4 October 2013
South Africa had just one participant at the first ever ICF Para-Canoe World Championships in Duisberg, Germany in August. Stu Hogg is taking the country’s rich paddling tradition in a new direction.
Five years ago, while studying in Durban, Hogg was asleep as a passenger in a car when it was involved in an accident. He was thrown out of the back window of the vehicle, suffering a broken neck, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae in his lower back and a head injury. He was in a deep coma for a short while. He has since undergone two operations on his neck.
“Luckily, the guy who operated on me, one of the top neuro-surgeons, was available that next morning,” Hogg, now 24, told SAinfo during an interview this week. “He and another neuro-surgeon did the operation, and apparently it was quite a thing because they had to operate through the front and the back of my neck. They had to put a cage-like device into my neck to fuse the vertebrae.
“Straight away, when I went to rehab, what kept me going was the thought of paddling again. They were telling me that I might not walk again. My mental drive was to try and get back in a boat, and to walk out of the hospital.”
Hogg had won national colours as a junior, but wearing them again appeared to be a distant memory because para-canoeing did not exist when he suffered his injury. And it took some time before he was able to take to the water again.
“It took me a good three years to get walking. I could walk within a couple of months, but not comfortably. It took me a while to get walking properly and comfortable with myself,” he explained.
“Then I found out about para-canoeing. It was a new sport, so I thought I might as well give that a bash, so last year I started training – just very basic, getting into a boat, but I was very weak. It took me a long time to just being able to paddle.”
The reward for Hogg’s hard work has been wonderful, he said. “Now, being able to compete, once I am on the water and training I don’t really feel disabled anymore. I feel like part of the paddling community again, regardless of my disability. I feel like a normal paddler now.
“That feeling helps me with the rest of my life because if I feel normal on the water I can feel a bit more normal when I am not on the water.
“The paddling guys have been a big help to me. Everyone has been really nice.”
“I am a lot slower than I used to be, but other than that everyone treats me the same as they did before the accident. I would rather be treated how they treated me before than have people trying to make special arrangements for me. They help out, but make me feel that I’m just one of the guys again.”
In Duisberg, Hogg was back in the green-and-gold, and after all the effort it had taken to once again represent South Africa he truly appreciated the experience. “I had really missed that feeling [of sporting the national colours]. It was special,” he said.
Competing in the K1 200 metres LTA (legs, trunk, arms), he finished eighth in his heat and missed the semi-finals by one place.
‘A big disadvantage’
Looking back on his experiences at the first ICF Para-canoe World Championships, Hogg said: “This year it was very hard to compete because they put me in a very difficult class. I was racing with guys who had, for example, a problem with a leg, and it’s very hard for me to have half my body – an arm, my trunk and leg issues – to compete with someone missing a foot, especially because of a lot of spasticity in the nerve function. It’s a big disadvantage. Someone with a leg problem has an upper body that is still 100 percent.
“My results this year weren’t great, but all I wanted this year was to get in the system. They have spoken about changing my class. I’ll know about that next year.”
“In the long term, I am hoping that they change the whole classification system by putting in more classes for guys with different disabilities, just to try and even the competition out,” he said.
“This year was a start. I know where I stand, what I’ve got to work on. For now I’m going to work to get as fast as I can be. If they change the classes, that’s a bonus. If not, I am just going to have to work harder.”