Australian canoe sprint paddler Jean van der Westhuyzen grew up idolising German legend Max Hoff, and even had his picture as his screen saver on his mobile phone.

On Thursday van der Westhuyzen and teammate Tom Green put aside the hero worshipping to defeat Hoff and Jacob Schopf in a thrilling final of the men’s K2 1000, the first time Australia has won an Olympic gold medal in this race. 

While the win signaled the arrival on the world canoe sprint scene of the two Australian young guns, it also closed the door on the glittering career of 38-year-old Hoff, a two-time Olympic medalist and seven-time world champion.

“I grew up watching that guy,” van der Westhuyzen said.

“He was actually the screen saver on my phone when I was younger, so I used to really look up to him.”

On Thursday sentiment counted for naught, as the brash Australians took the race out hard early, and then refused to be run down over the gripping final stages.

With 200 metres to go, the Australians appeared to be tiring, but every time the Germans surged, van der Westhuyzen and Green matched them.

“Just from training we knew if we stayed out well in the middle, we had a strong finish,” van der Westhuyzen said.

“We had a chat before and said we were going to put each other in hospital, we’re going to go so hard to fight to that finish line. We’re just so happy we could push past an amazing German crew who are absolutely amazing athletes.”

Incredibly this week in Tokyo has been the first international regatta for Green and van der Westhuyzen as a K2 combination. The global pandemic and Australia’s tough lockdown laws made it impossible to travel to Europe for the past two seasons.

They arrived in Tokyo with no idea how they would go. As Green pointed out, nobody else knew how they would go either.

“This last two years has been so uncertain for so many people,” he said.

“This is our first international regatta together as a crew. We didn’t know what to expect, so I guess everyone else had the same opinion, but it was awesome.

“We thought it was going to be challenging, we knew it was going to be challenging, but I guess because we keep each other so honest, and the other Australian K2 crew, they’ve pushed us a lot, and also made us learn a lot.”

The gold medal was a dream outcome for van der Westhuyzen, who moved to Australia from South Africa in 2018. He said he always dreamed he would one day paddle for his adopted country.

Both van der Westhuyzen and Green competed in the K1 1000 earlier in the week. Green finished seventh in the final after a strong start, while van der Westhuyzen missed the A final and finished third in the B final.

Both were left disappointed after their races, but worked together to re-focus ahead of the K2.

“It was just like flicking to the next page, because that was the only choice we had,” Green said.

“We couldn’t change what had happened, and as much as it was disappointing, it also helped with today. We learnt a lot from the last three days, and it just helped us better prepare for today.

“It just gave us that bit of hunger. It was like salt in the wounds, but this definitely makes it so much better.”

Czech’s Radek Slouf and Josef Dostal took the bronze.


Canoe Sprint