U-23 world champion targets Fish title
2 October 2012
Recently crowned under-23 world champion Grant van der Walt has confirmed his entry for the Hansa Fish River Canoe Marathon in Cradock next weekend, adding further spice to what is sizing up to be the most competitive South African K1 River Championship race in years.
Van der Walt grabbed his second U23 world title with a convincing performance at the World Championships in Rome two weeks ago, and has returned home determined to improve on his fourth at the last K1 race in 2009.
"It has been a bit of an up and down year for me with my back injury and then having to pull out of Berg halfway through, so the win at the World Champs really was incredible for me," said Van der Walt.
"I'm really looking to head down to Cradock this weekend now though, and I'm definitely keen to do better than I did in 2009 this time around."
'I'm feeling fit and strong'
"That was quite an unfocused year for me and my paddling has definitely improved a lot since then, and after World Champs I'm feeling fit and strong," he added.
The Team Best 4 Kayak Centre athlete will have his work cut out for him. A hugely potent field that includes defending K1 champion Len Jenkins, Van der Walt's twice victorious K2 partner Hank McGregor, triple Dusi champ Andy Birkett, former K2 world marathon champ Cam Schoeman, local stars Ryan and Greg Louw, as well as his eager and in-form younger brother Brandon van der Walt, stand between him and the title.
"You never know what could happen at the Fish. There are always so many guys there and you never know who will be the surprise package each year," said Van der Walt.
"Hank and Len are obviously in fantastic form after World Champs, but I've been training a lot with them and I definitely do not doubt my training and preparation, so hopefully I can be up there with them.
"The three of us, along with a group of others, have been training together for the past three months, so if I can hang on to them and try just be there after day one, then, yes, there may be a chance I could win.
'They're the benchmark'
"Hank and Len are phenomenal athletes, though. They're the benchmark, especially on the Fish, so it will be really tough."
"I asked my brother just the other day who won the Fish before Len and we had to look it up because we didn't have a clue. He's dominated things in a K1 on the Fish throughout the 2000s and is definitely the man to beat.
"Fortunately, though, I know how he trains and how he races, so hopefully I can stay with him on the portage across the dam wall and then try race him on the water after that. It will definitely be a tough race, though, and really I'm excited for this year's race," he added.
Not only will Van der Walt have a world class field to contend with, but some challenging obstacles early on in the encounter will put participants under extra pressure, which could well be a major turning point in the race for some.
"Toast Rack, Keith's Flyover and a couple others are all big deciders early on in the race," said Van der Walt. "Then you get the portage over the dam wall, which is also crucial, and I've heard rumours that the portage has changed slightly this year, which will be interesting.
'Sprint it like an absolute monkey'
"You've basically got to sprint it like an absolute monkey, without completely killing yourself though, because you've got to be able to put in at the bottom and you still have a good way to go.
"Anything can happen in a big rapid, especially when there's a bit of pressure. It's so important that not only do you make it through the rapid safely, but you make it through in the right place as well, so when you get to the bottom you are in a position to react to what’s going on up front," he added.
With two Hansa Fish K2 titles under his belt, which undoubtedly sweeten the taste ever so slightly, Van der Walt's enthusiasm for the event is unwavering. He looks forward to it every year.
"It's been a while since I was on a river, so I'm looking forward to getting wet again. The Berg was the last river I was on and that was back in July, so I'm really looking forward to it, and Fish is always such a great race and so much fun, so it should be an awesome weekend," said Van der Walt.
"Everyone is stuck in the same small town together and isn't much more than a square kilometre away from everyone else. You do your shopping together, you see each other out and about all the time and everyone's there for the river race, but also to have a great time and I'm sure it will be the same again this year."
This love for the event, together with the recent lift he received from his impressive World Marathon Championships achievement, could well see the under-23 competitor mixing it up with the best of the best throughout the exciting two-day affair.
"River racing and marathon racing are very different, so my World Champs result won't have a huge influence on this weekend, I don't think, but it is nice for the confidence," reckoned Van der Walt.
"I'm not going to go into Fish thinking I'm the best the world, but the win definitely helps me believe in my ability. It's great that all my hard work seems to be paying off and I'm definitely in a happy place and feel quite positive at the moment and I'm ready to have some fun on a great river," he concluded.
The Hansa Fish takes place in Cradock on 5 and 6 October and will decide the South African K1 River Championships.
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