THE SACRIFICE BEHIND HANK McGREGOR’S WORLD TITLES ASSAULT
It was the dose of perspective that Hank McGregor didn’t know he needed.
The 45 year-old had just qualified for both South Africa’s Canoe Marathon and Ocean Racing teams, after another successful weekend at the trials back in June.
An 11-time marathon World Champion, 2023 would be his 29th year in a row on the national team.
But after four-straight days of racing, the only athlete to do so, he was feeling worse-for-wear.
“I was speaking to my wife Pippa about it, and she just said, ‘What is your goal this year?’” McGregor recounts.
“It’s definitely not marathon anymore because I feel like I’ve ticked that box. With 11 World Titles in my pocket, there’s nothing firing me up to go and win a 12th.
“Then she asked, ‘If you could only win one more race in your life, what would it be?’ I said, ‘It has to be the World Surfski Champs.’
So she said, ‘Just go for it.’
“Sometimes you need someone super close to you that you can trust to give you that push.”
“Last year in Portugal, racing Canoe Marathon Worlds on the Sunday, a 30 kilometre flat-out grind, then lining up three days later against a whole new group of fresh paddlers at Surfski Worlds, I felt like I was the only one who had completely emptied my battery and was then trying to recharge it before the race.
“I just didn’t want to do that again. This year, I decided to make that mature decision that acknowledges you can’t do everything in life anymore. Time is precious, with family and yourself.”
“Whether or not it works, we’ll have to wait and see. But at least i’m trying to put my best foot forward and be the best I can be on the day.”
It’s an honest, but harsh assessment of his performance at the 2022 Ocean Racing World Championships, where McGregor finished second to countryman Kenny Rice by just 12 seconds.
But that margin has made him realise just how much he wants to claim gold.
One of the sport’s greatest-ever paddlers, the Ocean Racing World Championships is one race McGregor hasn’t claimed.
“I’ve never shied away from how special the World Championships are to me and how much I’d love to put my name on that trophy,” he says.
“[The decision] only means one less trip overseas, but it’s an extra couple of weeks where I can train right through and not dilute my focus.”
The rewards of his sacrifice were shown at the iconic Pete Marlin.
The East London race has grown into one of South Africa’s biggest, most competitive downwinds, with 249 competitors lining up last weekend.
And after a typically high-octane start, McGregor found himself at the front of the field alongside Uli Hart.
“We were pretty much neck-and-neck for the first 12 kilometres, then I strung a few good k’s together that gave me a 150-200 metre lead,” he says.
“The conditions were great, they were way better than everyone was expecting the day before. It was peaches and cream.”
McGregor held that lead coming into Yellow Sands, where the nightmares of 2021 flashed back into his head.
On that day, he was cleaned up by a wave turning the reef, and as a result, threw away his chance of winning the race.
“If you take it wide, you can lose 200 metres, at least, guaranteed.” He explains. “But if you cut it close, you can make up that distance and more.
“I got around clean and then had enough in the tank to get through that final 500 metres of flat water to the finish, I wasn’t going to back down.
“To win it the way I did, I’m really happy. It’s a big confidence boost to go to Australia knowing that you’re firing.”
McGregor claimed victory in a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes and 6 seconds, just ahead of Josh Fenn (1:15:18) and Uli Hart (1:15:24).
The evergreen Dawid Mocke (1:16:28) and champion canoe marathon paddler Hamish Lovemore (1:16:30) rounded out the top five.
Kira Bester continued her impressive run in 2023 with a commanding win, another confidence boost ahead of her trip to Australia.
Her time of 1 hour, 23 minutes and 17 seconds was well clear of Saskia Hockley (1:26:56) and Nix Birkett (1:27:53), with Jade Wilson (1:28:47) and Georgia Singe (1:30:05).
The weekend also delivered McGregor his fifth-straight South African surfski title, taking his career tally of national crowns somewhere north of 70.
“The old bull still has it, keeping the young guys at bay.” He laughs.
Part of the reason for that is his seemingly never-ending supply of stoke.
Since making the decision to step away from marathon a few months ago, he’s enjoying his paddling more than ever.
And he knows it’s helping drive his performance.
“Surfksi paddling for me is therapeutic,” he says.
“Going out to sea after a hard day’s work, it’s just soothing. When you get off the water, you’re refreshed and ready to take on the next challenge before you in life.”
“Whereas marathon paddling, for me, it’s draining. If you’re not hitting those digits on the Garmin, you’re pretty much wasting your time.
“I know what to do to win a marathon World title and if you’re not doing it in training, you won’t do it in the race.
“In surfski, I feel like every session there’s a positive you can take out of it. Whether it’s speed, or feel, or technique, anything.
“Marathon is a full-on commitment, and for me, it was a huge thing to step off that road and make another path.
“Who knows if it’s going to work or not, but at least i’m trying.”
McGregor will get an indication of that this weekend, when he lines up in the returning Steelcase Hong Kong Dragon Run.
The iconic event boasts a typically star-studded field, with Cory Hill, Gordon Harbrecht, Mackenzie Hynard, Josh Fenn and Michelle Burn among those taking part.
Then, all roads lead to Western Australia for the Shaw and Partners WA Race Week, and the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships.
For McGregor, it’s also a shot at redemption.
“World Champs is the main goal, but there’s a lot of big races along the way,” he says.
“I’ve done some homework and using last year’s races as a platform to build from, and I think it’s now showing.
“I’m excited to race. I feel like i’m fresh to race too.
“Now I feel like i’ve taken an international break after Molokai and i’m fired up again.”