Dusi paddler aims to be first woman to complete 20 races

2008-01-12 00:00

On Thursday morning 32-year-old Lorna Oliver will ease her body into a K2 canoe, brush aside any speculation about dirty river water and change of starting venue, and take her first paddle towards becoming the first woman to complete 20 consecutive Dusi Canoe Marathons.

The former UKZN Sportswoman of the Year and current Currys Post pig farmer did her first Dusi in 1989 at the age of 13, and this year "come hell or high water, quite literally", she says she will complete her 20th.

This year her partner will be her boyfriend of 14 years, Kevin Strydom, who prods the modest Oliver into talking about her Dusi successes. In the previous 19 events she has won the mixed-doubles event once, come third in the women’s K1 (single-paddler) event once; come third in the women’s K2 (double-paddler) twice; and competed in the batch of leading women numerous times.

She has also finished 14 Fish River Canoe Marathons, and works out that she has competed in at least 400 events since her school days at Carter High. And that, Strydom says, is a conservative estimate.

Since her first Dusi, which she completed with her father, South African canoeing stalwart John Oliver, she has witnessed many changes to the event.

"More sponsors have come on board and prize money has increased, which attracts the bigger names. But it still has the same fun vibe, so the slower paddlers still have a great time. It’s not only a race for the elite athletes."

Oliver says paddler safety has also increased, especially in the last five or six years, and with the high level of supervision and paddler support she feels it is the "best value-for-money race in the country".

"Unfortunately, paddling through the valley has been quite dangerous in previous years, and some people in the area took advantage of women paddling on their own and mugged them. But the organisers have worked hard to get community buy-in, so locals now act as security monitors and helicopters and life-guards are always around if you get into trouble in the water."

Oliver says she has never been seriously injured while competing in the Dusi, although she has had her fair share of bumps and bruises, and broken boats.

"The second time Kevin and I paddled the Dusi together we were 10 km away from the finish on the first day, when our boat literally wrapped around a rock and broke in two. Kevin was a bit of a Hercules though, and picked the boat out of the river, so we walked with it to the finish where we put it together again, and carried on the next day."

When they paddle together, Oliver takes the front spot in the canoe, and "governs the direction", she says, to which he quickly adds "in theory".

"Lorna has so much knowledge about canoeing," Strydom says, "which is so useful because it is actually a very difficult sport to master."

For once, Oliver agrees with Strydom’s praise of her.

"I am really keen to teach people how to canoe properly. I have a lot of knowledge about river paddling, which I would love to pass on to other paddlers. It would make their lives a lot easier, and it would be a waste if I didn’t use it to help others."

By this time next week, Oliver hopes to have collected her 20th Dusi medal, but she doesn’t have any plans to stop there.

"One year we were in Thailand but I made sure we were home in time for the Dusi. I can’t see myself ever not taking part in it. It is just part of my life now."

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