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‘Feared’ SA for Banyoles

By Mark Etheridge

A team of 64 paddlers will do duty for South Africa at the World Canoe Marathon championships in Banyoles, Spain from 22-26 September.

The team is smaller than the more than 90-strong squad that did duty at the last championships in Porto, Portugal last year.

The marathon category is the only non-Olympic section of canoeing but team manager Steve Jourdan is confident that will change in future. Banyoles was the venue for the 1996 Olympics in Spain.

“There have been a number of changes made to to the format in order for it to be accepted as an Olympic sport and hopefully by 2020,” said Jourdan on Thursday.

“In previous years you could have guys paddling out 19km in on direction, then getting out for a portage and paddling straight back. Now what happens is that our senior men, for instance, will do seven laps of 4.3km with a portage between each lap. It’s become an incredible exciting event, so much better for the spectators etc, and this has all been changed by the ICF in order for it to become an Olympic event.”

Currently only the sprint and slalom (white-water) events are an Olympic discipline.

Meanwhile SA have made great strides up the marathon world rankings and are now a genuine world force. “In the last eight years we’ve increased our world ranking from 20th to three,” says Gauteng based Jourdan. “Spain are tops and Hungary second which makes us the strongest marathon side outside Europe. There is no doubting that we are a most feared team.”

Last year South Africa returned from Porto with a 14-medal haul and Jourdan, an eight-time manager of the marathon team, reckons it should be much of the same. “I’d say we are definitely capable of equalling last year or maybe even better.”

Two of our paddlers defending their world titles will be brothers Brendon and Grant van der Walt. As a 16-year-old Brendon won gold in the Under-18 category. He’ll have to overcome something of a hoodoo in this regard — no Under-18 has ever defended his world title.

Older brother Grant won the Under-23 K1 category last year. The ICF brought in the Under-23 division in a bid to keep the sport flourishing. “The problem is that canoeists normally reach their potential at around 22-23┬á but the youngsters would do well as juniors but then we’d lose them to the sport. This division keeps them around for longer,” explains Jourdan.

He sees most of the medallists coming from the men’s divisions. “In 2008 Ant Stott and Shaun Rubenstein won the K2 division. Rubenstein now concentrates on sprints so Ant will be paddling with former Berg River Marathon winner Graeme Solomon.

The World Championships will incorporate the World Masters championships and it’s in the men’s divisions that Jourdan sees the most medals coming from. “Hank McGregor won gold the last time the championships were held in Spain, back in 2003 and he’s got as good a chance as anyone.

“Our women don’t have the same depth as in the men. When you take away the top six or so that are concentrating on sprint events now it’s only natural that that’s the case. But still in Kerry Seagal and Melanie van Niekerk we definitely have prospects and then look at Jenna Ward, who at 18 is at her third world marathon championships already.”

Jourdan will be in charge of a diverse group of paddlers. “They range from age 15 to 70 so the group dymanics are absolutely amazing… really something to experience.”