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The Dragon Run


Chalupsky keen to win yet another one on the rough seas


Melanie Ho

Here’s a contrast in scenery. There are the waters of Tahiti and Hawaii South Africa and Australia, each painted in a different shade of blue. There is sun, sometimes there are clouds, but outside, the water is always challenging with unpredictable waves and swells. Then there are the waters indoors, inside a giant pool where the water is challenging, but predictable. It is flat and gaining speed is the primary goal.

Oscar Chalupsky would rather read the ocean. While there are some kayakers who are content to switch back and forth, between ocean-kayaking and flat-water kayaking (which is an Olympic discipline), Chalupsky prefers to stay in rougher waters. “Being outside with nature, there are a lot of beautiful things that you see,” Chalupsky said. “The other day I saw a whale. It’s a far more interesting sport.” A counter-argument is difficult, especially when Chalupsky’s choice has earned him a reputation as one of the best surf-ski paddlers in the world.

He’s won 11 Molokai championships (a 32.3 nautical mile crossing between Molokai and Oahu in Hawaii) and was first in last year’s world rankings. He is 44. “This is the whole thing about love and what you put into the sport,” Chalupsky said of winning against competitors who are more than 20 years his junior. “If you don’t become obsessive you can do it for long.” Such a philosophy keeps in tune with the reciprocal nature of his relationship with the outdoors, but it also means that he has walked away (without regret) from the Olympics, considered by many to be the height of sport. Chalupsky competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but hasn’t been back since.

To do the Olympics, Chalupsky said he would need a different mindset, training regime and lifestyle. “I would have been retired a lot longer ago, if you can’t drink, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Chalupsky said. “I don’t want to live like that. If you’re not enjoying it, you’ll be washed up at 21.” Chalupsky used the adage “been there, done that” to explain his Olympic experience and added that much of what he gets from the sport comes from being on the ocean. “Can you think of anything better?” he asked of the water.

Chalupsky won his first Molokai championship (considered to be the ultimate test in the sport) in 1983 and finished fourth in this year’s race. Next Saturday he will compete in Hong Kong’s Dragon Run International Ocean Ski-Surf and Outrigger Canoe Championship, a 27km, US$10,000 race that will start at Clearwater Bay and finish at the Victoria Recreational Club in Deep Water Bay. That race, along with a relay, “The Clean Half” marathon ocean swim, are two events being held next weekend to highlight the waters and outdoor sports on the less-polluted side of Hong Kong.

Organiser Jon Dingley said he wanted Hong Kong to host a championship in order to bring attention to the sport. “As a whole, [ocean kayaking] is relatively new to the average person,” Dingley said. “Surf-skis are specifically designed to race ocean swells, to surf the swells and get top speed. The top guys, even if there is a one-foot bump in the water, [they] have an ability to increase their ability to go faster.” Chalupsky is better at this than almost anyone else. He excels in big seas and strong waters and his navigation skills allow him to look at the water and make decisions advantageous to increasing his speed while expending the least amount of energy possible.

Numerous paddlers are expected to contest the race. Australian Dean Gardiner has a reputation as the best downwind paddler in the world and with nine Molokai championships, is one of Chalupsky’s strongest competitors. Dawid Mocke, from Cape Town, South Africa, finished second in last year’s world rankings. There is also Lewis Laughlin, this year’s Molokai winner, and Nathan Baggeley, a double silver medallist in flat-water kayaking at Athens and who has just returned to competition after serving a two-year doping ban.

Baggeley is considered to be one of the world’s fastest paddlers. While there are faster and younger paddlers (24-year old Olympic hopeful Ken Wallace, for example) those characteristics alone are not enough to beat Chalupsky. Perhaps of greater significance is Chalupsky’s competitive nature. Listed on Chalupsky’s resume is a long list of important surf-ski wins. In the middle of that resume is his golf handicap.

In 1991 South African athletes were banned from international competitions due to apartheid and Chalupsky, in his prime as an athlete, was unable to compete. He took up golf, a sport he had no interest in, and lowered his handicap from 24 to four.