THE PADDLER’S PROFILE: KARL STEFANOVIC
For someone who delivers the news, Karl Stefanovic has often found himself in it.
As the face of the Today Show for more than 15 years, he is one of Australia’s most loved personalities.
His larrikin sense of humour has developed a somewhat cult-following with audiences – at times, even overshadowing his award-winning journalist career.
But to ask him about his sporting credentials? Well, even he was surprised.
“I’ve never been accused of being an athlete before,” he quips.
It should come as little surprise.
His list of sporting achievements from his younger years reads like an honour roll.
Queensland schoolboys’ cricket representative, alongside Andrew Symonds, Martin Love and Jimmy Maher.
Far North Queensland representative in soccer.
Far North Queensland representative in waterpolo.
Far North Queensland representative in beach volleyball.
Throw in some tennis and golf accolades as well, for good measure.
But even the most knowledgeable of paddlers may be surprised to learn that Karl Stefanovic is also a medallist on the Australian Ocean Racing Series.
“I had never paddled before, but my father in-law Bobby Yarbrough is a bit of a Mooloolaba legend,” he explains.
“I’ve always been around surf [lifesaving], but I’d never done it.
“We went for a paddle one day with Grant Kenny – Grant is a great mate of mine – and he gave me a couple of lessons in the single but I found it very difficult to balance.
“Grant suggested I go in the double first, so we went right outside the heads and caught a dozen waves.
“The exhilaration, the feeling on the ski, the speed and the power of the ski was just tremendous… it was something I had never felt before.
“Even just being so close to the water, seeing the marine life in the water and the feeling of being connected in the ocean.
“I just had a great appreciation for it.”
So much so, that Stefanovic decided that he wanted to race.
In 2018, the LifeFlight Ocean Paddle was added to the Australian Ocean Racing Series.
An 18-kilometre course on the Sunshine Coast, it attracted a star-studded line-up of paddlers, with Cory Hill claiming a tight victory over Tom Norton and Mackenzie Hynard.
As luck would have it, Stefanovic would actually be in town that weekend anyway.
Although – perhaps unlucky – he was there for his Bucks Party ahead of his marriage to wife Jasmine.
“I had a big night the night before and when Grant and I were paddling out to the turning buoy, I said, ‘Mate, this is a real struggle. How far do we have to go? I don’t think I’m going to make this.’ He laughs.
“He said, ‘Nah there’s only another 16 and a half kilometres.
“But when we turned [with the wind], we really got into a rhythm.
“The timing is everything with Grant. We were able to catch waves, catch small amounts of swell, and we got through it… just.
“It was a great feeling – it’s so beautiful being that bit further out in the ocean.
“And the ski is probably the most exhilarating thing I’ve been in on the water.
“It was the hardest ‘work wise’, but being so close to the water you feel really connected.
“I was so exhausted that night so I didn’t really go out… wait, that’s a lie!”
Stefanovic and Kenny actually finished third in the double ski category, to plenty of fanfare.
One hell of a way to impress his in-laws.
“Pretty much. The funny thing is that he [Bob] fell off in the first 200 metres of the race, and I ended up just seeing him at the pub,” Stefanovic laughs.
“It’s fun. It’s really fun. It’s just a matter of getting a bit fitter and having another go. But I found that it was fantastic.”
His teacher certainly helped that.
He needs no introduction, but it’s worth noting that Grant Kenny is a five-time Molokai Champion – in addition to his Olympic kayaking medal and never-ending ironman titles.
“The one thing I’m able to do is pick up things quickly.
“I was able to copy him from behind… which sounds a bit weird,” Stefanovic laughs.
“But stroke for stroke I could see his technique, and you can’t get a better teacher.
“They’re a proper family. They’re royalty.
“They’re just solid, beautiful people and the way that they promote paddling and surf lifesaving is incredible because it comes from the heart.
“They just love it. It’s part of their blood.”
That enthusiasm is infectious –Stefanovic was bitten by the surfski bug.
His intense work schedule means he hasn’t been able to get on the water as much as he’d have liked, but the motivation sill burns to line up in another race…
But only if he can again have a mate by his side to share the experience with.
“I’m at the point in my life where it’s just too hard at this point,” Stefanovic says of learning to paddle a single ski.
“But I just have to go through the process.
“It’s really bonding in a double, we’ll never forget it.
“When you’re out on the ocean, you don’t think about work, you don’t think about your troubles.
“It’s just you and the ocean… some great banter, throwing shit at your mates as they go past you.
“And then when you finish, you all have a beer having achieved something.”