We Meet the MAN: Hank McGregor

Interview with Hank

TPM: The first question every ones asks me is “is he on some sort of jungle juice that he is unstoppable?”

Hank: It has been a combination of passion and pride that has really been my secret. I think that I have always strived to prove to my dad and my family that I was good enough to become the best in the world and since I achieved that as a junior in 1996 when I won my first World Marathon Champs in Sweden. I realised that I was a little different and after winning at junior worlds. There is only one thing that you can do after that and that is try and become senior world champ and claim the title of being the best paddler in the world. That became my next goal. I achieved that in 2003. After you achieve it once people ask was it a fluke or do you think that you can do it again. I guess now 8 world titles down the line it has becomes more about pride to see how long I can hold the title far more so than how to achieve it. I guess the jungle juice is to push yourself to that point where you can retain that title. It comes down to the will to win and that is really what it is all about. I believe that someone is going to win the race – why not make it yourself? The only way to do that is to train your ass off and if you are not prepared to do that don’t enter.

TPM: Have you ever been tempted to be based overseas?

Hank: Yes, for sure. There are countries that support their athletes far better than my country does but there is also the thing of defying the odds. Can one do it without all the support that the other guys have and you can still do it with a full time job and a family? I guess that it is a little more motivation so yes it works both ways – you can have everything given to you on a plate and you can arrive on the start line but if your heart is not really in it, it doesn’t matter what everyone else has given you or what support you have got. It comes down to who wants it more and if there is someone on the start line who has struggled a little more and wants it more, well you are going to have a really tough race to beat that person

TPM: How much support do you get?

Hank: We do not get any support from a government department. We pay for our own trips and sometimes if we are fortunate enough we can get a subsidy towards the tour; a contribution to cover the cost of getting your boat there. We have to buy our own kit, tracksuit and everything else (pants, tops etc…) That is why I do not change my tracksuit; I think that I have had the same tracksuit for the last ten years.  I do have financial support that has come on board for example Euro Steel and in the past Best 4 so that has been great and it is awesome that Euro Steel is here, I think that they are just passionate about paddling and it is great that they are supporting some of the top paddlers in the country. For the rest of it, it comes down to whether a personal sponsor can help you. From a federation it is down to a bare minimum.

TPM: You have done amazing things in terms of getting people on the water with the McGregor Series – how did that come about?

Hank: Actually I cannot take credit for it. It was my wife Pippa’s doing. I can back from a tour last year and had a chat to Colin Simpkins (CSA Secretary General) and he pointed out that we need new paddlers. At that time Pippa also came on board as Natal Marathon Chairman and she suggested that we do something to encourage that. The basic idea was to do a mini simulation of what marathons are about and get some sponsors on board for example my sponsors and let them use it as a platform to showcase their brand and that is how it started. Euro Steel then became the title sponsor of the series. The aim was to show that you do not have to be super elite to come and participate in marathon racing. People have loved it and now they want to make it country wide. It is a great way for the youth to get out there and see what marathon racing is all about. Who knows, perhaps I can encourage a junior to become the next world champion – that would be the ultimate dream for me. It is great to be giving back to the sport that I have enjoyed for so many years.

TPM: Let’s start with a brief recap of WMC 2016 – you looked like you were having a good time?

Hank: Last year I thoroughly enjoyed world champs and Pippa my wife still said you are the only person really smiling during the race and I answered her “well there are not that many times in your life when you get to experience racing for your country on a world stage, in a world championships am enjoying it. I do not know if I will ever be back again but while I have the opportunity I am going to get out there and enjoy myself” and that is what happened. I came away with 2 world titles which is the cheery on the top.

TPM: What do you think of Camps Drift, the venue for WMC 2017?

Hank: I think that it is a great venue; I think that it is going to be one of the narrowest venues to ever race on. I have seen have 60 to 70 boats on the start line for marathons, so it is going to be narrow and it is going to be tight. Steve Botha has taken over and I had a meeting with him this week and he is super enthusiastic and I am sure that they are going to put on a great show.

TPM: Are you going to be the team captain again?

Hank: I don’t know, first of all, to become team captain you have to make the team first. So for me I have to actually make the national team and I think that right now South Africa’s men’s team is officially the is the hardest team to make. We are currently holding 4 of the 6 top medals available in senior men racing; with gold and silver in the K1 and gold and bronze in the K2. So right now we are officially number one senior men’s team in the world. So to make our national team is tough and you have to pretty much have to guarantee that you are going to make the podium in the world championships in order to make the team.

TPM: You are the role model for all the junior team members who I am sure flood you with questions the whole week. How do you cope with the extra workload?

Hank: Put like that I guess it is a workload but if you are passionate about it, it just comes naturally. You just want to share your experiences and obviously encourage the youth to better themselves and if that means that you have to spend a little time with them before the race then so be it. You only have to be world champion material when the start guns goes when you cross the finish line well you are just as normal as everyone else. So you do not have to be any different leading up to it.

TPM: This year there are only three weeks from trials to WMC – will you have a camp for everyone beforehand?

Hank: We have spoken about it in the past but it is difficult as team members are peaking at different times for different events but the nice thing about this year in terms of when and where it is, is that a month before hand everyone is fully focused on World Champs so I don’t think that we really need a camp after SA marathon champs. In this case SA champs is the camp and the trial. In three weeks you are not necessarily going to get that much faster. You are coming off a big training programme and now you are settling down. So I think that SA champs is going to be a great time. Previously we have had to travel so we have had to have our trials early June because of the boat and visa issues and then had to focus on other races in the lead up to marathons. It is hard because you are trying to peak three or four months before world champs and in the next three months things can change so you do not always arrive at world champs like you wanted too or how you were at SA champs. We do not have that this year so I think that it is going to be great.

TPM: Is there a ‘home ground’ advantage to racing in Pietermaritzburg this year?

I think that there is always that factor of feeling like it is a home ground advantage but the courses have become so fair. I think that if it was a river course then definitely, for example when we raced in Gyor, Hungary. If you practiced on the course enough you would have an advantage but Camps Drift I think that it is pretty fair. It is narrower but I think that that is just going to make it tactical. But I would not say it is a home ground. I think that the one advantage that we have is that we do not have to jump on a plane and fly for eighteen or twenty hours to a European country. We are the only people who do not have to travel, we can sleep on our beds at home and hopefully race our hearts out.

TPM: Have you managed to watch any of the marathon champs in Belgium?

Hank: I have seen a video clip. I have a number of friends that are racing internationally so I got tagged on the video that they were in so I watched a couple of the portages and the put in and obviously I saw the end sprint. I saw a French guy won it and that is great news; I think that he raced K2 last year. I think that is always good to have new blood out there and it obviously builds the sport and in his country he is encouraging more people by winning titles so it is a win – win for everyone.

TPM: Do you have a good idea of who you will be racing against?

Hank: In some of the countries if you were medalled the year before you are automatically selected for example Portugal so I know that the Portuguese representative will be José Ramalho. He got a bronze last year in the K1 so he will be back and I am sure with the European championships coming up soon he will be racing there and he has won the European title a couple of times.

TPM: Do you have a race plan before you get on the water or do you largely judge by what others are doing and go from there?

Hank: I think that everyone has a race strategy; before you go everyone sees themselves crossing the line first. If you don’t then clearly you don’t plan on winning. So I guess that is the strategy and you just work your way back from there. You hope that along the way you make all the right decisions. In the past I have made many, many mistakes I have had to counter it and it has cost me a lot of energy. So yes, the perfect race is something I am always chasing but I think that you just have to adapt on the day and the conditions and obviously the competitors that are out there. You know that if it is a big bunch then it is going to be super tactical, if it is a small breakaway bunch it is going to be even more tactical. So I guess you just have to adapt on the day and hope for the best

TPM: What is it like defending the title

Hank: You know that you are only as good as your last race so trying to work out how many times you have won it or how many times you could win it, you are forgetting what it is all about. Every race is a new race. When you are on the start line it doesn’t matter how many world titles you have in your back pocket, everyone is chasing that world title for that day. I heard that I am the only guy to win four in a row so yes. But does it mean that I am going to try and make it 5 in a row, I do not know – first I have to make the national team then I have to work out if I can go to world champs. So for me it is small steps and take it one race at a time. At the moment it is hard to think about world champs because I have not made the national team yet.

TPM: How do you focus in the moments before the start?

Hank: The honest truth, it is probably the most relaxed time for me. Sadly as I have got older I have lost the nerve bug, if you look around you can see that everyone’s mouths are pretty dry but if I had a heart rate monitor you would see that it is sitting at about sixty or seventy not that I am arrogant or anything just that I am so relieved to actually make it to the start line in one piece, sickness free and now it just comes down to you. Whatever the result is going to be it is going to be up to you. For me I think that the hard part and the most nerve wrecking part is getting yourself to the start line in one piece. When I am there I just embrace the moment and I think that this is awesome. It is awesome to be racing against people that have so much potential and they are racing for their country at the same time so there is so much up for grabs. The sad part is that I do not get nervous meaning that I feel every stroke from the start line. In the old days it felt like I could run through a brick wall off the start because I had has so much adrenaline. But if that is not there you feel it from the first stroke, you feel everything but at the same time I guess I am fully focused as well because I am not caught up in the whole vibe or championship nerves so I am thinking clearly and trying to make rational decisions. I think that there are pros and cons to it. The sad part is that I have more to lose than to gain as the defending world champion. If I win then it is another medal in the cabinet but if I lose then there will be more hype that someone else has beaten the eight time world champion. But I put that all behind me and try and focus on the race and the people around me and don’t get caught up in the whole stats scene or world title scene or the fact that I am better than anyone else or anything like that. It all comes down to we are all equal and it is every man for himself.

TPM: In the K2 you have been paddling with Jasper Mocké since the win in 2014 – will you be paddling with him again?

Hank: Jasper and I are planning on doing SA Champs together, you know that we are great friends and we tour the world together on the surfski side. We have raced against each other more times than we have raced with each other. Sometimes we end up racing with each other in a world event if it is a surfski or a marathon champs. He is a tenacious athlete and when he is in the race he is fully committed and I know he will give everything until the finish line and that is the type of partner that you want. Plus we seem to click really well on the boat – a lot of the guys that we race are seasoned crews that have been training and racing with each other for years. I think that when we won our first world title we could count on one hand the amount of times that we had actually paddled together and in that boat itself I think it was once and that was the day before the race at world champs.

TPM: What should the crowds look for when they are watching the races?

Hank: I think that each race will have its own speciality, if you are an outsider watching the junior races, it is an awesome thing to watch just because the juniors are not experienced so they are like bulls in a china shop. There is so much testosterone flying around that the pace is usually super intense. Sometimes the junior races pace is faster that the senior men because tactics are thrown out the window and they are just going as fast as they can and they only have to do 21km. It is really exciting to watch because for them it is a matter of staying in front for as long as possible. From the senior men’s point of view it is a completely different animal depending on the course. When we raced in Hungary it was a river course meaning that there is flow, it was super shallow and it was a breakaway course just because on the one leg it did not pay to be out in the middle of the stream – you would have the current against you. So everybody was hugging the bank as close as possible which means that the bunches or peloton was not able to form it was always breaking up so that became a very tactical race. One needed to either be at number one, two or three. Anything after that, you were using energy that you did not need to use. Some of the big courses like Brandenburg, Oklahoma and Denmark the bunches can spread as much as eighteen to twenty boats in the front bunch and the front bunch gets caught by the second bunch quite often. Just like in cycling, just because it is easy to find the waves, it is easy to form the diamonds. You can be sheltered in that bunch quite substantially compared to when you are out on your own. In Hungary on a river course you would feel every stroke but last year being on a big wide course the guy that was pulling was feeling it maybe twenty to thirty percent more than the guy sitting behind him in the diamond.

But I think that for Maritzburg I think what is going to be super exciting is our portages. Our portage is only a one sided jetty compared to others that had two sides. So now because of the South African course we will be putting in on the same jetty that every person that has ever attempted to Duzi has put in on – which is limited to a maximum of about four boats. So if you have a big bunch approaching the take out it is going to be carnage when you arrive at that portage because there isn’t the space. Watch the take out because the take out is going to be unbelievable. One is limited to one side only for the take out and the put in. If you have a bunch of fifteen coming in to a portage and a maximum of four guys that can take out there are going to be a lot of guys impatiently waiting and a lot of countrymen shouting with all enthusiasm trying to jump over or leap frog. I think that it is going to be absolute carnage and super super exciting to watch. For me I would get my umbrella and basically book my spot there and watch some unbelievable racing unfold.

TPM: How fast do your boats go? I realise that it is not a 29km sprint but what sort of speeds do you achieve?

Hank: Some paddlers will get up to 22km/h max speed but in marathon racing you are surging the whole time. Sometimes you will go at pedestrian speeds; down to 8 / 9 km/h and in the next minute you could be going at 20 km/h on a flat out interval to hold a position or to try and gain a better position. That is the fast / slow tactics of marathon racing so some of the top speeds are really fast and then some of the average cruising speeds are really pedestrian. Even the beginner paddlers on the world circuit could pull the front bunch sometimes because of the tactics and that is what makes it so exciting. The strange part is that there are probably two or three guys in the front bunch that know exactly where they are going to finish in  world championships and even out of the eighteen to twenty guys in the front bunch there are two or three who know exactly who it is going to come down to for the title and they all know each other and you find them out pretty quickly and although they may not show their all their cards at any given time they get established in the bunch as the dominant paddlers and everyone falls behind them and you will see if you watch any of the races, it is two or three guys that really dominate marathon paddling and dominate the bunches and everyone else just sits behind them.


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