Cradock - In what were both exciting finishes, Andy Birkett and Bridgitte Hartley bagged their maiden K1 Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon titles, and with it the South African K1 River Marathon Championship crowns, at the Cradock Sports Grounds on Saturday.
Both races were far from sewn up with Hartley going into the second day with a two and a half minute lead while Birkett had to overturn a one second deficit over the 36km that make up the second stage of the Hansa Fish.
Euro Steel's Birkett and team mate Hank McGregor went toe-to-toe throughout the entire 84km and there was a feeling that the race was going to come down to an end sprint again, like it did two years ago. This time it was Birkett who ended on the right side of the result.
"I am super stoked for sure but it shows that there is very little between myself and Hank," Birkett said.
"He probably came past me three times in the last two kilometres and I did the same. Luckily for me that when I went past him it was closer to the finish line
"It was awesome racing and I have huge respect for Hank. He is a phenomenal athlete and we have had some great tussles.
"It has been a long season for me but it has been great."
The two could not be separated throughout the race and Birkett knew that there was a strong possibility that the race would end in a sprint to the line.
"I thought that if neither of us made any mistakes then there would definitely be an end sprint, mainly because there has been nothing between us throughout the race. I knew there would be a lot of pressure coming into Cradock," he added.
In one of the surprise results of the day, Spanish ace Kiko Vega had a barnstorming paddle on Saturday to finish in third place overall.
Clinton Cook relinquished his third place overall and slipped into fifth while Brandon van der Walt finished in fourth.
Hartley's first major river triumph has come at the end of a strong season for the three-time Olympian and to have a Fish title to her name is the realisation of a career-long dream
"I can finally tick this off the bucket list," an elated Hartley said.
"I think that I have wanted to win this race ever since I put my foot in a canoe
"It's just incredible to be able to come away with a win – especially in a single."
To have a title as prestigious as a Fish title to her name, Hartley believes that it has been the culmination of a lot of hard work.
"I threw myself into a Dusi after paddling flat-water for years, and that was so challenging.
"The K2 Dusi was also tough but a little bit easier and then slowly but surely I did more and it always seemed that I would end second.
"So to finally take a win feels incredible."
Seven-time winner of the Fish Hank McGregor had to settle for second place after an exciting end sprint, however he loved every minute of the tussle.
"It was a fantastic two days of racing and it was a win for both us to be out there fighting it out," Euro Steel/Fenn Kayaks' McGregor said.
"I managed to catch Andy slightly unawares after the Cradock Weir but then coming into the finish he got the jump on me and he deserves the win.
"It was a great race and I was honoured to paddle with him."
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
1. Andy Birkett 5:00:52
2. Hank McGregor 5:00:53
3. Kiko Vega (ESP) 5:07:36
4. Brandon van der Walt 5:08:36
5. Clinton Cook 5:09:04
6. Siseko Ntondini 5:10:33
7. Stewart Little (U23) 5:11:27
8. Alan Houston (U23) 5:11:32
9. Joshua Fenn (U23) 5:13:42
10. Alex Masina (U23) 5:15:58
1. Bridgitte Hartley 5:40:12
2. Jenna Ward 5:42:06
3. Christie Mackenzie (U23) 5:44:58
4. Robyn Owen 5:45:555.Nikki Birkett 2:23:27 5:54:57
6. Amy Peckett (U18) 5:58:05
7. Melanie van Niekerk 6:05:53
8. Caitlin Mackenzie (U18) 6:09:19
9.Kim van Gysen 6:14:34
10. Donna Winter 6:16:35