Shaoxing - The shock withdrawal of 12-time world champion Hank McGregor on the eve of the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Shaoxing in Eastern China has forced the national selectors to rejig the senior men’s teams for the global showdown that starts on Thursday.
McGregor reluctantly stepped down after failing to shake off a serious virus problem in time to take his place in the line-up for both the senior men’s K1 and K2 world title challenges, after trying to keep the illness secret in the hopes that it would improve enough for him to be able to compete.
After medical advice on Wednesday underscored that it was not possible to race, the 41-year-old icon stepped down, leaving the national selectors the job to plug the gap in the senior men’s K1 team alongside reigning world champ Andy Birkett, who was also due to defend the K2 world title he won with McGregor in Portugal last year.
The call went out to Capetonian Nick Notten, who stunned the SA Championships earlier in the year by pushing McGregor and Birkett hard to the finish line in a thrilling three-way K1 duel, and against all odds he had the necessary travel documents to be able to board the next flight to China to arrive in time to race the Men’s K1 race on Saturday afternoon.
While they have never paddled together, Birkett was happy to take Notten on as his K2 partner on Sunday, having been thoroughly impressed by his gutsy tenacity at the national trials.
Clint Cook, who was with the team in China to support his girlfriend Christie Mackenzie, will now race in McGregor’s place in the new short course race on Thursday.
The withdrawal of McGregor will shake the event as a whole, but it may well galvanise the South African team, buoyed by the 15 medal haul from the veteran and masters paddlers in the opening two days of competition.
The world championships begins with the junior K1 races on Thursday, along with the recently introduced and spectator-friendly short races.
In the Under-18 K1 races South Africa will be represented by Hamish Mackenzie and Uli Hart in the men’s division and Amy Peckett and Under-16 ace Georgina Howard in the women’s race.
Hart and Peckett will return for a second crack at the junior K1 race while former K2 specialist and two-time World Championship medal winner Mackenzie takes on the K1 race for the first time along with debutant Howard.
In the Under-23 K1 races, Hamish Lovemore will make his first appearance in a single at a marathon world championships. He debuted in 2017 in Pietermaritzburg in the K2 race and had rudder issues that prevented him and partner Calum Davis from fighting it out for a medal.
He will be joined by former junior K1 medallist Alex Masina, who won bronze in Pietermaritzburg two years ago and will be hoping to continue that trend going into the Under-23 K1 race on Friday.
There will be big expectations on the women’s Under-23 K1 boats. Both are previous medal winners and had a ding-dong battle at the national championships at Cradle Moon Lake earlier in the year.
Kyeta Purchase and Christie Mackenzie are both former junior K1 bronze medallists and with a few years’ worth of experience under their belts they both could well be in the medal mix come the closing stages of their race.
Sprint queen Bridgitte Hartley made the transition to marathon paddling and has been a consistent performer nationally, and will be looking to assert herself on the international stage. She becomes the first South African paddler to represent her country at sprint, marathon and surfski world championships level in the same calendar year.
She will be tackling the senior women’s K1 race this year and will be hoping to improve on her consecutive twelfth position finishes in the last two editions of the marathon world championships.
Jenna Ward will also be in action in the senior women’s K1 race has a strong pedigree in singles racing. She has an Under-23 bronze medal to her name and finished seventh in Portugal last year.
Birkett and his new partner Notten will take to the water for the senior men’s K2 title decider with team-mates Alex Masina and Louis Hattingh, who made a statement at the national championships by pushing Birkett and McGregor right to the line during the event that doubled as the trials for national team to China.
In the senior women’s division, Jenna Ward and Kyeta Purchase have reignited their partnership for the 2019 World Championships. It is a partnership that produced a silver medal in the senior women’s K2 race back in 2016 and with more experience under their belts they will be looking to repeat that, if not improve on it.
Bridgitte Hartley and Christie Mackenzie are the other senior women’s K2 boat and will be equally determined to push for a podium spot. They have paddled river marathons together and won the 2019 SA Marathon Championships ahead of Ward and Purchase so they have the pedigree to compete.
In the junior men’s K2 showdown there is much excitement around the crew of Hamish Mackenzie and David Evans, who will be hoping to add a gold medal to their two world championship medals that they have won in the past two editions of the event.
The pair have been a potent force in junior K2 racing for some time and the time is ripe for them to add a gold to their silver and bronze medals they have won.
The other K2 pair will be a duo of world champs debutants in Gustav Smook Junior and Bartho Visser. They will be hoping that they can put in a strong showing in their first outing to the international showpiece.
Amy Peckett and Nosipho Mthembu will be one of the junior women K2 crews on show in Shaoxing. The pair beat the under 16 duo of Georgina Howard and Melonie Croeser at the national championships and both pairs will be hoping to put in strong performances this week.
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2019 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships schedule (all times SA):
Thursday, October 17
02:30 - Junior Women K1
04:45 - Senior Women K1 Short Course: Heat One
05:10 - Senior Women K1 Short Course: Heat Two
05:35 - Senior Men K1 Short Course: Heat One
05:50 - Senior Men K1 Short Course: Heat Two
06:45 - Junior Men K1
10:15 - Senior Women Short Course: Final
10:40 - Senior Men Short Course: Final
Friday, October 18
02:30 - Junior K2 Women
04:30 - U23 K1 Women
06:45 - Junior K2 men
08:45 - U23 K1 Men
Saturday, October 19
06:30 - K1 Women
09:00 - K1 Men
Sunday, October 20
05:15 - K2 Women
08:15 - K2 Men