about them. The was quickly given by the SA team manager, Steve Jourdan, whilst the spectators were given the matchless opportunity of watching these ‘unknowns’ become one of the dominant crews in the leading bunch of 3 canoes that broke away from the rest of the field after the first portage and stayed that way for the entire race – an SA K2 along with two Spanish crews, meaning that the SA pair would always be at a disadvantage. But canoe marathon racing is a tactical, even brutal event where no quarter is asked for or given, and van Gysen/Mocke gave back to the Spaniards what they could and were unshakeable right to the end where the clinched a well-deserved podium place to win the bronze medal, their time of 2:02:30 being 3rd to the Spaniards who came home in 2:02:15 and 2:02:17 seconds.

And what of the fancied pairing of McGregor/van der Walt? Spectators could only watch aghast as from the start gun, this previously peerless crew struggled to attach themselves to the leading bunch, such was the chaos of the start, with waves and other boats crashing around and into them, so that by the time they had settled into a racing bunch some 800m from the start, it was with the 3rd group, from which the leaders were pulling away. But not for nothing are McGregor/van der Walt a world-class pairing with dogged determination and tenacity and although they (unfortunately) were never able to get in touch with the leading bunch, they ground their way to the front of the 2nd bunch and from the spectators p.o.v., this is where the real excitement of the Senior Men’s K2 was, as this large group of paddlers was slowly whittled down over the 7 laps and 30km of the course until on the final portage. There the two South African’s made their break and came home in 4th place in 2:04:50, the 5th place crew (Czech Republic) timed at 2:04:57 and 6th (Argentine) in 2:05:42.

So ended the 2012 World Canoe Marathon Championships, the dominant paddling nation being Spain, but with South Africa firmly entrenched as one of the world’s top canoeing nations, despite being relative new-comers to international competition, the team returning home with 18 medals overall, heads held high and highly respected as worthy competitors and opponents in the ‘cut and thrust’ of international canoe marathon racing.

Rob MacLean

Media Liaison – WCCU.


See also