Birkett and Zondi power way to victory
A FRENZY of celebrations broke out after Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi were the first to the finish line in the Dusi Canoe Marathon at Blue Lagoon in Durban.
The cheers from thousands of supporters on Saturday rounded off a near-perfect performance by the pair over three exhausting days of racing.
With nearly nine minutes in the bag overnight, many expected the leaders to back off slightly on the third and final stage and to play it safe.
But the impressive pair instead hammered the final nail into the coffin early in the day.
They then pushed to a personal record time over the treacherous Burma Road portage before experiencing the thrill of crossing the finish line.
In the women's event, Dusi queen Abbey Ulansky clinched a record ninth career victory when she and Robyn Kime held off a valiant effort from Abby Adie and Anna Adamova.
Kime and Ulansky started the day with just 90 seconds in the bank and knew they were always going to be in for a tough final stage if they were to claim a third consecutive title as a partnership.
A brave effort on the Burma Road portage in the midday heat and a strong finish saw them narrowly edge out a flying Adie and Adamova by just a single minute after 119km of racing.
Looking back on the race, an elated Birkett said: "The whole journey has been amazing. I'm super chuffed – especially with our discipline over this last year – and it is a really special feeling to have won.
"It almost feels like this is the first Dusi I've ever won because of the whole change in start procedure here on day three and the finish is a really amazing experience!"
Zondi was equally excited.
"At last! This is a dream come true for me. I'm so very, very happy.
"I can't even express how happy I am today," the beaming winner said.
The unforgiving heat of day one and two continued into the third and final stage, but Birkett and Zondi relied on their strength and character as they took on the tough Burma Road portage.
"We went up and over Burma even quicker than we did in our time trial two weeks ago," Birkett said.
Triple canoe marathon world champ Hank McGregor of Kayak Centre-Team Jeep and his surfski star partner Jasper Mocke put in a valiant effort throughout the three days, but they were simply unable to match Birkett and Zondi. "We gave it our all, McGregor said.
"We put everything we had into these past three days. We were just beaten by two very good athletes."
Ulansky said the teamwork she and Kime created had helped them to overcome strong opposition this year. "We are over the moon to make it three in a row," Ulanky said.
"Robs and I have paddled together for a while and formed a great partnership and this year was more challenging for us.
"That's because first we had stronger competition and, second, we have had other commitments, so we weren't as strong as we wanted to be.
"But we had great fun and really worked hard."
Ulansky subsequently announced her retirement from competitive racing at the Dusi while Kime will be out of paddling action in South Africa for the foreseeable future as she embarks on a sailing and mountain climbing adventure to and around South America.