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The Race of a Lifetime
Marty Burns
October 16, 1995
South Africa's Lee McGregor waited decades to meet the world's best
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October 16, 1995

The Race Of A Lifetime

South Africa's Lee McGregor waited decades to meet the world's best

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One might say McGregor had been waiting all his life for the race. A world-class swimmer for his country in the late 1960s and early '70s, McGregor was prohibited from competing in the Olympics because of South Africa's policy of apartheid. Figuring that he would never get a chance to compete as a swimmer, he gave up the sport and instead began concentrating on kayak racing and surf-ski racing, both popular pastimes in the coastal communities of his country. He became a legend on South Africa's beach-sports circuit, but he always felt a void because of not being allowed to compete against the world's best.

"It was aggravating," says McGregor, the oldest participant in this year's race. "We never had the choice. One day you're 17 years old and hoping to compete against the world's best, and the next thing you know you're 32 and you've never realized the dream. I was looking for something to finish off my career, and this [the Challenge] was my Olympics."

McGregor was further motivated by his desire to beat Barton, whom he calls "the Michael Jordan of paddling." Like many paddlers in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, McGregor had long watched in awe as Barton dominated the world kayak scene. His admiration for Barton was so strong that McGregor even taught his son. Hank, the proper way to paddle by breaking down films of Barton's gold medal performances in the '88 Olympics.

When Challenge organizers called McGregor at his home in Durban last May to ask if he would participate, he said no, thanks. But then he mentioned the call to Hank, now 17, who was busy training for the 1995 world marathon kayak championships in Spain, where he would finish third. "When Hank found out, he said to me, 'Dad, you've got to do it!' " McGregor recalls. "He said, 'You've been telling me about the great Greg Barton all my life. Now here's your chance to compete against him.' "

So within a month McGregor set aside his work as the owner of an earth-moving business, and with Sherley, set out for the U.S. on his quest to beat Barton and make up for lost time. They moved to Fort Lauderdale, where they lived with friends while McGregor trained along the Florida coast. In June, McGregor paddled the Challenge course backward, from New York City to Chicago, to get a feel for the conditions.

"At the start of the race Lee was shooting for me, and I didn't know who he was," says Barton, who has a mechanical engineering degree and now designs kayaks for a manufacturer near his home in Seattle. "He got off to a great start, and I just couldn't catch him."

For his part, McGregor credits Barton with fueling in him the competitive fires needed to survive what he now calls "the toughest 30 days of my life." In fact, when the two men shook hands at the awards ceremony after the race, McGregor implored Barton to make one last try at the 1996 Olympics. Although Barton, now married and working full time, told McGregor he could no longer afford to take the time necessary to train, McGregor was unmoved. "You're still the best in the world," he said.

Asked if he plans on defending his own title, McGregor leaves little doubt. Even though the Clean Water Challenge next year will consist of 12 shorter regional races, a move designed to avoid conflict with the Atlanta Games, he still wants no part. "I'm never going to race again," he said, perhaps remembering that hellishly hot day on Lake Erie. "I came here to beat Greg Barton, and I did that. Why would I ever want to go through this again?"

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