Sbonelo Khwela is a product of the Martin Dreyer Change a Life Academy. Rising out of the Valley of a 1000 Hills, he has worked his way up to being one of South Africa’s leading paddlers. After four Non-Stop Dusi titles in a K2, his wife finally convinced him to make the change to a K1 in 2015. It wasn’t long until he saw the reward of his decision, and just a year later became the first black man to take the Non-Stop Dusi title. He hopes to do the same in the FNB Dusi Canoe Marathon, and came painfully close when he finished second this year.
What lead you to make the change to a K1, especially after so many successful Non-Stop Dusi races in a K2?
There were a few things. My wife always wanted me to do Non-Stop in a K1, she used to encourage me to give it go all the time, because I had already won four of them in a K2 by that point. I was always scared to try it in a K1, especially if I’d think about a long day in the boat without anybody to chat with!
Then there was also Mark Germiquet, who had already done five K1 races and used to train with me at Shongweni Dam. He kept pushing me from the side and played a big part in convincing me to try it too. In 2015 I gave it go and was so happy to finish second, so kept pursuing K1 from there. I realised that if Hank McGregor could do it in 2005 or Andy Birkett in 2012, then I could do it too. And so in 2016 I became the first black man to win the Non-Stop in a K1, my wife was right!
You now have your sights set on a K1 Dusi title. How did it feel to come so close this year when you crossed the finish line second?
It made me even hungrier to come back, and I want to win it more than ever. I have been after this for a long time. In 2013 I came very close – I was leading on day one and two, but made a big mistake on day three. With only 10km to the finish I fell off my boat and the other guys managed to catch me. To have come second this year is really something special, so I’ll keep pushing for that win.
You are extremely passionate about a multisport lifestyle and often talk about “life being too short for one sport”. What other adventure sports do you enjoy most?
I love doing trail running. I did the Molweni Trail Run last year, it was 33km and I came third! I am so willing so do more of them. I also really look forward to getting into triathlons after paddling.
Where are your favourite spots to train at the moment?
I love training at Shongweni Dam. It’s close to my house, and I really like the view and atmosphere there – I’m surrounded by a mountain in the Valley of a 1000 Hills. It’s easy to train for Dusi there because we have a dam for paddling and trails to practise running with the boat.
I also like training on the Msunduzi River. It’s really different to train on a river than on a dam, and I get more challenging rapids, which makes it really fun to paddle. To be on the river where the Dusi happens is something special.
How do you train for the strength and cardio balance that you need in this sport?
When I am training for Dusi, I focus on running without the both on some days and then with the boat on other days. I paddle as often as I can and gym twice a week. I have a guy that helps me keep my training focused, especially to work on my core strength.
That leak on your boat during the Non-Stop Dusi this year must have been frustrating. Tell us more about what that like.
I really wasn’t happy. Once I‘d realised what was happening, I knew that there was no chance that I’d win. The guys were really close to me, and we all know that a K2 is faster than a K1 on flat water. I was the defending champion, and was so set on getting my sixth Non-Stop win. But a race is a race, anything can happen. I can’t complain about coming second to those guys, they’d been right there pushing for the win the whole day.
What do you feel you need to work on the most to be able to overtake guys like Andy at the next Dusi?
I’m going to work harder on my paddling. Guys like Andy are some of the best paddlers in the world. I need to make sure that I balance the two – running and paddling. I worked hard on my paddling last year, and that’s why I got the second. So I’m just going to keep going like I am, and put in everything that I have.
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