‘Big Five’ to scrap for 60th title

2011-02-17 00:00

DESPITE being pushed slightly back in the calendar, the 60th Unlimited Dusi Canoe Marathon will have still set many a pulse racing come the early hours of this morning.

The race has been dubbed ‘In memory of the Pope’, to honour the late, infinitely great Graeme Pope-Ellis who passed away last year.

It is the most open Dusi marathon in years, and anyone of the so-called “Big Five” could emerge victorious when the dust settles on this epic race come Saturday morning in Durban.

Ant Stott, the defending K1 champion, will head a stellar cast of former Dusi champions — such as people’s favourite Michael Mbanjwa, the tenacious Len Jenkins, rising star Andrew Birkett and the experienced Hank McGregor — when the gun goes off for the 60th edition of this classic at 6 am this morning.

Backed by an enthusiastic new sponsor, The Unlimited, the race is in rude health.

There has been a marked increase of entrants this year, with 1 740 boats set to start the trek today.

The shifting of dates to February has also allowed some of the bigger names slightly more time to prepare, and a much slimmer Stott revealed that he had changed his approach somewhat.

“I’ve now got a job, so I have had to be a lot more selective in the training I do,” said the reigning champion.

“I have had to cut down on the gym work because I haven’t had the time really, but I have done a lot more running, so that is stronger now,” he added.

Stott usually comes into his own on the second day of the Dusi, and he expects the first day to be dominated by the likes of Mbanjwa and the rapidly improving Birkett.

Mbanjwa, notoriously shy of the media glare, popped in and out of the media briefing as quickly as he portages, and the rest of the field will hope to keep him in their sights during today’s opening tussles.

“‘Banji’ is so strong on the first day, but I also think we will get a strong showing from someone like Hank,” Stott warned.

He also refused to look past Birkett, who has reportedly got even better after last year’s thrilling K2 triumph alongside Jason Graham.

“He has got bigger and stronger, and he has also got a bit taller,”Graham said of his partner in crime, after they “stole” last year’s doubles race from the favoured star duo of Stott and Mbanjwa.

“I really think Andrew will surprise a lot of people this year, and I fancy him to win it,” Graham said without a hint of understatement.

The hunger to win that oozes between the duo was evident last year, and Graham expects Birkett to build on that success. “I think Andrew can become the next Dusi legend, like a Martin Dreyer,” he enthused.

Away from the “Big Five”, there lies a stealthy young challenger who will be doing his utmost to upset the apple-cart.

Eric Zondi has made incredible strides under the tutelage of Dreyer’s academy in the valley, and his inexhaustible running powers make him a significant dark horse.

By contrast, the women’s race looks to be a straight shoot-out between Robyn Kime and Abbey Adie.

In the absence of perennial winner Abby Miedema (now expecting a baby with her husband in Canada), the two youngsters will be looking to eliminate the errors — and stay away from the dreaded hyacinth.

Kime, a winner in the K2 last year, admitted that it was largely a tow-horse race.

“I think it is fair to say that, but you can never take things for granted. One of us could break a boat on the first rapid. Anything can happen on the river.”

Adie, meanwhile, had steeled herself for plenty of running, and she hopes this will come in handy.

“I did a lot more running in the build-up, and hopefully that can come in handy — especially on the first day,” she said.

For many reasons, all eyes will be on the proverbial rumble in the Dusi jungle.

The elephant charge on day one is expected to come from Mbanjwa and the tank-like rhinoceros that is McGregor. But it would be folly to overlook the notorious powers of the buffalo-bull that is Jenkins.

Many expect a leopard-like stealth from young Birkett, while little, tenacious Zondi stands out as a naughty hyena just waiting for a gap.

Of course, the king of the Dusi jungle, Stott, will be hoping to fight off the predators to secure a third straight singles title.

It promises to be roaring good fun.

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