Durban – Shortly before midnight South African time on Sunday Oscar Chalupsky will start his bid for a record-extending 13th title in the world’s tough surfski race, the Molokai Challenge in Hawaii, and in the process put down a marker to all sports as he attempts to win the title as 50 year old athlete.
Chalupsky has dominated the 52km race from the island of Molokai across the Kaiwi channel to the town centre of Hawaii Kai on the island of Oahu since he first won it in 1983 as a twenty year old, the first of seven consecutive victories, before going to win the crown in a variety of conditions in his thirties and forties.
His bid to add another title as a pentagenarian has gripped athletes and sport scientists around the world, who are trying rationalise his ongoing competitiveness with athletes half his age, in their athletic primes.
The field for this year’s Molokai Challenge is particularly strong with Australian Olympian Clint Robinson, a three time Olympic medallist, fronting the challenge along with the class of Hungarian Zsolt Szadovski, emerging Aussie star Cory Hill, and on-form Capetonian Sean Rice sure to figure prominently in the closing stages of the race.
It is precisely those closing stages that will determine the outcome of the race, according to Chalupsky, as the regional has been gripped by unusually heavy seas caused by a rare Southerly frontal system that has whipped up huge surf around the islands of Hawaii.
From the turn at Coco Heads the paddlers will have to deal with massive surf along China Wall into the finish on a lagoon at Hawaii Kai. “There is about 400 metres of huge surf, currently fifteen to twenty foot, that I reckon will sort out the men from the boys at the end,” said Chalupsky.
The weather in the region has been at the centre of heated debate during the past week. Athletes in Hawaii preparing for the Molokai have feasted on magnificent downwind paddling conditions, but weather forecasts point to those petering out on Sunday, leaving the big field assembled for the race deprived of swells and runs to ride, and making conditions far more physically demanding.
“The forecast is changing all the time, and now it looks like we will have a Northerly wind, which will be side on,” said Chalupsky. “That will be tricky and technical, and in some ways will suit me a lot more than the flat slog that was forecast a few days ago. As a 50 year old against these youngsters I would have really battled.”
“The North wind will require careful attention to the GPS to make sure you don’t stray too far off the plumb line, because any temptation to ride runs will take you away to the side and on a longer route to the finish,” he added.
Australian icon Dean Gardiner watched from a distance as the paddlers put in a concerted appeal to the race committee to shift the race to Saturday to take advantage of the tail end of the Easterly frontal system that would have provided classic downwind conditions for the 52km race.
After lengthy wrangling the organisers were unable to get clearance and the necessary permits to shift the race a day earlier, and confirmed a start time of 11am on Sunday (11pm SA time). Gardiner opted not to board the plane to Hawaii after hearing the news.
The race officials did however accept that the race needed to shift its mindset to cater for optimal downwind conditions in the future, and from next year they have committed to staging the race in a four day window period to take advantage of the best downwind conditions available.
Chalupsky, backed by the Richmark Group, and the 60 other paddlers will fly to Molokai on Sunday morning while their skis and equipment are ferried to the island on a barge.
The massive surf has created a further problem because the barge will be unable to beach, and the paddlers will have to swim out through fifteen foot surf to get to the barge, where they will collect their skis and equipment and prepare for the deep water start.
Chalupsky’s passion to claim the title as a fifty year old has added a new dimension to the legendary event, with fellow paddlers and medical experts offering their opinions on his age-defying track record at the event.
“Being the best is key in Oscar’s psyche,” says respected US journalist and diehard surfski paddler, Joe Glickman. “When Oscar is at his best – which happens selectively given his penchant for getting woefully out of shape – he truly believes that he’s the best ski paddler of all time, something he can justify with all the wins he’s had.”
“What he never allows to happen is for doubt to creep into his psyche. So if he gets beaten, then he flashes to how he would have done had he been fit and, bingo, he’s better than that guy even if he’s flogged at a particular race,” he explains.
Sport science guru Professor Tim Noakes puts his finger on Chalupsky’s drive and in particular his stranglehold on the Molokai history.
“This race is how Oscar defines himself and he wants to be the only person ever to win it at 50. His motivation is enough to drive his body which is still in pretty good shape,” says Noakes.
The Molokai Challenge takes place on 19 May over 52km from Kaluakoi resort on the island of Molokai across the open water of the Kaiwi Channel to Hawaii Kai Town Centre on the island of Oahu.
Dave Macleod, Gameplan Media
Posted by Alexa Lombard.