The 2016 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon concluded at the Cradock Sports Complex on Saturday with a strong sense of déjà vu as a powerful end sprint saw Hank McGregor claim a record-equaling seventh title from Andy Birkett whilst Abby Solms powered her way to victory in the women’s race.
McGregor went into the final day of the South African K1 River Marathon Championships with the slightest of advantages over a more than competitive Birkett and with another end sprint on the cards, it was a game of cat and mouse throughout with neither star giving an inch in pursuit of the title.
The battle for the top spot came to a head in the final straight into the finish, with McGregor showing his prowess as he surged to a deserving win after what was a neck and neck battle throughout.
“We tested each other out in the beginning and then once we got warm we took it easy until Gauging Weir and then we started testing each other again right up to Cradock Weir,” Euro Steel/Kayak Centre’s McGregor said.
“People think that the race is over after Cradock Weir but it definitely isn’t and I had to keep my wits about me right up to the finish.”
Birkett was breathing down McGregor’s neck for the entire 82km clash and despite not able to bridge that gap to the eventual winner, the Euro Steel ace was happy with his performance after what has been another stellar season.
“It was an awesome race, the sportsmanship was great – which is what you want from a race – so I am happy with how it went.
“Hank was just too strong for me, as much as I tried to come past him!
“I am really happy with my result though; it’s been a long season and to come down to Cradock, finish on the podium and have a bit of a holiday too is awesome so I’m stoked with how everything went over the two days,” added Birkett.
After ending the Eastern Cape event’s local winner’s drought in 2015, Cradock local Greg Louw produced another special performance to finish in third place overall – a result Louw was happy with considering the calibre of paddlers he was up against for the title.
“Hank and Andy have been going really well having come back from Canoe Marathon World Champs recently where they finished first and second in the K1 race so I am happy with how my two days went.
“I felt strong throughout the race, even though my preparation wasn’t that good, so to get on the podium at the Fish is a great feeling,” the Knysna Racing/Merrell star mentioned.
The race for fourth was an exciting affair with Jasper Mocké, Andrew Houston and Czech Republic’s Jakub Adam battling it out throughout with the youngest of the three, Houston, eventually prevailing over his two rivals, claiming the Under 23 men’s title in the process, with Adam edging out Mocké for fifth.
The surprise result of the race came a little further down the results sheet as former Dusi Canoe Marathon champion Sbonelo Khwela broke his K1 top ten drought at the Hansa fish to finish in sixth place – comfortably his best individual result at the Eastern Cape showpiece.
Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club shining light, Siseko Ntondini produced a blistering time on day two – the fifth fastest of the day – to end eighth overall and claim the second spot in the Under 23 category while Nic Notten rounding out the age group’s podium.
Having also been locked in the tussle for fifth place overall up until a swim at Cradock Weir cost him dearly, Michaelhouse’s Jean van der Westhuyzen was the strongest in the Under-18 age increment with Cape Town’s Mark Keeling and Craig Heenan rounding out the podium in the junior boys contest.
The ladies race quickly turned into the Abby Solms show as the defending K1 and K2 champion put all challengers to bed as she powered her way to victory in a confident display of tactical wizardry.
“I wasn’t lying before the race when I said I wasn’t as prepared for this year as I was in the past but I have been doing a lot of running so my fitness base is there,” said Solms. “Thankfully I think my skill and experience also came to the fore over the past two days.”
“My experience in the rapids and wave chains through day two helped me keep my neck in front of the other girls and also allowed me to stick with groups of guys throughout, which also helped.
“It was also great being back in my K1 as we start the build up to the river marathon season back in KZN,” the Euro Steel/Gara Racing Paddles star said.
Despite two further swims on Saturday, to go with her three on Friday, triple Olympian Bridgitte Hartley (Save Hyper/Knysna Racing) charged to a strong second place.
“Considering I had five swims, I definitely can’t be unhappy with second place and the SA K1 silver medal,” said Hartley.
In what evolved into an exciting contest on the final day, the fight for third place in the ladies race was alive right up until the infamous Cradock Weir where Robyn Owen took a swim handing third to Jenna Ward who capitalised on the unfortunate mistake from Owen to take the final podium spot.
Ward also took the home the spoils in the Under-23 contest with Morgan Ziervogel and Lauren Felgate rounding out the category’s podium.
In the junior girls contest, Christie Mackenzie manufactured an impressive two day performance to finish sixth overall and take the Under 18 Girls’ honours ahead of Kyeta Purchase and Gemma Lawson.
1.Hank McGregor 2:04.37 4:58.10
2.Andy Birkett 2:04.56 4:58.31
3.Greg Louw 2:06.26 5:01.41
4.Andrew Houston (U23) 2:09.06 5:09.18
5.Jakub Adam (CZE) 2:07.14 5:09.57
1.Abby Solms 2:17.01 5:28.07
2.Bridgitte Hartley 2:21.20 5:41.26
3.Jenna Ward (U23) 2:23.43 5:45.12
4.Robyn Owen 2:23.46 5:46.45
5.Nicole Russell 2:23.30 5:50.41
More information can be found at www.fishmarathon.org.za
Images: Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media