Khwela ready to steal the show and claim K1 Dusi victory

2017-02-15 06:02
PHOTO: Supplied The Dusi K1 title is something I would definitely want to win, it would be my dream and I have worked hard again this year to try and reach my goal.’ — Sbonelo Khwela.

PHOTO: Supplied The Dusi K1 title is something I would definitely want to win, it would be my dream and I have worked hard again this year to try and reach my goal.’ — Sbonelo Khwela.

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SPORT is full of bridesmaids, those who get so close to their pinnacle, yet fail to get their hands on the trophy or title that matters most to them - Holland losing three Soccer World Cup finals, France doing the same in the Rugby World Cup, Bob de la Motte falling to the Fordyce phenomenon in the Comrades and Pat Rafter failing at Wimbledon.

There are many others and closer to home, when it comes to the K1 FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon, Sbonelo Khwela is tired of that bridesmaid tag and wants to steal the show for a change. He has tasted success in the K2 race, partnering Andy Birkett to the winner’s podium in 2013, but it’s that K1 title that burns with the most desire in his heart.

“I come from the valley, I have grown up alongside the river and I know the race so well,” he said.

“The K1 title is something I would definitely want to win, it would be my dream and I have worked hard again this year to try and reach my goal.”

Indeed he has. A fourth consecutive Umpheta Challenge title in October last year signalled early intentions and this was followed by 10th at the Ozzie Gladwin in November. However, a below-par Drak Challenge last weekend, thanks to a poor first day that saw some mistakes and a swim, had Khwela having to dig deep to move through the field from 24th to 12th. Although he did not get a top 10 finish, his fight through the field gave a clear indication of his spirit, something that comes to the fore during the three days of Dusi.

“My best K1 year to date was in 2013 where I lost on the final day. I was going so well, setting a record for day one and still ahead starting the final day,” said Khwela. “I had Lance Kime and Andy on my shoulder, but I knew if I did things properly and had some luck on my side, I could pull off the win.”

Khwela had the support as through the years, he has become one of the favourites on the river among spectators. He had his first top 10 finish in the race in 2009 and steady improvement through the years has seen him a top contender in recent times. He was looking at a top five finish in 2013, but going into the final day from Inanda Dam through to Blue Lagoon, he began to think that just maybe, this was his time.

“It was such a big day for me and all I told myself was to relax. Lance caught me on the way to Burma Road but I broke away and had a two-minute lead according to my seconds,” said Khwela.

“I came to Pumphouse, the last rapid before the final stretch to Durban and I paused for a while, telling myself to relax, I can do it and to take the rapid with confidence. I said a small prayer and the next thing it had all happened, I was out the boat and swimming, my chance of glory and history gone.”

That swim saw Kime and Birkett pass Khwela, Kime going on to win and Khwela settling for third. It was the same position he bagged in the 2015 K1 race when a shoulder injury hampered his preparations, but again, it takes more than that to diminish such class and pedigree on the water.

“Of course I desperately want that first place and I feel strong in what I believe is a big year for me. My running has always been strong and consistent and this time around, I have focussed on my paddling because I know I am up against Andy, Hank McGregor and my friend Banetse Nkhoesa,” said Khwela.

“Banetse is strong and knows all my tricks and secrets as we train together so I will need to watch him and know he will want to hunt me down as well.”

Khwela has come a long way since he first tried paddling more than 10 years ago. He is one of the gentlemen of the river, of the paddling world, always relaxed, always humble and taking whatever comes his way with a huge, friendly smile.

He understands the ups and downs, the good and bad luck of river paddling and while it may hurt deep down, his demeanour of always recognising his mistakes, giving credit to those who beat him and never admitting defeat, make him one of the most likeable and approachable sportsmen in the province.

What he doesn’t know is how it feels to win a K1 Dusi.

Perhaps, in a little over two weeks, he will finally put that ghost to rest and deliver a winner’s smile broader than the mouth of the Umgeni River at Blue Lagoon.

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