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Hartley leads the hunt

Arguably our strongest yet South African marathon kayaking team will do battle at the Flatwater Marathon World Championship in Portugal this weekend.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) event gets underway Friday in the small Portuguese town of Crestuma in Porto’s Vila Nova de Gaia.

Team SA are ready to launch its assault on the championships, starting on Friday. The team is studded with past senior and junior world champions, and will pose a massive threat to the traditionally strong European marathon paddlers.

Spearheading the team is ace sprint kayaker Shaun Rubenstein, who won the 2006 K1 World Marathon title ahead of Spanish legend Manuel Busto Fernandes. Due to his sprint commitments, Rubenstein has not been back to the Marathon Worlds since, so there will be lots of attention on the Gauteng speedster, who was also diagnosed as having bilharzia in the build-up to the World Sprint Championships in Canada recently.

Joining him in the K1 race is 1999 Junior World Champion Len Jenkins. Both paddlers have had a full season of sprint paddling, culminating in last month’s Sprint World Championships, so it remains to be seen how they will fare over the longer distance. Considering the fact that both their careers started on the longer South African river races, the required stamina and tactics should not be a problem.

Defending K2 World Champion Ant Stott will compete in the K2 event with new partner Rubenstein. Stott knows the Crestuma course well as he won a K1 World Cup marathon event at the venue last year. The other senior men’s K2 comprises 2003 K1 World Marathon Champion Hank McGregor and 2007 Junior World Champion Grant van der Walt, who is still only 19 years old. Both combinations have been training hard over the past few months, and on their day either one can walk away with the gold medal.

The South African team’s strength extends to the women, where golden girl Bridgitte Hartley will be taking part in her first Marathon World Champs. Hartley was recently crowned the African Women Paddler of the Year, and finished the international sprint season as the third ranked female in the world. Although marathon paddling is slightly more foreign to her, she has tasted success before having won the national title at her first attempt in June.

Alongside her in the K1 race is the premier international women’s surfski paddler Michele Eray. Eray is a former Olympian, but since Beijing has decided to concentrate on open ocean racing, where she has subsequently won every race she has entered. The two will team up for the women’s K2 race, where Eray’s experience, having won bronze in the 2007 World Champs, will prove invaluable in their quest for a medal. Fellow Olympians Carol Joyce and Jen Hodson are the other K2 women’s competitors, and since both ladies have taken a break from serious sprint competition, will be rested and ready.

The standardized ICF marathon course will be used, meaning 4.3 kilometre laps including a 150m portage on each lap. Senior men race seven laps for a total of 30km, while the senior women race six laps or 26km. The course is set out on the Duero River, 15km inland from the river mouth, on what has been widely recognised as a tricky section.

ÔÇ£The wind, waves and current on the course make it very difficult to find a good rhythm, so it feels like you are continuously working very hard on the water,ÔÇØ said Ant Stott earlier this week. ÔÇ£The portage is a tough one, the take-out jetty is very short and there is not much space for too many boats to get out at the same time, a guaranteed bun fight on race day! You then run up a steep ramp, along soft beach sand and down to a beach put-in where it gets deep very quickly, making it quite difficult to climb into a K2.ÔÇØ

South Africa’s junior strength will also be on show in the form of K1 competitors Brandon van der Walt and Murray Burgess amongst the boys, and Kerry Segal in the girls race. Burgess and van der Walt will team up for the Junior K2, next to another powerful combination in Martin van den Bergh and Stu MacLaren. In the Junior Girls K2, Kerry Malan and Jenna Ward will fly the SA flag along with Lindsay Davis and Jenna Starr. Pierre-Andre Rabie and Grant van der Walt will compete in the Men’s K1 U23 event, while Radoslaw Olszewski will be the only South African C1 competitor.

There is also a popular Masters World Cup event for paddlers over the age of 35 running alongside the World Championships, where South Africans have dominated the racing in the past. With some tough competitors including 70-year-old Herve de Rauville, the oldies will be aiming to cement their reputation as some of the strongest in the world. The Masters World Cup started on Wednesday and finishes on Thursday.

The Senior K1 events take place on Saturday, with the Senior K2 races on Sunday. The Junior and Under-23 races are on Friday and Junior K2’s on Saturday.