Lee McGregor


His entry in the 1973 SAASU Yearbook: McGregor, Lee (Western Province, formerly of Transvaal/Natal; swimming): Born Cape Town, 11 November 1951, School Marist Brothers College, first nationals 1967, first Springbok colours 1969, vs Rhodesia. 

A contemporary of swimming legend Karen Muir (above), Lee excelled in the pool until retiring in 1972, and making a brief comeback in 1977.  

Like other Springbok swimmers who continue to make headlines - Paul Blackbeard, Graham Hill, Kevin Richards and Jonty Skinner - he also excelled in surf lifesaving, winning Springbok colours against Australia in 1973. 

Today he continues to add to his international accomplishments as a sailor, ocean ironman, surfski racer and river paddler. Lee has represented South Africa over 50 times in surf-ski, canoeing, surf lifesaving and swimming events.

    • 2013 7th Berg River marathon - age 61
    • 2012 Winner Gold and Bronze World masters K-1 & K-2 Champs, Rome, Italy
    • 2012 400 m Freestyle, South African Masters Record-holder
    • 2006 -2011  Kayak Marathon Coach, won numerous Gold Medals, Junior & Senior Titles
    • 2004-2007  Olympic Kayak Coach, South Africa
    • 2002 South African Surf Ironman Champion
    • 1995 Finlandia Champion, Chicago to New York
    • 1972 Olympic Swimming Captain for South Africa to Munich Olympics
    • 5 titles at SA Championships - two SA records

His earlier sailing career is equally impressive: in 1970 he was skipper on a yacht exploring the reefs of Europe Island, in the late 70s he sailed around the World with his family and skippered maxis on the international circuit for a few years. Actually he paddled a canoe for the first time only in 1985, but then never looked back and had many victories locally and overseas.

I have represented South Africa in numerous watersports, from swimming to surf lifesaving, surfski paddling, canoeing and  surf iron man.  I have broken world records, won world titles from Masters swimming to canoeing.

My goal has always been to think BIG.

I have coached all my life from under 10 swimmers to being South Arican Olympic  Canoeing Coach. What now? After recently sailing half a million miles on a yacht, I´ve looked back on my life and realised that my happiest times have been paddling and coaching. So here I am back again in Durban with my son... doing what I love doing. Having fun.

And having fun is winning!

Lee McGregor

The Race Of A Lifetime

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

October 16, 1995

On a scorching day last July, Lee McGregor of South Africa paddled his kayak up to a makeshift finish line at a pier on Lake Erie, in Buffalo. McGregor, his massive shoulders heaving, hurried out of his sleek fiberglass craft, stumbled past a group of startled onlookers and ducked into his station wagon, which his wife, Sherley, had parked nearby. "That day, I was so tired and sore that I climbed into the back of my car and just hid," the 43-year-old McGregor recalls with a laugh. "I was leading the race, but I didn't want to talk to anybody. Tears were rolling down my face. I couldn't slop shaking. I just wanted to go home."

McGregor had just finished Day 12 of the Finlandia Vodka Clean Water Challenge, a 30-day, 765-mile endurance kayak race from Chicago to New York City. The annual race requires competitors to paddle portions of the Great Lakes, eight rivers, the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean for a $25,000 first prize and the challenge of testing the limits of human physical exertion. "It's got to be the craziest race ever invented," says McGregor, who, despite his fatigue, held off 15 other competitors over the final 18 days to win. 'After paddling four hours every day for that many days, your body has simply had it. I don't think I'll ever get in a kayak again."

McGregor may have been exaggerating about his future, but not about the race. The Clean Water Challenge, the longest kayak race in the world, is so grueling that it attracts elite marathon paddlers from around the world. "It's unlike any race I know," says Greg Barton, 35, a four-time Olympic kayak medalist from Seattle who finished second in this year's Challenge after winning it in 1994. "Some kayak races last two or three days, but there's nothing in the world to compare with this."

Aching shoulders, sunburn and mental fatigue brought on by hours of constant rowing are just a few of the afflictions that Challenge competitors endure. They spend an average of four hours a day on the water, typically covering 20 to 30 miles, and their times are recorded for each day's stage. They hit six states in all: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

"You can't specifically train for something like this, because the race is so long that if you did the miles for it, you'd destroy yourself," says Dean Gardiner, a 30-year-old Australian who has won numerous world paddle events and who came in second in the '94 Challenge. "It's easy to get bored with sprint races, but this race is different, and it's not a bad way to see this part of the country, either."

The Clean Water Challenge was created in 1993 by Finlandia, the Finnish vodka distiller, to promote recreational water sports, environmental awareness and, of course, vodka. In addition to offering prize money, Finlandia donates $50,000 to nonprofit groups dedicated to protecting waterways along the race route.

Anybody with the courage and desire to paddle 765 miles can enter the race, but competitors must supply their own equipment. They use two types of boats, racing kayaks and surf skis. A racing kayak is an open-cockpit craft that weighs a mere 15 to 20 pounds and is used for speed and flat water sprints. A surf ski is a heavier (25 to 30 pounds), sit-on-top craft, with a small cavity on top in which the paddler sits. It is better than a kayak for riding waves. Regardless of which vessel a competitor uses on a given day, he or she must carry a spare paddle, a life jacket, safety flares and a VHF radio. Racers also make sure to carry plenty of liquids.

During the Challenge, athletes spend evenings at campsites or nearby motels, often eating together and sharing laughs about the day's events. "Believe it or not, it's really a lot of fun," says Joe Glickman, a 36-year-old journalist from Brooklyn, who has competed in all three Clean Water Challenges. "Nothing brings people together like shared suffering. None of us here are suit-and-tie people, so we all seem to get along real well. From Day 1 a lot of friendships are formed. And after two weeks it's like a family."

On the water, however, there is little time for chitchat—at least among the elite competitors at the front of the pack. There, racers spend hours paddling side by side, jockeying for position. As in bicycle racing, the leader often must endure racers "drafting" in his wake, conserving energy while waiting for an opportunity to dart by. "There is some strategy involved, especially in flat conditions where you get a pack race," says Barton, who became the first American male ever to win Olympic gold in the kayak when he took both the 1,000 meters and the 1,000-meter doubles at the 1988 Games in Seoul. "When that happens, the guy in the lead is essentially pulling the other people, and the other racers can conserve their energy for the finish."

This strategy hindered Barton as he attempted to gain on McGregor during the final days of this year's race. McGregor, well-versed in rough-water paddling from his experience in coastal racing back home in South Africa, built a 30-minute lead over Barton in the early days on the relatively choppy Great Lakes. Thereafter Barton, who is considered the best flat-water paddler in the world, could never break away from McGregor, who simply drafted him over the flatter Erie Canal phase of the race. "It was frustrating, but Lee was simply better prepared to race than I was," Barton says.

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?"

Sixty-plus paddlers smash record

6 November 2015

A local man and his fellow sexagenarian paddling partner have broken the record for crossing the Gulf Stream, off the coast of the United States.

Former South African swimmer Lee McGregor, 64, and American kayak gold medallist Bruce Gipson, 61, have bettered the 31-year-old record for the fastest crossing.

The duo partnered for the record attempt to raise awareness and funds for a US military veterans welfare group.

Spokeswoman for the record attempt, Cassandra Cardenas of TransMedia Group, said both men had illustrious kayak backgrounds and made the crossing from Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Fort Lauderdale, in Florida, in 8 hours, 7 minutes and 59 seconds.

Speaking from Florida this week, Gipson said the toughest stretch had been the last few kilometres. Keeping focused was the key.

“Our energy was depleted in the heat and humidity of 90 degrees for the eight hours. It was very warm, even when we started before daylight,” said the Boca Raton, Florida, athlete.

They left at 5 am on Monday and arrived just after 1 pm. This is the fastest recorded time for crossing the Gulf Stream under human power.

Gipson said they averaged almost 7 miles an hour in less than ideal following sea conditions.

“Naturally drained, mostly from the dehydration rate, but overall we felt we did well. We have no complaints. Lee is 64 and I am 61, so to have all cylinders firing and arriving safely with a new record, you have to be thankful,” he said.

After they arrived ashore, both McGregor and Gipson went home and cooked a celebratory supper of a dorado the captain of their support boat had given them.

“He trolled for fish as we paddled. We watched him pull in a big one in the middle of the Gulf Stream. It was the only fish he caught, and he filleted it when we came back and gave all of it to us as our present. Best fish I ever had, worth the journey,” he said.

Gipson described McGregor as a great waterman, competitor, friend and coach to many people. He was grateful to have completed the challenge with him.

“Coming back here after 31 years when I crossed solo was for me a strange feeling. Once I was in the water and going, I was normal again,” Gipson said.

They both wore paddling shorts throughout the challenge.

“I can tell you eight hours sitting confined in the surf ski seat is not your dad’s lazy boy chair,” he joked.

McGregor could not be reached for comment. He was due to return to Durban on November 19.

McGregor is the father of Hank McGregor, also from Durban, a five times World Canoe Senior Marathon champ and winner of multiple canoe and surfski races around the globe.

Hank has been nominated in the sportsman of the year category for the KwaZulu-Natal Sports Award 2015, to be held next Saturday at the ICC in Durban.

Cape Times - 29 February 1979. Lee McGregor and his wife Shirley, daughter Candice, and one year old son Hank McGregor on their yacht Stormkaap at Punta del Este.