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Legendary ‘Pope’ dies

The canoeing world on Friday mourned the death of veteran competitor Graeme Pope-Ellis, a 15-times winner of the punishing Dusi Canoe Marathon.

Pope-Ellis, 62, died in an accident on his farm in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday. He was driving his tractor, doing some ploughing, when the tractor rolled over him, according to a statement released by the Dusi organising committee.

Gideon Sam, president of South Africa’s Olympic sports governing body SASCOC, on Friday paid tribute to the man affectionately known as “The Pope”.

“The sports movement mourns the sudden death of Graeme on his farm. He was a legend in his own right and canoeing will be much the poorer without him. All of us who came into contact with him will miss him dearly. He was a great sport and kept sporting groups entertained because he was such an outgoing person. Our heartfelt condolences to his family and the entire canoeing family.”

Sapa reports that between 1972 and 1990 Pope-Ellis, who completed the three-day race 46 times in succession from the age of 17, won a record 15 times and placed second on three occasions. Only a broken boat in 1979 prevented him from finishing among the top two for 19 consecutive years.

Martin Dreyer, who was coached by Pope-Ellis and stayed at his farm near the Uzimdusi River in the early part of his career, is next best with seven wins.

Pope-Ellis’s 15 victories include three in a K1 boat and 12 in a K2 with three different partners – Eric Clarke, Peter Peacock and Tim Cornish.

In an article published on the Mail and Guardian website in January, in which writer Kevin Davie argued that Pope-Ellis is the greatest sportsman produced in South Africa, Dreyer praised his mentor, who took him under his wing when Dreyer was looking for guidance as a young paddler.

ÔÇ£Graeme was everything I ever want to be, as an athlete, a devoted husband to Wendy and father to Lee, and just as a human being,ÔÇØ said Dreyer.ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ÔÇ£When I arrived on the scene in 1998 with serious plans to get into the top 10, no-one really wanted to help because I was a threat. But not Graeme. He took me into his home for months, and showed me everything he knew about the race.

ÔÇ£I couldn’t believe it,ÔÇØ recalls Dreyer. ÔÇ£There I was, a kid reading ÔÇ£Pope’sÔÇØ autobiography in total awe, and he was taking me into his home and teaching me everything me knew.

“I had a deal with Graeme, which sadly I am not going to be able to honour,ÔÇØ added Dreyer. ÔÇ£I promised that I would do the Dusi with him when he was 70. But the Dusi will always be about Graeme Pope-Ellis. For ever. There is no need to try and manufacture any other tribute to him,ÔÇØ Dreyer said.

Ant Stott was another Dusi champion who was shaped by Pope-Ellis from his days as an aspirant Maritzburg College schoolboy. ÔÇ£I’m devastated,ÔÇØ said Stott. ÔÇ£He was one of the greatest role-models in my life. I loved his gentleness and humility.ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ÔÇ£He was a total icon in our lives, and taught us a huge amount,ÔÇØ Stott added.

ÔÇ£He would pick us up from school, take us to the river, show us his ‘lines’ down the rapids and for these kindnesses I will be eternally grateful. It’s going to be hard to imagine races in future without him there. He was just always there, at even the lesser canoe races. He filled a huge space and will leave a massive gap,ÔÇØ Stott said.

Current Olympian and former winner of the Hansa Powerade Dusi junior title Shaun Rubenstein was another who’s life was shaped by Pope-Ellis, ever since he met him as a wide-eyed five year old.ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ ÔÇ£I was the proudest guy in the world when I used to be taken to my judo competitions by the ÔÇ£Dusi KingÔÇØ, recalls Rubenstein.

ÔÇ£It was when I decided to give the Dusi a shot at 15 that he really took me under his wing and taught me so much.ÔÇØÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ÔÇ£Graeme and his wife Wendy were like parents to me,ÔÇØ said Rubenstein.

ÔÇ£They opened their homes and their hearts to me. When I won the world marathon championships, the first person I phoned from France after my parents was Graeme Pope-Ellis. Graeme made me who I am today as a paddler. He taught me the work ethic I follow today, and, even though he wasn’t a sprinter he took such a keen, enthusiastic interest in my career. I can still hear that croak in his voice when I phoned him to tell him that I had qualified for the Olympics,ÔÇØ Rubenstein added

.ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ÔÇ£Graeme taught me to get out of bed with a smile on my face, every day,ÔÇØ says Rubenstein. ÔÇ£He had such passion for life and it rubbed off on everyone around him.ÔÇØ

Tim Cornish won four Dusi titles with Pope-Ellis, and was reeling in shock at the news of his death. ÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿ÔÇ£He was absolutely meticulous in his preparation,ÔÇØ said Cornish.

ÔÇ£I only had to train and paddle with him. Tactics, local knowledge, equipment and preparation was all taken care of. He was amazing.ÔÇØ

Pope-Ellis will always be remembered for his epic Dusi duel with Danny Biggs, and the two classic encounters with young upstart John Edmonds, which are still on record as the closest Dusi finishes in history.

ÔÇ£I’ve known him since I was eight,ÔÇØ said a shattered John Edmonds. ÔÇ£I remember I was allowed a turn with the hard roller when he helped my brothers build their first boat — he had the neighbouring farm,ÔÇØ recalls Edmonds fondly.

ÔÇ£I loved the needle Graeme was always able to bring to our paddling, even until recently ÔÇô he was such a competitor! I loved the secrets he said he knew about the Dusi routes,ÔÇØ added.

ÔÇ£It’s really sad that we have lost him when he was just starting to relax,ÔÇØ added Edmonds. ÔÇ£From having been totally self-made, he was now able to host out-of-province paddlers and share his wealth of canoeing experience.”

Rick Whitton won the Grand Master title in the 2008 Hansa Powerade Dusi with Pope-Ellis in a new record time, and cherishes memories of ÔÇ£The Dusi KingÔÇØ going back to the days that he was learning the kayak trade with Gordon Rowe in Pinetown in the seventies, and Pope-Ellis spent some time in the factory learning the trade.

ÔÇ£He was the kind of guy that you just assumed would live forever,ÔÇØ said Whitton. ÔÇ£He was so positive about everything, whether it was his wife and family, his business, his sport or his friends. In all the years I knew Graeme, I never once saw him fail to make time for a stranger or a youngster and a novice paddler who wanted to chat to him or ask a question,ÔÇØ said Whitton.

ÔÇ£He was a total inspiration to me,ÔÇØ adds Whitton. ÔÇ£When you competed against him he awoke his ability to dig deeper and try harder. You could be really shattered but he inspired you to dig deeper. He was a champion in everything he did, a legend.

ÔÇØÔÇ¿ÔÇ¿Alexa Cole got close to Pope-Ellis when training with Abbey Miedema for their spate of women’s K2 victories. ÔÇ£Graeme’s passing will leave a huge hole in the paddling community,ÔÇØ she said.

Dusi spokesperson Ray de Vries said the organisers of the annual race were “absolutely devastated” by the news. “Graeme was a South African sporting icon, having won the Dusi 15 times and paddled it 46 consecutive times,” said De Vries. “I was with him just last week when he rode the Unlimited Dusi Mfula mountainbike event along the route of the Dusi, and he was telling me how much he was enjoying the ride.”