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A Friendship Turned to Gold

A Friendship Turned to Gold

Aug 2018

 By Simon Capstick-Dale

Siseko and Piers are two athletes from vastly different worlds, who were brought together – against all odds – by their determination to win gold in the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon. The team’s inspiring story of courage, friendship and perseverance was made into a feature film, Beyond the River, which  screened in South African cinemas last year.

Success in life should never be determined by where you live or how much money you have – we can all overcome our situation once we put our minds to it.”

“I want to be an inspiration and motivate people to get whatever it is that they want. As soon as people realise that nothing is impossible if you work hard enough, they can be set free from their circumstances and succeed.”

These are the rousing words of 2014 Dusi gold medallist Siseko Ntondini, who, together with partner Piers Cruickshanks, went after what he wanted most and overcame adversity. 

In 2013, Piers, an English teacher at Kingsmead College, had his mind set on completing his 15th Dusi and earning a 10th gold medal. At the age of 39, he was already considerably older than most of the top competitors and aware that time might be running out. Piers had a terrible race that year: After irreparably damaging his canoe halfway through the final day, he carried his wreckage for four hours on foot, finally arriving at the finish as the sun set over Blue Lagoon in Durban.  

Twenty-two-year-old Siseko Ntondini – the only competitor left waiting to greet him – proposed to a disheartened Piers that they partner up for the 2014 Dusi. Piers knew Siseko as a promising young paddler who rowed at the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC), with which he was involved.

The biggest event of its kind in Africa, each year the Dusi sees up to 2000 paddlers traverse KwaZulu-Natal’s east coast between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. Over three days, racing pairs have to negotiate rocky rivers, weirs and rapids along the unmarked 120km route – and the onus is on paddlers to take safe lines down some extremely demanding sections. 

Portages through thick bush on undulating terrain require competitors to run, boat-on-shoulder, from one river section to the next. Teams continually need to think strategically about whether to paddle or run certain sections – going on foot, though, is gruelling too, but can avoid boat-capsizing rapids and circumvent long loops in the river. 

“The Dusi is a rough-and-tough event about as far from a manicured lawn as you can get. It’s a real African experience – there are plenty of rocks, bushes and mud to contend with,” says Piers.

Aside from the physical and emotional exertion of a three-day canoe race such as the Dusi, Piers says what many people may not realise is the incredible focus and concentration it demands of competitors.

“During the race, you’re constantly having to make short and long-term decisions. As the event wears on, fatigue makes it harder to concentrate. You’re only racing for a few hours each day, but the psychological burden of the stage-race hangs over you for three full days.”

Once Piers had made peace with his 2013 disappointment, he began to more seriously consider Siseko’s proposal to partner with him – and they began training soon after Piers decided to give the less experienced young man a chance. 

Teaming up with someone from such conflicting socio-economic circumstances came with its own unique set of challenges for both athletes.

“I believe our toughest obstacle was the language barrier between us. Although Siseko’s English is good, when we were both exhausted in training sessions, it could became difficult.”

For the first couple of weeks that the ambitious pair trained together, Siseko was residing in an informal settlement, where he faced the same challenges faced by many South Africans who live without the basic necessities which many others take for granted. Thankfully, SCARC arranged alternative accommodation, which made their intense training schedule far easier to co-ordinate.

The significant divide of age, race, experience and socio-economic situation between Siseko and Piers did not discourage the two athletes from competing in the Dusi as a team and they learned a great deal from one another though the experience. 

“Our differences and where we came from were irrelevant to our success – it only mattered that we both wanted to win gold,” says Siseko.

Siseko says it was a privilege and honour to partner with an accomplished athlete such as Piers, with many years of experience and knowledge to share.

“Although it wasn’t my first Dusi, Piers taught me how better to prepare for every aspect of the race.” 

But the team’s socio-economic differences meant that compromise was an integral part of the learning process. Siseko would occasionally arrive late for their training sessions, and Piers would be at Emmarentia Dam, in Johannesburg, waiting for his younger partner and getting annoyed when Siseko wouldn’t arrive on time.

“But then I realised that Siseko had got out of bed at least an hour before me, taken two taxis and jogged the last stretch with a paddle under his arm to get there,” says Piers.

At first, it wasn’t all plain sailing in the water either. The natural order in canoeing is for the more experienced paddler to sit at the front and steer the boat. The leader’s role also requires him to make tactical decisions and choose which line to take on the river. 

It was an unprecedented decision that transformed the team from complete no-hopers into a well-oiled machine working in unison: “When I was up front in the boat the two of us didn’t combine well at all. Siseko then suggested that we swop positions and, when I agreed – rather reluctantly – to take the rear, everything just fell into place!” says Piers.

Piers explains how this revelation was a turning-point for the team both logistically and psychologically as, despite his age and experience, he was left with no choice but to put complete faith in his junior.

In the build-up to the 2014 Dusi Siseko developed a stress fracture in his fibula and was forced to undergo rehabilitation. While Siseko exercised on the anti-gravity treadmill at Morningside Sports Clinic as part of their training regime, Piers ran the streets of the suburb. 

“Doctor Jonathan Patricios was kind enough to give Siseko consultations, treatment and use of their equipment all free of charge,” says Piers.

Siseko recovered just in time for the race but his injury meant they had already missed most of the qualifying races and their poor seeding jeopardised their chances of winning a gold medal.

On Day 1 of the big race, the pair lost about five minutes to the field when Siseko broke a paddle and they fell way back to 57th position. But with sheer grit and determination the two made a miraculous comeback to finish in 7th place and win the gold medal they had both worked so hard towards.

Reflecting on their success and the subsequent making of Beyond the River, a film based on their uniquely South African story, Siseko says: “Success in life should never be determined by where you live or how much money you have – we can all overcome our situation once we put our minds to it.”

Beyond the River – the movie

Beyond the River is a film written and directed by Craig Freimond and produced by Robbie Thorpe, Harriet Gavshon and Ronnie Apteker. In association with Heartlines, Quizzical Pictures and the National Lotteries Commission, the inspirational story is about two courageous men – and the triumph of the human spirit. The script has been adapted into two books; Confluence, which tells the heroic story from the perspective of Piers Cruickshanks, and a condensed version of the film script in the form of a children’s book. 

The three race stages of the Dusi

Stage 1 (42km): The first stage takes paddlers from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to Dusi Bridge, a remote area outside Cato Ridge close to Nagle dam.

Stage 2 (46km): From Dusi Bridge to Msinsi Resort outside Hillcrest, this is the longest and hardest section of the race, which ends with 11km of flat water on the Inanda Dam. 

Stage 3 (36km): Starting with 4km of flatwater on Inanda Dam, paddlers make their way to Blue Lagoon in Durban. The final stage ends with 10km of flatwater on the tidal estuary to the finish. 

Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club

The Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club (SCARC) is a social development initiative founded in 2003 by AdReach CEO Brad Fisher. The organisation aims to uplift impoverished Soweto communities through sport, mentorship and developing crucial life skills in young adults. The Club’s shadow employment programme leverages the skills of its member companies to improve the chances of these individuals making a success of themselves.

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer