THE TITLE AMBITION BEHIND McGREGOR’S EVERLASTING SUCCESS
Hank McGregor’s trophy cabinet would – surely – be close to overflowing by now.
The South African legend has won an astounding 11 World Championship gold medals in marathon kayaking, while on the weekend added two more national crowns to his collection – taking the total somewhere north of 50.
But there’s one title that he’s yet to claim.
ICF Surfski World Champion.
And his desire to achieve it is driving his sensational, everlasting form.
“That is one of the biggest things that I would love to get,” McGregor reveals to The Paddler.
“Sean [Rice] and Cory [Hill] both have those titles and were well deserved to get them.
“I’ve come close, but like I was brought up, ‘First is first, second is nothing and third we don’t talk about.’
“Who knows if I’ll ever get it, but I’m not going to stop trying.”
Of course, McGregor has nothing left to prove.
Arguably the greatest competitor that surfski paddling has ever seen, the now 43 year-old added another chapter to his storied career over the weekend, winning both the 2021 single and double South African titles in Durban.
“I’m really, really stoked to get the hat-trick of titles in the single and seventh in a row for doubles,” he says.
“Doubles overseas isn’t such a big thing, but here in our country it’s really competitive.
“So yeah, I’m pretty stoked with the weekend’s results.”
The field of more than 150 athletes were met by what McGregor describes as “passive” conditions – but there was still plenty of runs to work with.
“We averaged 3:40 kilometres in both the singles and doubles races.”
McGregor claimed victory eight seconds ahead of Nick Notten, while the legendary Dawid Mocke finished third, a further minute back.
It was six kilometres into the 26 kilometre course when Hank made his move, paddling alongside 2019 World Championship silver medalist Kenny Rice and Josh Fenn.
“The three of us were doing the downwind dance around each other… so I decided to test them and test myself as well,” he recalls.
“I managed to open up a fair margin on the two of them, and I think it might have burnt them a little bit, so from there I was able to keep my head down and get to the finish.
There was one hiccup, though.
McGregor was approaching the beach when a safety IRB flagged his attention and told him to paddle around a buoy back out to sea.
Turning around, it opened the door for Notten and Mocke, who took a different line through the course.
“It made it really exciting – it wasn’t great for me – but I only found out afterwards that I didn’t actually have to go around the can.
“It made for a proper race to the beach, at least!”
Mocke wasn’t too far behind to round out the podium.
“When he came into the beach, he was just all smiles,” McGregor recalls.
“For him to get one up on all of the younger paddlers, especially from around Cape Town, the grin was showing.
“He showed his class with picking a great line and backing himself… hats off to him.”
Michelle Burn produced a dominant performance to claim the women’s title, almost five minutes ahead of Kira Bester, with Melanie Van Niekerk another three minutes back in third.
“Michelle is a mum with two children now and she’s just hungry to perform and do the best she can,” McGregor says.
“She’s a phenomenal athlete who’s really good on the downwind… she can definitely mix it up with the best in women’s paddling.
“Michele has that missing surfski world title in her cabinet too and she’s going really well to get there.”
The following day, McGregor teamed up with Josh Fenn to claim what he describes as a “pretty special” doubles victory, as it was Fenn’s first South African title.
The pair won the Freedom Paddle together last year and will race it again next month.
“We spoke about it and said, ‘Let’s do both races together… why not?’
“We go well together, and I enjoy his company.
“We’re good mates and chat all of the time and it’s really cool to paddle with someone you enjoy being with.”
It’s another memorable weekend of racing for McGregor.
Lining up against a field of elite, race-hungry athletes, he admits that he felt some pressure.
That’s both internally and externally.
In the lead-up to the event, Kenny Rice added some friendly spice when he said that the Cape Town contingent were coming to “crash the party” and bring home the titles for their club.
“I had a few people phoning me say, ‘Have you seen the post from Kenny?’ McGregor reveals.
“I thought, ‘Hey, let’s get it on.’
“Good on him. I’d rather have someone throwing a challenge than not because it means they’re just as keen to race as I am.”
Rather than use that as motivation, McGregor says it was the bigger picture that gave him focus – the 2021 ICF Surfski World Championships still scheduled to run in Lanzarote in July.
As he’s openly discussed, it’s an event he wants to win.
But as to whether it should go ahead, amid international travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he remains reserved.
“I’d be talking out of turn if I gave a direct answer,” he says.
“As we stand, the World Championships are still happening.”
“I do have my doubts that it can happen, but that’s the same as every race on the calendar… we just don’t know.
“But if you’re going to have that playing in the back of your mind, it’s hard to train and race for anything.
“I would love to have that title… but there’s a lot of ocean between here and that finish to get the medal around your neck.
“Whatever comes, comes… and that’s the way it’s going to be.”