This year, for the first time, Hank McGregor and Andy Birkett joined forces. It was a union of the two best marathon paddlers in the world – The Dream Team, as they were dubbed.
Their combination of pace, raw power and experience was considered a sure-fire recipe for success. And yet, as we have learnt in every other sport, there is no certainty that the chemistry between superstars will always translate into results.
Remember the “galacticos” of Real Madrid, who sold shirts by the millions off the field but won precious little on the park. Or a Tiger Woods in his prime and Phil Mickelson. Brilliant as individuals but significantly flawed as a pair.
The duo of Hank the Tank and Handy Andy had their own teamwork test midway through the 2018 race, when their rudder broke before Pumphouse Weir. They had no choice but to change it.
And so, there they were, standing nearly shoulder deep in water, one holding the boat steady and one pouching the nuts and bolts required to do the fix job nervously above the raging torrent.
They watched on as their rivals cruised past with barely a glance. One, two, three boats shot past while they waited. They had gone from first and cruising to fourth without a rudder. Birkett said they thought of playing “I Spy” to cut the tension.
They resolved not to panic but to rather claw their way back into the race. The rest, of course, is history. They held their nerve on a ferocious final day to deliver on the immense potential that their alliance held.
Incredibly, this “dream team” very nearly didn’t happen. If the call hadn’t been made on the day it was, they may have been just a figment of canoeing’s imagination.
After yet another astonishing year, McGregor was reclining on his couch, dreaming of holidays far away from the hardship that is the Dusi.
The McGregor rant about the travails of the Dusi are notorious, as he swears each race is his last. And then, of course, he emerges the next year to ignite that eternal flame of competition that scorches from within.
“Hank begged me to be on the boat with him,” Birkett smirked. Of course McGregor corrects the erring youngster.
“Actually, he called me. My wife had made me a promise that if I won the World Marathon championships she would take me on a nice holiday. I told her I wanted to take it around the middle of February and be far away so I wouldn’t have any FOMO about the Dusi.
“Somewhere nice, like Bali. As soon as we had struck the deal Andy called. That was the end of that plan!”
There was intrigue in mating up with Birkett, now an eight-time winner. He knows the river’s rapids better than most.
“It is always tough trying to catch Andy up. Now he is only ahead of me by a metre, and he is going to stay that way for the rest of the race,” McGregor grinned.
Birkett concurred. “It is really great paddling with a mate, and not just someone you are just trying to win a race with,” Birkett said of the respect within the boat.
An exhausted Birkett required medical attention after the race and McGregor waited outside the tent for his partner to emerge. That little gesture said as much about the unity between them than anything that had occurred on the river. That is the essence of a team. All for one.