HOW SURFSKI HAS SHAPED AUSTRALIA’S PROLONGED OLYMPIC SUCCESS
For a fleeting moment, it looked like Australia’s Olympic fairytale was slipping away.
In a field stacked with experienced K2 1000-metres crews, Gold Coast surf lifesaver Tom Green and his partner Jean van der Westhuyzen were a revelation.
They set an Olympic Best time in their opening heat, and now in the final – being watched by millions of people around the world – they had led from the outset.
But then Germany surged.
Jacob Schopf and the legendary Max Hoff were the overwhelming favourites to claim the title, and pushing their way into the lead, it looked like they soon would be.
Yet somehow, from somewhere, Green and van der Westhuyzen found the strength to kick again.
The race of their lives.
“I didn’t want to claim it until I saw our names on the top of the screen.” Green said. “It hasn’t sunk in properly. I was just trying to focus.
“I knew if we held our nerve it would pay off. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. I love it.”
Finishing three tenths of a seconds clear, they are now Olympic Champions.
And for Green, he joins a long, proud line of Australian paddlers to convert his surfski success into kayaking glory.
He finds himself is esteemed company.
19 Australian surf paddlers have now transferred their ability into a canoe sprint Olympic medal.
Beginning with Maroubra surf lifesavers Dennis Green and Wally Brown in 1956, the list reads like a Hall of Fame.
Ironman legend Grant Kenny claimed a bronze medal with his K2 1000 partner Barry Kelly in 1984, while Murray Stewart, Tate Smith and Lachlan Tame all won Australian Surf Life Saving single ski titles before picking up medals at the Games.
Of course, there is one paddler who switched with more success than anyone else.
Clint Robinson’s gold medal in the K1 1000 at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, at the age of 20, is the stuff of folklore.
A five-time Olympian who finished his career with a full-set of medals, Robinson also has no less than 36 surf life saving national titles.
He’s better placed than anyone to explain the value that a background in surf brings to kayaking, but speaking to The Paddler, Robinson instead defers to the opinion of Josef Capousek, who he labels as the “most successful coach of all time.”
“He led Germany through the most successful era of any nation.” Robinson explains. “He used to bring his team out here and I used to set up all of his camps on the Sunshine Coast.”
“He would have me organise two or three ocean sessions each week and he would use them as resistance sessions.”
“He’d say, ‘Clint you have the best breeding ground in the world with surf lifesaving and ski paddling.’”
Capousek and Robinson both point towards the strength development that surf paddling engrains, often unnoticed.
“You have a lot of resistance against you at a lot of times… paddling into chop and pushing through waves, going for long paddles out to sea and chasing the runners back in.” Robinson says.
“All of that additional weighted stress is a very good strength development exercise.
“But [Capousek] said without the right education on technique, it could be a real detriment.”
It’s a balancing act that Robinson juggled throughout his career.
“I didn’t do a lot of surf training when I was in Olympic years,” he says.
“As I got older I knew it made your stroke rougher and it’s also more taxing on your body – and you’re already at a very high tax level when you’re kayaking full-time.
“The initial stages of surf life saving and ocean paddling build a great breeding ground if kids are educated technically to paddle properly and you can really develop a lot of strength and basic balance skills.”
“But if the education isn’t the right stuff, it can be detrimental to the strength the athlete is building.”
The other influence that Robinson highlights is the regular high-quality competition that surf lifesaving and ocean racing offer.
“I think it’s a genuine life saver for the sport of canoeing in Australia, because there’s just no events.” He says.
“The reality of lifesaving is that it gives these guys a chance to race and have a level of enjoyment, fun and mateship… that’s what keeps people attached to paddling.”
“Now with ocean racing, even though we’re not in clubs, social media keeps everyone connected and interested and motivated to do stuff.
“You can go to different areas and jump into the same ski you have at home because it’s adjustable and just go and paddle.
“The ease of paddling today with the quality of craft we’ve got is helping people a lot, but also the ability to race regularly in ocean ski and surf lifesaving events literally saves canoeing’s arse.”
19 Olympic medalists from the surfski community reads as an incredible conversion rate.
And it’s one Paddle Australia, the country’s kayaking organisation, wants to maintain.
Its ‘Surf to Kayak’ talent identification program scouts athletes aged between 15 and 20 years, but for surf lifesaving’s grassroots, it doesn’t spread far enough.
One coach at a powerhouse club told The Paddler that he’s contacted Paddle Australia several times with inquiries around education, only to receive no response.
Robinson slammed the system, saying he doesn’t “believe it works at all.”
“Has it produced a growth in the sport? Absolutely not.” He says. “You can see that by the numbers that enter state and national championships.
“The sport is at an all-time low in interest in this country… it’s a disgrace.”
“That’s not just me, but there is quite a large number of successful paddlers from both surf and kayaking, 15 to 20 paddlers, who are saying the same thing.”
There’s a dream held by some within ocean racing that future athletes won’t have to switch to kayaking in order to become Olympians.
Surfski paddling is growing in popularity across the world, and since 2013 it’s fallen under the jurisdiction of the International Canoe Federation.
It’s a topic that triggers plenty of debate across the paddling community, but Robinson’s thoughts are far more succinct.
“No, it’s never going to be an Olympic sport because nowhere near enough countries do it.”
“But you know what, if you have a political person who is willing to do 15 to 20 years of work like we saw in canoe slalom then you could get it in.
“The simple reality is canoeing won’t get any more numbers at the Olympics and personally I don’t want to see the purest form of paddling, the most pure form of paddling in the world in sprint canoeing, damaged further.”
His concern extends to surfski racing as well.
Robinson warns becoming an Olympic sport would attract vested interests that would “not present ocean racing in the best possible light.”
Instead, he believes the sport can shape its own successful, independent future.
“I honestly believe ocean ski racing has a fantastic opportunity to keep growing because of the interest that the wider public has to do fun fitness type activities.”