Michaelhouse paddlers produced a stunning set of results in the recent Dusi Canoe Marathon. In a K2 (doubles) year, they had five of the six podium finishers in the under-18 race and were also the victors in the under-16 event. It was fair reward for a close-knot group of boys whose love for the sport and competition between one another has brought out the best in them, as KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan found out when he visited Balgowan last week.
Victory in the Dusi went the way of Ross Leslie and Chase Leisegang, followed by Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward, with Jack Edmonds in third. He had teamed up with Kwandokuhle Mzolo for the iconic three day race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry claimed the under-16 honours.
Beyond those results, the excellence of the performances of the Michaelhouse boys was underlined by their overall positions in the field: Leslie/Leisegang 19th, Butcher/Millward 21st, Edmonds/Mzolo 23rd and Shooter/Baldry 82nd. Special mention, too, must go to Michaelhouse Head of the Life Sciences Department and master-in-charge of canoeing, Paul Snyman, who teamed up with Huntley Earle and came home in 102nd place.
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The overall sixth place finishers, it is worth noting, were the Houston brothers, Alan and Andrew, both Michaelhouse old boys. The boat in 24th place was of interest, too. That crew was made up of Brandon van der Walt, a former junior world marathon champion, and Shane Millward. Shane is Matthew’s father, so son beat father.
Mary Millward, Matthew’s mother, is the long-time secretary of the Natal Canoe Club, the hosts of the Dusi Canoe Marathon. She said some playful ribbing has gone on between the pair since, but Shane was more than happy that Matthew beat him.
Michaelhouse’s paddling success, as with most successes in life, did not happen overnight. A fantastic tradition of excellence has been building up in recent years, with the school producing outstanding talents, like the Houstons, Craig Heenan and Emanuel Zaloumis, all top performers in the Dusi (and other river races and marathons), and Jean van der Westhuyzen, who at just 16 years of age captured the K2 junior title at the 2014 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships in Oklahoma City with Maritzburg College old boy, Louis Hattingh.
At the 2018 National Sprint Championships, Jean van der Westhuyzen was crowned the Men’s Victor Ludorum. He has since emigrated Down Under and is on the Australian national team. (Photo: Anthony Grote, Gameplanmedia)
More recently, a victory in the under-16 age group of the K2 race at the 2018 Dusi Canoe Marathon by Ross Leslie and Sam Butcher served notice that they would be hot contenders in 2020. Ross comes from a good pedigree. His dad, James, was for many years one of the top Dusi paddlers.
In a chat with Paul Snyman, Ross, Sam and Chase, Sam said he was inspired by the example set by Craig Heenan and Jean van der Westhuyzen: “I remember watching them train and seeing them get results. It prompted me to want to start paddling and to try to achieve like them.”
It was Sam that really challenged him to become a better paddler, said Ross: “We always used to race each other and eventually we started training so hard we dropped all of our other sports and focussed completely on canoeing.
“The thing that has got Michaelhouse Canoe Club so big is that there is a big bunch of us that are really close friends. We try and train together, so that results in us pushing one another a lot harder. That’s the reason why we are dominating so much,” he added.
The Michaelhouse boys are fortunate to have a dam on the school grounds to train on, but they also make regular trips down to Pietermaritzburg to participate in the Dusi Dice on Thursday evenings at Natal Canoe Club.The weekly event brings together paddlers of all abilities and ages for what is, in essence, a competitive training session on Camps Drift. It’s also a time to learn from others and be a part of a community that is, arguably, more inclusive than any other sport’s community in South Africa.
A recent photo, taken from the Michaelhouse Facebook page, showing the Canoe Club boys training on the school’s dam. (https://www.facebook.com/michaelhouse.org/)
That inclusivity is also evident in the Michaelhouse Canoe Club and, in this instance, it’s about bringing together boys of different ages from different year groups. Master-in-charge of canoeing Paul Snyman explained: “Chase, for example, was in grade 10 last year, but he was way better than many of the senior paddlers, and that kind of levels the playing fields, so you don’t have the hierarchy that you tend to have in all-boys’ schools. It flattens out a bit, so you can have a grade 10 boy having a friend in A Block (grade 12) or grade 11.”
“When you’re a grade 8 or 9, you tend to be a bit lost, but when you get to the dam and a matric boy or a grade 11 is your buddy, it’s a lot easier to fit in at the school, which is nice,” Sam commented.
Last year, winter training was introduced. In Balgowan, that would be a daunting and, one imagines, rather unpleasant thing, given the cold winters. Thankfully, almost all of the paddling takes place elsewhere, Paul Snyman explained: “It involves quite a lot of travelling, but I think that has been important in their development to be put in a group of like-minded paddlers from Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds, including adults, who push these guys. I think it has had a positive effect.”
Proud paddlers: Sam Butcher, vice-captain, Michaelhouse Canoe Club; Chase Leisegang; and Ross Leslie, captain, Michaelhouse Canoe Club. (Photo: Brad Morgan, KZN10.com)
So, to the 2020 Dusi Canoe Marathon…
Based on their results in events leading up to the race, the Michaelhouse boys figured they would be dicing it out for the honours. “In all the pre-races, we were always on the podium, but the order changed,” said Ross. “We knew it was going to be between our three boats, we just didn’t know what the finishing positions would be.”
Camp’s Drift, as the paddlers head for the Ernie Pearce Weir, shortly after the start on day one of the Dusi Canoe Marathon. This group included Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward. (Photo: supplied)
The Dusi, more than any other race, places a premium on both running (portaging in paddling parlance) and paddling, and that was something that favoured Ross Leslie and Chase Leisegang. Ross credited their coach, Andrew Booyens, for ensuring their running was a strength. It also helped that Booyens coached now 10-time Dusi winner, Andy Birkett, from whom he was able to glean valuable information.
Despite their solid preparation and strength in running, Chase admitted that the opening day, especially the Campbell’s Farm portages, made it the hardest of the three days for him because he and his partner pushed so hard. Nonetheless, he and Ross were rewarded for their labours and were the first under-18 finishers on the day in 3:01:53.65.
The Campbell’s Farm portage, early on day one, played a decisive role in winning the overall under-18 title for Chase Leisegang (front) and Ross Leslie (back). (Photo: supplied)
Jack Edmonds and Kwandokuhle Mzolo followed in 3:08:50.27, with Sam Butcher and Matthew Millward in third. It was a tough day for the Butcher/Millward combination, especially for Sam. He was dealing with the effects of a severely broken ankle that he had suffered some months previously. On a day with plenty of portaging, he struggled. “My running was poor, more walking than running,” he admitted.
On day two, Ross and Chase were able to stretch their lead after a strong finish on Inanda Dam saw them cross the line in 3:11:23.90. It was far from smooth sailing, however, as Ross related: “On day two it rained and it had a big effect. On one of the portages, Ngomeni’s, the initial 10 metres was a mudslide. It was very hard getting up there.”
“The portage was quite wet and we couldn’t run too fast,” Sam weighed in, but his partner, Matthew, had an even tougher time. ““He vomited from five kilometres above the dam to about three-quarters of the way to the end of the day. For about 12 kilometres out, he was vomiting. He tried to sip his juice, he brought it up. Eventually that just went away and we were strong for the last bit.”
It was only later that they realised the likely cause of Matthew’s illness was bilharzia, which he had previously contracted. “He went through stages when he was fine and then it was bad. He was a bit loopy, which bilharzia does to you,” reckoned Sam.
Despite their challenges, the Butcher/Millward boat crossed the line in 3:13:42.28, which was enough to put them ahead of Edmonds/Mzolo, who finished in 3:19:41.08.
With the fearsome Burma Road portage ruled out as an option on day three, everybody would have to stay on the water and paddle around that section of the river. Thankfully for the boys, steady rain helped elevate the water level, making for a very enjoyable time.
“It was great to paddle around this year. I actually paddled it last year (when he finished 42nd overall and fourth in the under-18 K1 race), so I knew where to go. The water levels were very good,” Ross smiled.
When the finish at Blue Lagoon loomed, it came with some butterflies in the stomach, Chase acknowledged: “I was nervous. I felt like they were catching us quite quickly and I tried to paddle my hardest to the end.”
He and Ross had enough in the bag, however, to claim a sweet victory, even though Sam and Matthew did record the third day’s best under-18 performance. Chase and Ross posted a time of 2:28:06.82, which saw them complete the race in 8:41:24.37. A 2:24:27.48 saw Sam and Matthew end it in 8:48:44.15.
Behind them, Jack Edmonds and Kwandokuhle Mzolo finished in 2:32:23.90, narrowly eclipsing the nine-hour mark for the race.
The under-16 winners, Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry, completed the Dusi with a total time of 10:41:39.80 to secure both of the boys’ age group titles for Michaelhouse.
The under-16 age group winners of the 2020 Dusi Canoe Marathon: Jack Shooter and Reuben Baldry. (Photo: supplied)
The year is young and there is plenty more to come from the Michaelhouse paddlers. Sam is focussing on the sprints and will contest national trials in Shongweni from 1-5 April. If he earns selection, he will race for South Africa at Brandenburg in Germany in July.
Last year, he was part of a 15-person South African squad that travelled to Slovakia to contest an Olympic Hopes event, with the format mirroring that used in the Olympics. “It was great to learn how it works and how big it is over there,” he said.
For many of the other boys, their focus will turn to marathon racing, mixed in, from time to time, with some surf-skiing. Then, look out for Michaelhouse to excel again in another of the country’s most popular river races, the Fish River Canoe Marathon, which takes place from 26-30 September.
Last year, the Michaelhouse team of Sam Butcher, Ross Leslie, Matthew Millward, and Jack Edmonds, all of whom remain at the school, captured the Schools’ Team Trophy, which is exactly what they did in this year’s Dusi. But that should have been obvious, shouldn’t it?