Andy Birkett further etched his name into the Dusi Canoe Marathon record books on Saturday when he edged out 2013 winner Lance Kime and ‘Dusi Darling’ Sbonelo Khwela in record time on route to clinching a fifth race title.
Given Birkett’s young age (24), the feat is even more impressive and the Euro Steel ace now joins race legends Peter Peacock, Harry Fisher and Gordy Rowe on five victories and while ‘Dusi King’ Graham Pope-Ellis’ record of 15 titles remains safe, for now, Birkett is fast closing in on second on the list Martin Dreyer, who won the race seven times, even though it’s not a focus of his.
Birkett became the first person in the 64 year-old race’s history to drop under the eight hour mark as when crossed the line in 7:55.35, five minutes and eleven second ahead of Euro Steel team mate Kime.
“Today feels like the first time that I have won Dusi; I am really stoked to be honest,” said Birkett.
“My build up wasn’t ideal coming into Dusi but no build up is so I am just really happy that I was able to pull it off today!
“I’m not chasing records, I am not trying to overtake anyone for total number of wins. I just want to take each year as it comes as I really enjoy paddling and Dusi is such a special race. There is a great build up, the community really gets together for it and it’s great to be here with a victory!” he added.
Birkett started the day with more than five minutes between himself and Kime however with Khwela in third and renowned for his abilities to run with a boat on his shoulder, there was little margin for error.
Mistakes were however something that Birkett had made very few of throughout the contest and despite struggling with some tired legs, the young champion put in a near flawless effort to Blue Lagoon to clinch a memorable victory.
“Today I felt the pressure and battled a bit going over Burma – the legs were taking a bit of strain.
“I managed to ease up in the last ten kilometres coming into Durban though and just savour the moment and enjoy it.”
While 2013 winner Kime had hoped for another crown, his second place to Birkett was only marginally less satisfying than a victory.
“To finish second to an athlete of the calibre of Andy’s is something I certainly can’t be unhappy with and it almost still feels like a win, not a second place,” said Kime.
“Andy was superb throughout and he really has become and a top local and international competitor and a tough paddler to beat,” he added.
Khwela too had hoped to claim the top step of the podium however the Euro Steel/Red Bull competitor – a product of Martin Dreyer’s Computershare Change a Life Academy – had to settle for third, a far more satisfying third than his 2013 result.
“To finish in third is really special. I have been working so hard over the past three days!” said Khwela.
“Today I woke up and told myself that the race only ends at Blue Lagoon and there is no way that I can give up and anything can happen so today I pushed hard to Burma to see if I could close the gap and make up some time.”
“When he put in first I thought that I might be able to catch Lance but he was so solid today all the way to Blue Lagoon,” he added.
The top three performed a touching gesture on the final stage as all three wore black arm bands in honour of Heini Jordaan who sadly passed away during Friday’s second stage.
“Yesterday really was a sad day for both the sport and the Dusi,” said Birkett solemnly. “Our Euro Steel team decided to wear these bands in memory of the paddler that we lost yesterday and hopefully nothing like that happens any time soon!”
“Unfortunately the reality of our sport is that it is dangerous but it was still a really sad day!”
Build it/Williams Hunt’s Thulani Mbanjwa, the fourth member of the ‘Fantastic Four’, cruised through in fourth position while Andrew Houston (Seed Co.) continued his consistent run of form and retained his top five place he started the day in and, in so doing, soared to victory in Under-23 Men’s clash.
Houston’s younger brother Alan made it two titles from two for the Houston family as he clinched the Under-18 boys top step of the podium.
O’Donoghue sheds ‘bridesmaid’ tag
Laura O’Donoghue broke her Dusi duck as she claimed an emphatic win in the elite women’s race where she dominated from start to finish and finished ahead of Under-18 paddler Cana Peek and Jenna Ward.
Having built up a healthy 30 minute lead going into the final day it was a matter of maintenance and consistency for O’Donoghue through the final day and that was what she produced despite feeling flat throughout the final stage of the three-day epic.
“I’m proud of my result,” she said. “I really have trained hard over the past few months, I wanted to do well and make this race count.
“The legs were really tired this morning and I think I also got a bit complacent towards the end and made a few mistakes, which was a bit disappointing, but it doesn’t really matter in the end, I’m here now and I’m really happy!”
The mother of two tasted victory for the first time on Saturday but was not tempted into returning to defend or even compete for her crown and with her children growing up the amount of time she has spent away from them has been hard.
“This is the proudest moment of my career. It has been a whole year of build-up, a lot of sacrifice for the whole family and Natal Canoe Club have really helped me achieve my dreams and I’m really excited to have finally done it,” she added.
A breath of fresh air in the women’s race in 2015 was Cana Peek. The Epworth school girl went into the race with a relaxed mindset and managed to surprise herself with her impressive second place finish ahead of a charging Jenna Ward.
“This is beyond my dreams! I didn’t think I would do this well at Dusi. It really is such a surprise!
“I was just trying to keep my second place and make my family, my friends proud. They’ve been rooting for me the whole way,” the 16 year old beamed.
Although she had Ward breathing down her neck, Peek was able to hold her off throughout the day and kept her slight advantage coming into the finish at Blue Lagoon despite a slight mishap on the treacherous Burma Road portage.
“There is a really steep part at the bottom of Burma Road and you can lose your footing on the lose gravel quite easily.
“I went tumbling down behind my boat but at the end I kind of just shook it off and kept running. I’ve got scratches all over but it was just one of those things,” she added flippantly at the end of the race.
As she had done in Friday’s second stage, Marathon World Champs Under-23 Women’s bronze medalist Ward went flat out from the gun as she looked to close Peek’s slight gap over the final day.
The two fought it out throughout the day and with Ward opting to paddle around instead of tackling the Burma Road portage, the two came across within seconds of each other.
Ward closed the gap on Peek following the Burma Road portage and at the Silver Pipe Line Ward was only seconds in arrears however the plucky Peek managed to hold off the more fancied paddler on the flat water into the finish at Blue Lagoon.
1. Andy Birkett 2:19.35 7:55.35
2. Lance Kime 2:19.18 8:00.46
3. Sbonelo Khwela 2:18.01 8:03.47
4. Thulani Mbanjwa 2:23.39 8:15.02
5. Andrew Houston (U23) 2:24.57 8:31.27
6. Owen Gandar 2:27.57 8:35.26
7. Banesti Nkhoesa (U23) 2:25.32 8:37.27
8. Mhlonishwa Hlongwane (U23) 2:26.54 8:38.51
9. Carl Fischer 2:26.57 8:38.52
10. Jacques Theron 2:30.33 8.42.27
11. Murray Starr (U23) 2:34.59 8:42.28
12. Nqobile Makhanya (U23) 2:27.31 8:49.20
13. Murray Haw (U23) 2:27.31 8:49.21
14. Zonele Nzuza 2:38.57 8:52.10
15. Nhlanhla Cele 2:30.55 8:53.29
16. Alan Houston (U18) 2:31.40 8:53.29
17. Mthobisi Cele (U23) 2:33.55 8:56.28
18. Travis Wilson (U23) 2:34.54 8:57.27
19. Richard Cele 2:30.06 8:57.28
20. Siseko Ntondini (U23) 2:34.14 9:0023
1. Andrew Houston 2:24.57 8:31.27
2. Banesti Nkhoesa 2:25.32 8:37.27
3. Mhlonishwa Hlongwane 2:26.54 8:38.51
4. Murray Starr 2:34.59 8:42.28
5. Nqobile Makhanya 2:27.31 8:49.20
1. Alan Houston 2:31.40 8:53.29
2. Mpilo Zondi 2:29.21 9:00.38
3. Thomas Lovemore 2:46.04 10:16.39
1. Laura O’Donoghue 2:50.46 9:40.21
2. Cana Peek (U18) 2:49.11 10:10.48
3. Jenna Ward (U23) 2:49.09 10:15.02
4. Jordan Peek (U23) 2:52.27 10:21.04
5. Hilary Bruss 2:56.58 10:29.32
6. Jane Swarbreck 2:59.04 10:46.27
7. Natasha Bulbring 2:55.14 10:57.09
8. Christie Mackenzie (U16) 3:13.52 11:28.13
9. Marion Young 3:19.19 11:54.25
10. Jessica Dicks 3:20.44 12:00.07
Under 23 Women
1. Jenna Ward 2:49.09 10:15.02
2. Jordan Peek 2:52.27 10:21.04
Under 18 Girls
1. Cana Peek 2:49.11 10:10.48
Under 16 Girls
1. Christie Mackenzie 3:13.52 11:28.13