Second means nothing for the King of the Berg
Hank McGregor is a one-man armada who takes no prisoners
HANK MCGREGOR is primed to win the Berg River Canoe Marathon for an unprecedented 11th time.
The four-day paddling epic begins at the Market Street bridge in Paarl on Wednesday and is due to finish in Velddrif just after midday on Saturday.
KwaZulu-Natal’s McGregor is the defending champion and it looks odds-on favourite to retain his title.
Absent from the staged race in 2013 and 2014, the worldclass performer, who first picked up a paddle aged 11, decided to return to the Cape last year and reclaim owner-
“My old man helped me come to grips with longdistance paddling and we had one heck of a dual. What I was able to learn from him paved the way for my first win four years later.”
ship of the mantle held by fellow Natalian Andy Birkett.
And he duly obliged to record his 10th victory ahead of Birkett, who won’t be in the field this time round.
Lance King won the race for the first time in 2013, ending a barren run for the locals that stretched back to 2001 – Graeme Solomon triumphed that year for his only victory to date to go with seven runners-up finishes.
McGregor, 38, is without a doubt the King of the Berg and he doesn’t take kindly to finishing second best, not on this river anyway.
He made his debut as an 18-year-old in 1996 and went head-to-head with his father Lee – who was a champion swimmer and surf-skier in his heyday. The pair worked together and with Lee finishing fifth and Hank in eighth.
“That year was special for me,” said McGregor. “My old man helped me come to grips with long- distance paddling and we had one heck of a dual. What I was able to learn from him paved the way for my first win four years later.”
His breakthrough in one of the largest fields ever assembled (225) was a clear sign of what was to come. He would go on to own the race from 2005 to 2012, breaking Robert Herreveld’s record of six wins.
Stefan Hugo is third best on the all-time list with five victories. The legendary Cape maestro completed back- to- back wins in 1976-77 before bagging his hat-trick in 1980. He was back in the winners enclosure in 1982 before claiming his final victory two years later.
There will always be contenders and pretenders in low numbers but come the start, McGregor will look to assert his authority from the first paddle-stroke – the way it has been in each of his triumphs, all effortless performances and without peer during his more than decade-long dominance.
He’s for all intents and purposes a one-man army who takes no prisoners. He lives by the motto: “First is first. Second is nothing.”
A lethal injection of raw pace separates the six-times world marathon champion from the rest of the field. It is a sight to behold as he powers off with brute strength, then a marvel at how he goes about toying with the field once he’s settled into his race mode for the long haul.
He likes to stay in the lead group clicking over the kilometres, never panicking, until near the finishing line when he acts again with another effortless surge that usually leaves the rest fighting it out for podium finishers.
That’s the way McGregor operates on the tree-line river, be it shallow or full. Fast-flowing conditions like right now suit him more as it means more paddling and less river-exits.
Low-level conditions make for more portages, but that is no problem for McGregor, as he has no qualm with a bit of running work while carrying his canoe, as long as the time out of the water is short.
Over four days travelling some 240km from Paarl to Velddrif, expect to see McGregor cross the finish line first for his 11th triumph.
“I set myself the goal of becoming the first man to win the Berg 10 times and realised it last year,” he said. “Not being in the race for the two years I was absent because of a clash in races and the birth of my first child in 2014 left me yearning for a return and a shot at another title last year.
“And boy, was it a tough race like no other I’ve participated in and Andy pushed me all the way. Now for another shot at glory.
“My last-minute decision to enter the race has been the right move, now I just have to get my mind focused and let the rest take care of itself. I’m ready for a duel with any of the other guys who feel they have the pedigree to deny me.”
The Kayak Centre star, who last weekend in his surfski won the Mauritius Ocean Classic again, will be keeping a close eye on the Cape contingent spearheaded by Simon van Gysen ( Kayak Centre) and Solomon (Knysna Racing).
There is also the threat posed by the four international paddlers – Hungary’s Adrian Boros, Australia’s Josh Kippin and Brendon Rice as well as the Czech Republic’s Petr Mojzisek.
Meanwhile, McGregor senior will also be competing and will be gunning for another top-10 finish despite being in his mid-sixties.
AN OLD HAND ON THE PADDLE: Hank McGregor is in search of a record 11th title in Berg River Canoe Marathon.