An emotional Hank McGregor paid homage to both the home crowd and his support at home after he led compatriot Andy Birkett to a South African one-two in the men’s K1 event at the ICF Canoe World Marathon Championships at Camps Drift on Saturday.
This is McGregor’s ninth World Championship gold medal, his seventh in a K1 and his fifth K1 win in five years to cement his position as at least the top marathon canoeist of his generation and possibly of all time.
“My dad once said to me I would realise what it is like to race in front of your son and today I got that feeling,” said McGregor with tears in his eyes.
“My dad (Lee) is watching me on live streaming. He is somewhere in the middle of the hurricane, so thanks to dad for everything you have done for me and thanks to my family, my son and wife.
“This one is for my boy (Thorsten) – I am so glad he was watching me today.
“And a big thanks to the crowd, especially the guys on the opposite side of the bank. You kept us going. It is such a privilege and an honour to race for my country in my home town and be able to win in front of my home crowd. This was something incredible.”
The result is a repeat of the 2016 World Championships in Germany, when McGregor also led Birkett over the line.
After close to 30km of racing, the wily McGregor worked himself into pole position at the front of a four-man group for the final 500m dash to the finish line and then had the speed to keep his compatriot back on the wave as they battled it out on the final sprint for gold.
After two desperate attacks, and with less than 100m to go, Birkett realized he was not going over McGregor’s bow wave and settled back to come home just over half a boat length back and just ahead of the fast-finishing Hungarian Adrián Boros. Portugal’s José Ramalho faded over the final 150m to just miss out on a medal.
The four leaders broke away from a big group of ten paddlers on the final turn before the first portage and from there simply worked together to maintain a gap on the chasing bunch.
The quartet stayed together with a few half-hearted attempts at domination until the paddle up to the final turn which saw a series of big attacks, but nobody could get a decisive break. McGregor was able to position himself to come off the final turn in the front and then hold that until Birkett launched his final sprint from far out, but could not get his nose over the wave and had to settle for second.
Andy Birkett was full of praise for the man he beat at South African Champs recently.
“Thank goodness we had four boats so we could a little bit of rest sometimes, but congratulations to Hank, he was superb today and he deserved to win – I gave it my all.”
The South African one-two pushed South Africa to second on the medal table with one gold, three silver and two bronze. Hungary top the table after three days of action with 16 medals, including eight golds.
Earlier, Lani Belcher unleashed an powerful final sprint 150m from the finish line to win going away from Hungarian Vanda Kiszli. Ireland’s Jennifer Egan was left trailing in third after being dropped on the final portage one kilometre from the finish.
There may be some dispute about the nationality of Belcher after she has won world marathon titles for both Australia and now a second one for Great Britain, but there was no doubt who was the top women’s K1 paddler in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.
Belcher, who was born in Victoria and raised in Queensland, Australia, unleashed a devastating final sprint to claim the title in an event where she looked dominant throughout.
Belcher, Kiszli and Egan were all that was left of a lead group of seven that was only reduced to four on the sixth lap (out of seven plus a half lap), and then became three a lap later when the legendary 27-time medal winner Renáta Csay from Hungary could not hold the group and eventually faded back to sixth.
With just the colour of medals to be decided, Belcher powered away from the final portage and looked to have made the decisive gold-medal-winning break. Kiszli, who last year won medals in both the women’s and the U23 races, had other ideas and fought back, only to become a spectator over the final 150m as Belcher unleashed her potent sprint for the line.
This is Belcher’s third World Marathon Championship medal and completes her collection after she won silver for Australia in 2008 and bronze a year later for Britain.
Liudmyla Babak from the Ukraine won the first medal on Saturday when she paddled away from the rest of the opposition and cruised to an easy four-minute win in the women’s C1 race. Zsanett Lakatos from Hungary and Czech Jana Ježová claimed the silver and bronze medals.
In the men’s C1 event Márton Kövér collected Hungary’s eighth gold and 15th medal overall when he cruised to an emphatic victory over the Spanish duo of Manuel Garrido and Manuel Antonio Campos.
The three moved clear on the second lap and then first Campos and then Garrido could not hold the pace on laps four and five to leave Kövér to build his lead over the final two and a half laps.
SUMMARY OF RESULTS – ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships Day Three
1 Liudmyla Babak (UKR) 1:47:56
2 Zsanett Lakatos (HUN) 1:51:16
3 Jana Ježová (CZE) 1:56:25
4 Madeline Mitchell (CAN) 2:01:01
5 Maja Szajdek (POL) 2:02:10
1 Lani Belcher (GBR) 2:05:04
2 Vanda Kiszli (HUN) 2:05:10
3 Jennifer Egan (IRL) 2:05:39
4 Eva Barrios (ESP) 2:06:27
5 Anna Koziscova (CZE) 2:06:31
12 Bridgitte Hartley (RSA) 2:10:25
16 Melanie van Niekerk (RSA) 2:13:04
1 Márton Kövér (HUN) 2:09:57
2 Manuel Garrido (ESP) 2:12:39
3 Manuel Antonio Campos (ESP) 2:15:21
4 Nuno Barros (POR) 2:16:32
5 Ádám Dóczé (HUN) 2:16:38
1 Hank McGregor (RSA) 2:09:34
2 Andrew Birkett (RSA) 2:09:35
3 Adrián Boros (HUN) 2:09:35
4 José Ramalho (POR) 2:09:37
5 Emilio Llamelo (ESP) 2:10:30
9:00am K2 Women 26km
9:05am C2 Men 23km
12:00noon K2 Men 30km