Hank McGregor, with Jasper Mocke behind him, won two gold medals at the weekend. Photo: Anthony Grote, Gameplan Media
PIETERMARITZBURG - By the end of the ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships, the magnificent Mr McGregor was sporting a cut above his eye, as if he had been involved in a boxing match on the Las Vegas strip.

Unlike the other McGregor, of course, Hank McGregor went the proverbial 12 rounds and more, as he completed a perfect collection of 10 world titles, scooping both the K1 and the K2 titles, his double coming in the company of Jasper Mocke.

The cut, suffered during a clash of paddles, told only a snippet of a weekend that will live long in his memory, and even more so in the minds of those lucky enough to observe it along the banks of the Camps Drift.

The numbers alone demand repeating. Ten-time world champion, in a sport so punishing, the pace so unrelenting, that just to be in the final is a noteworthy accomplishment.

That McGregor has pushed his grubby blonde head and shoulders so far in front of such an accomplished cast list is remarkable. To do it once is staggering, but his consistency is the truly astonishing part of the narrative.

McGregor is 40 in January, but his reserves of power, speed and inspiration are apparently bottomless. Perhaps the thrill of winning in front of his little boy has given him another gear.

To have him on the podium - on top of the world - carelessly clawing at the precious gold medal around his father’s neck - must have been the sweetest joy for ‘Hank the Tank’.

He admitted that he had never even dreamt of ten world titles. He had just put his head down, and resolved to be the best that he could be.

As it turns out, that standard is uncommonly high, and he is without peer in the marathon paddling world.

When his European counterparts speak of South African paddlers, there is respect. They know the lie of the land here; how sapping the heat is, how lonely the rivers are, and how unheralded these world beaters are.

McGregor almost seems to enjoy the punishing routine, the stress it places on the shoulders, the arms and the mental fatigue that goes hand in hand with it. He revels in the suffering, perhaps because he knows that those behind him are hurting just as much.

When rivals speak of McGregor, reverence replaces respect. He has lifted himself to yet another summit. His staying power - and finishing prowess - beggars belief, and is as inspiring as it is sapping to his rivals.

They know that they are in the presence of greatness. That is what McGregor is, a true great.

An outrageous athlete with records that will take Herculean efforts to be toppled, and personal standards so unflinching that it wouldn’t hurt if he was to be recruited by some of the more celebrated sporting codes to share a few home truths.

There are no excuses or shortcuts for McGregor and the rest of the South African canoeing community.

And yet, those who don’t have sponsors still have to go cap in hand when they need to compete overseas, because the support from the sports ministry is as substantial as our national football team’s defence.

You have to ask if Minister of Sport and Recreation Thulas Nxesi knew the name Hank McGregor before he saw this weekend’s headlines.

Nxesi, who saw fit to jump on a plane and go on a sightseeing tour of the Cape Verde islands with Bafana Bafana last week, couldn’t be moved to herald in actual winners at home.

You can be sure that a bed and breakfast in humble Maritzburg is but a snippet of the cost of a sea-facing villa on the islands.

But, McGregor and company have long learnt to go it alone, with barely any recognition from an office that thrives on celebrating mediocrity.

Though McGregor is (we think) nearing the end of his illustrious career, there are others behind him, who will ensure the South African flag keeps soaring.

Andy Birkett may have been toasting a double of his own, if he didn’t have the stubborn brilliance of the old man in front of him.

His time will surely come, and he will be a worthy successor.

The results in the juniors were also encouraging, with thrilling medals and priceless experience of this elevated stage.

Success breeds success, and these names will keep cropping up, just as McGregor’s has for so many years.

From Valladolid, back in 2003, to Singapore, Copenhagen, Oklahoma City, Gyor, Havel and, most poignantly, Pietermaritzburg, Hank McGregor has rolled with the punches and emerged triumphant.

A cut above the eye? You should see the other guys.


The Mercury