Canoe Marathon

South Africa, for so long a canoe marathon powerhouse, proved a tremendous host for the 2017 ICF World Championships, and the local fans were not disappointed.

Hank McGregor, the dominant force in the sport for the past decade, thrilled the home crowd with two gold medals, including his seventh individual world title.

And there was a tremendous battle in the women’s K1, which saw Hungarian powerhouse Renata Csay upstaged by the dogged British paddler, Lani Belcher.

In a repeat of the 2016 result, McGregor and teammate Andrew Birkett gave the host nation a perfect one-two in the men’s K1 event at Camps Drift.

After close to 30km of racing, the wily McGregor worked himself into pole position at the front of a four-man group for the final 500m dash to the finish line, and then had the speed to keep his compatriot back on the wave as they battled it out on the final sprint for gold.

After two desperate attacks, and with less than 100m to go, Birkett realised he was not going over McGregor’s bow wave and settled back to come home just over half a boat length back, and just ahead of the fast-finishing Hungarian Adrián Boros. Portugal's José Ramalho faded over the final 150m to just miss out on a medal.

“My dad once said to me I would realise what it is like to race in front of your son and today I got that feeling,” McGregor said.

“My dad (Lee) is watching me, he is somewhere in the middle of the hurricane, so thanks to dad for everything you have done for me and thanks to my family, my son and wife.

“So this one is for my boy (Thorsten) – I am so glad he was watching me today.

“Big thanks to the crowd, especially the guys on the opposite side of the bank. You kept us going. It is such a privilege and an honour to race for my country and be able to win in front of my home crowd. This was something incredible.”

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In the women’s K1, Belcher unleashed a powerful final sprint 150m from the finish line to win going away from Hungarian Vanda Kiszli. Ireland’s Jennifer Egan was finished a dogged third after being dropped on the final portage one kilometre from the finish.

Belcher, who was born in Victoria and raised in Queensland, Australia, unleashed a devastating final sprint to claim the title in an event where she looked dominant throughout.

Belcher, Kiszli and Egan were all that was left of a lead group of seven that was only reduced to four on the sixth lap (out of seven plus a half lap), and then became three a lap later when the legendary 27-time medal winner Renáta Csay from Hungary could not hold the group and eventually faded back to sixth.

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McGregor confirmed his position at the top of international marathon kayaking when he claimed his second gold medal of the World Championships by partnering Jasper Mocké to victory in the men’s K2 race on the final day at Camps Drift.

He and Mocké added a fourth medal to their personal tally of two golds from 2014 and 2016 and silver from 2015.

The local heroes produced a potent finish sprint to claim their victory, but behind them, in a bizarre photo-finish for second, the Hungarian pair of Adrián Boros and László Solti celebrated their second position before crossing the line. That allowed South Africa’s second boat of Andy Birkett and 18-year-old schoolboy Jean van der Westhuyzen to finish just centimetres back in third.

"It hasn't quite sunk in yet to be honest,” McGregor said.

"I was never going for anything like this and to even win one world title is something special, but to win ten is incredible.

"To win it here in front of the home fans with Jasper was special, and it rounded off a fantastic week for me with my family here.

"The South African public always knew that we were good but to watch to happen first-hand will hopefully encourage people to get into paddling.

"I think that somewhere along the line someone has been inspired to pick up a pair of paddles and give it a go.”

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It was Hungary who emerged from the four days of competition as clearly the top nation at the Championships, with their two silver and two gold medals on the final day’s action taking their total for the competition to an incredible 20 medals: 10 gold, eight silver and two bronze.

South Africa were second on the medal table with eight medals (2 gold, 3 silver and 3 bronze) with Great Britain third on five (1, 1, 3).

Earlier the young Hungarian crew of Vanda Kiszli and Sãra Anna Mihalik mixed the perfect balance of power, guile, tactics and patience to lead a Hungarian one-two and almost match McGregor when they both collected their second medals at the championships.

Mihalik, who won the U23 women’s K1 title on the opening day, and Kisli who on Saturday finished second in the women’s K1 race, looked to be out-powered in the early exchanges with Britain’s K1 women’s winner Lani Belcher and her partner Hayleigh-Jayne Mason.

However, on the final portage Kiszli and Mihalik showed that maybe their slowish portages throughout were nothing more than a ploy, and for the first time they put in ahead of their British rivals and had the advantage for the final 1000m paddle to the finish.

The move proved decisive as nobody from the front group was able to re-connect and Kiszli and Mihalik were able to get home relatively easily with clear water behind them.

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Hungary picked up their third medal in two races when Márton Kövér and Ádám Dóczé outsprinted the Spanish duo of Ramon Ferro and Oscar Graña to claim the men’s C2 gold.

Liudmyla Babak from the Ukraine won the first medal on Saturday when she paddled away from the rest of the opposition and cruised to an easy four-minute win in the women's C1 race. Zsanett Lakatos from Hungary and Czech Jana Ježová claimed the silver and bronze medals.

In the men’s C1 event Márton Kövér collected Hungary’s eighth gold and 15th medal overall when he cruised to an emphatic victory over the Spanish duo of Manuel Garrido and Manuel Antonio Campos.

The three moved clear on the second lap and then first Campos and then Garrido could not hold the pace on laps four and five to leave Kövér to build his lead over the final two and a half laps.

Argentinian Franco Balboa paddled a tactically perfect race to break the dominance of the potent Hungarian outfit – and also provided some heartbreak to local fans – to win the men’s U23 event, the final event of Friday action.

After Hungary had once again notched up four wins from the opening four events of the second day’s racing to keep their 100 per cent winning record intact, Balboa finally broke their stranglehold with a mix of guile, conservative and unconventional tactics.

"It was a really difficult race but I have trained really hard to be here," Balboa said after the race.

"The South African paddler (Nick Notten) was really strong and he got away from us which was worrying but I put in a lot of effort to catch him and get over the line in first place."

In the first event of the day, Hungary, started in the same way they left off on Thursday with a one-two finish in the junior women’s K2 event.

Following on from Hungary’s victory in each of the five events on the opening day, and silver medals from three of the four medal events, Emese Kohalmi and Olga Bakó cruised home to an emphatic win in the opening event of Friday’s programme.

The young Hungarian duo was two minutes 44 seconds ahead of compatriots Zsófia Korsós and Viktória Nagy, with the British pairing of Freya Peters a Emma Russell claiming the bronze two minutes further back.

In the second event of the day, the U23 men’s C1 race paddled in conjunction with the junior women’s K2, the Hungarian dominance continued. 

Bence Dóri made the decisive break from Portugal’s Sérgio Maciel on the approaches to the final portage and then paddle away to a 35-second victory to give Hungary their seventh win of the championships. Poland’s Patryk Gluza claimed the bronze almost a minute further back.

And the Hungarians were once again the heroes in the junior men’s K2 event, but it was happiness with the cruellest of heartbreak for one of the two South African crews who formed the lead group with the Hungarian duo for all but the final 2000 metres.

The Hungarian pair of Levente Vékássy and Adam Varga claimed the gold when they easily dispatched local under 16s David Evans and Hamish Mackenzie – students at Maritzburg College which is situated just 200m away from the race venue.

The Hungarian team started the championships with a perfect clean sweep of five victories from the opening day’s five races and notched up an almost perfect tally of seven medals – four gold and three silver – from the four medal races on Thursday.

In the opening event, the junior women’s race, the Hungarian duo of Zsóka Csikós and Dorina Fekete secured a Hungarian one-two. That was followed up by an identical result for their compatriots Sára Anna Mihalik and Zsófia Czéllai-Vörös in the U23 women's battle and the junior boys C1 where Balázs Adolf and Sebestyén Simon led the field home.

In the final event of the day, the junior men’s race, it looked to be heading for another Hungarian one-two when Ádám Varga and István Lukács broke away early, but Varga was in a class of his own and raced away by himself on the third lap of six for a convincing win.

The U23 women’s race was virtually a carbon copy of the girls’ race with Zsófia Czéllai-Vörös and Sára Anna Mihalik setting up the Hungarian dominance early as they came off the first portage with a lead. From there, the two simply worked as a team to paddle off into the distance.

At the final turn about 500m from the finish, Mihalik, who recently competed in the U23 World Sprint Championships, unleashed an awesome kick and powered away to open up a deceptively big lead by the time they crossed the line.

The boys C1 race saw Sebestyén Simon and Balázs Adolf dominate from the start, and it was soon evident they would add to Hungary’s growing collection of gold and silver medals.

When Adolf opened up his finish sprint with 200m to go, his compatriot had no answer and drifted over the line in a distant second. Duarte Silva from Portugal claimed the bronze.

2017 Magazine