This story featured in the Put-In section of the March 2012 issue.

Photo: Anthony Grote

By Joe Glickman

Five hundred meters into October’s ICF World Marathon Championships, a 21-mile showdown of the planet’s fastest kayakers in Singapore, Hank McGregor took up the pull. Savvy racers know better. But instead of riding in the wash to save strength for the sprint finish, McGregor paddled right off the front, splintering the lead pack. To the 33-year-old South African, it felt almost too easy. ‘Holy shit!’ he thought. ‘I’m flying and I’m not even hurting.’

Even at the first portage, not 20 minutes into the race, McGregor surged again. As the first paddler out of his boat, he ran past the raucous crowd, and, back in his boat, accelerated. The pack, including 10-time champ Manuel Busto of Spain and defending champion Ben Brown of Great Britain, couldn’t keep pace.

Over the next hour, the gap grew. It was decision time: Push on alone and risk a meltdown, or ride with the mob and settle the feud in the sprint. The South African fans, shouting themselves hoarse as McGregor cruised toward what appeared to be a commanding victory, watched in disbelief as he set his paddle in his lap, and waited.
“I could hear my dad cursing me,” he says later, chuckling.

Dad is Lee McGregor, a former world-class swimmer whose Olympic dreams were thwarted because South African athletes were banned from international sport due to their government’s policy of apartheid. He channeled his frustration, making himself into an accomplished ocean ironman, surfski racer and river paddler. When Hank sought to follow in his considerable footsteps, Lee became his coach, instilling his competitive drive in his son.
Lee’s credo was simple: “First is first, second is nothing.” At 17, Hank sailed with his parents from Cape Town to Florida. Each day for 45 days, Hank lifted his 18-foot surfski over the rail and raced his contentious old man, a professional yachtsman, who worked the tiller as if he was vying for the America’s Cup.

In 1996, at 18, the younger McGregor dominated the Junior World Marathon Championship. When he called his father from Sweden to report the news, Lee broke down in tears. Fifteen years later, Hank McGregor has won more races in more disciplines than any paddler in South Africa, ever.

This past year has been special, even by his lofty standards. He won every national paddling championship on offer, taking the K-1 and K-2 titles in surfski and downriver and flatwater kayaks. It is a singular achievement, not only because his competitors were peaking for one event and McGregor for many, but because the disciplines are so different. South Africa’s multi-day river races include flatwater, long portages and Class IV whitewater in needle-thin Olympic-style kayaks. Open-ocean surfski races demand an entirely different set of skills that few river paddlers master.

In Singapore, as McGregor waited for the pack, he thought of those countless brutal training sessions where his father pushed him past exhaustion, all the races that had helped him reach this point. Yes, he’d shattered the pack as he had so often been instructed. But now it was time to wait.
For the next hour, he played a tense, tactical game.

As the nine-man pack approached the final portage, McGregor again surged. A former cross-country runner, he was back in his boat first. Only three paddlers remained. With the end in sight, he took a bold line beneath a narrow stone bridge.

With 200 meters to go, only one paddler, a Czech, still threatened.

He started counting down strokes. With 25 to go, a smile spread across his face. At the 2003 World Championships, McGregor had defeated 10-time World Marathon Champion Manuel Busto only because the Spaniard had been disqualified—on his home turf—for three infractions. Here, crossing alone in first, he’d left Busto and a decorated list of former world champions behind.

Struggling to describe the feeling of standing on the podium as his national anthem played, he called it “Unreal,” adding, “No, it was ecstasy.”

Photo: Anthony Grote