For the best part of two years Andy Birkett wrestled with the possibility that his career as an elite canoe marathon paddler might have been over.
On Monday in Birmingham Alabama he almost convinced himself his time was up, after asthma contributed to a performance well below what he had been hoping for.
But a day is a long time in sport, and on Tuesday South Africa’s Andy Birkett once again climbed to the highest branch of the tree, having achieved what many thought was impossible by outracing Danish superstar Mads Pedersen for World Games gold at the Oak Mountain State Park.
Commentators were pondering how long the 31-year-old 2018 world champion could stick with the 26-year-old two-time world champion, who has shown a penchant for blowing opponents out of the water with a sudden burst of speed that leaves the remainder of the field wallowing in his wake.
Surely it’s just a matter of time, the commentators proclaimed. Fans on the beach agreed. Birkett was being incredibly brave, he’ll be really happy with a solid silver, one onlooker said, receiving knowing looks from all those gathered around the big screen.
Then the trademark Pedersen blast came. But when the mist settled, there was Birkett, powering alongside. Another blast. Still he clung on. The South African had a steely focus, only revealing after the race that indeed, Pedersen had broken him.
If only the Dane new.
“He did succeed, I kept on shortening my paddles to try and find another gear to stay on his slip. I just had to dig deep and try and stay there,” Birkett said.
“The pace that Mads was setting was insane. I had the goal today of trying to stay with him, and if I could stay with him until the finish, then I would feel like I won the race, because I don’t think anyone has stuck with him in a race for a while.
“He was so strong out there today. I was going to say to him at one stage, if you pull ahead I’m just sitting on the slip, I’m just going to try and secure a podium at best. But I found another gear towards the end and just backed myself.
In many ways Birkett had become the forgotten man of canoe marathon paddling. When he became world champion in 2018 many believed he had finally wrestled the crown from teammate and paddling legend Hank McGregor, after finishing runner-up to the big South African in 2016 and 2017.
He finished fourth at the 2019 world titles in China, unable to match the Pedersen juggernaut, and then didn’t make selection for the strong South African team for the 2021 championships.
His career was at the dreaded crossroads.
“To be honest, the last two years I’ve had many doubts, and even yesterday I started thinking maybe not, maybe it’s time for me,” Birkett said in Birmingham on Tuesday.
“I’m just happy because yesterday was quite a bad race, with a bit of asthma, and being sick for a while, but today it was great to be on the water. Today was such a great race, I don’t think Mads is going to let me have it like that at worlds, but I’m just really stoked to be back and racing.
“For me the first time racing an international in a long time, so happy to be back in the mix, and semi-good form ahead of worlds.”
Birkett is much loved and highly regarded in the canoe marathon community. Studious but humble, he shows no signs of pretension. After Tuesday’s win he spoke effusively of the silver medalist, recognising the impact Pedersen was making on canoe marathon.
“I was watching the speeds on my watch today, and it was a big wake-up call to see Mads pulling, on average, two kilometres an hour faster than me,” Birkett said.
“It was a big wake-up call that I’ve got to do a lot of work because if he gets a small gap at the worlds, he’s gone. He really has (changed racing). He’s taken the race from a slow strategic big-end sprint race, Hank McGregor dominated that era, and Mads has come along and turned things on its head.
“It’s no longer a slow race, it’s a fast race, and in order to try and compete in sprint you have to be there. You come to the end of the race and Mads seems to have it pretty well tuned in world marathons.
“I’ve got huge respect for him, he’s a great athlete to race against and he races really well and his results speak for themselves.”
Retirement plans now shelved, Birkett can now turn his attention to Portugal, and this year’s world championships. He’s already looking forward to another battle with Pedersen, even though he is certain it will be a torrid affair.
“I just love racing and I’m happy that I’m still competitive. Today at least, not so much yesterday.”
Yesterday? What even happened yesterday….
- BIRKETT Andy (RSA) 1:23:52.83
- PEDERSEN Mads Brandt (DEN) 1:23:53.13
- ALONSO Ivan (ESP) 1:25:14.82
- KISZLI Vanda (HUN) 1:32:40.76
- RASK Cathrine (DEN) 1:32:56.66
- BARRIOS Eva (ESP) 1:34:16.65