Birkett out to maintain stellar Drak Challenge record
Underberg - After winning his first Drak Challenge in 2014, five-time winner Andy Birkett will be eyeing a sixth straight win at the Southern Drakensberg's premier canoe race from January 19-20, and a unique place in the race's history books.
In the past five years the race has come down to a two-boat shoot-out between Birkett and Euro team-mate Hank McGregor and 2019 looks like it could follow a similar script with McGregor talking up his chances of breaking Birkett's Challenge domination.
The 2018 ICF Canoe Marathon K1 and K2 gold medallist has always enjoyed the trip to the Southern Drakensberg, and following his relocation to the Eastern Cape he is going to have to cherish his visit as it is no longer on his doorstep.
"Unfortunately I will only get to Underberg a few days before the race but I’ll get some paddling in," the laid-back Birkett said.
"Last year I did the same thing and it worked out well for me so I am not too worried about that, I'm just looking forward to getting to Underberg.
"The Drak Challenge is my favourite race on the calendar and I am really looking forward to it again this year - it's such a beautiful part of the world."
Birkett currently shares the record for the most Drak wins with Ant Stott with five titles each, and a win in 2019 will put him clear at the top of the honours roll.
With the Drak Challenge being a completely rain-dependant race, Birkett understands the importance of being able to stay calm in testing conditions because it is a race that can be won and lost in an instant.
"It is almost a race of luck, especially when you are paddling on a low river," said Birkett.
"If you make a mistake it can be incredibly difficult to make up that lost time so you need to concentrate all the time.
"You also never know about the rain so you have to try and be prepared for any outcome when the race starts," he added.
Birkett had a 2018 to remember. He married Nikki Russell, his son David was born and he won both the K1 and K2 gold at the marathon World Championships. All of these achievements have put his life into perspective.
"Having a family has changed my life and it has taken my focus away from paddling," he said.
"It has been an incredible blessing on my life and it is amazing having the support that I do from my family."
2018 also saw a rivalry become a friendship as Birkett and McGregor teamed up to win the Dusi Canoe Marathon and the K2 World Championship crown. Birkett cherishes having a friend like McGregor.
"We don't really talk about paddling at all to each other," Birkett mentioned.
"The other day we spoke on the phone and all we spoke about was our boys (McGregor has two sons)."