(By Alton Chewning)
The Duffek stroke is one of the most enigmatic techniques in the history of kayaking. The stroke itself is hard to pin down and many names: bow draw, hanging draw, pivot stroke, bow rudder and more. Some people don’t even consider it a stroke but a maneuver or a series of actions to make a quick directional change with minimal loss of speed. While the stroke is widely attributed to Swiss/Czech racer, Milo Duffek, some maintain it was “invented” before Duffek’s time, that he only popularized it. Duffek himself makes few claims on its originality. Oddly, the Duffek stroke could have descended from a flatwater canoe technique that then made its way into whitewater slalom racing via Milo, and perhaps others. After dominating the sport for years, the stroke’s use slowly declined and settled back into the quiver of techniques for traditional river running. But the history of the Duffek stroke is complex—and so is the story of Milo, the person.
Milo’s tale is one of the most dramatic ever told in international racing, involving Cold War politics, secret weapons, subterfuge and a life-changing race. Milo (pronounced Mee lo) Duffek was born in Czechoslovakia in 1928. After World War II, the nation was enveloped in the communist sphere of influence under Soviet Russia. Milo was born into an affluent family and wanted to become a doctor like his father but at that time the communist rulers frowned on bourgeois society and impeded his chances of higher education.
Milo determined athletics were his best path forward. Throughout his life Milo excelled at various sports, especially ski racing. He became interested in paddling while marching alongside the kayak team in a May Day parade in Prague. He rapidly excelled at canoe slalom but despite his obvious skill, the governing boards did not allow him to compete in international events. In 1949, he accompanied the Czech flatwater team to Geneva and saw his first whitewater race. At age 22, he converted to whitewater slalom and in 1951, as the best Czech racer, he was allowed to compete in the Internationals in Austria. By 1953 the stage was set for Duffek to exhibit his remarkable skills on an international level in Merano, Italy… and to debut his secret weapon.
As writer, racer and coach Bill Endicott tells the story, Duffek’s innovation came while practicing high brace rolls. Duffek started to tip over and caught himself with a high brace. He found he could subtly alter the angle of the supporting blade and change boat direction while bringing the boat closer to the paddle. This progressed to using a nearly vertical positioning of the paddle with one hand at forehead height (or above) and the other holding the paddle close to the water and feathering as needed to effect directional change. The paddler uses his or her body to draw the boat to the paddle during this sequence. At an International competition in the river town of Merano, Italy, in 1953, this promised to be a game-changer.
“The Passer River flows right through the middle of the town and you can sit high above the river at a café while watching the antics below,” says Endicott of the 1953 Championships. “An ancient Roman bridge, the Ponte Romano in Italian, spans the river, providing a spectacular setting for the championships of one of the most colorful of sports.”
According to Endicott, Czech authorities were reluctant to allow Duffek to compete there, for fear of his attempting defection. Apparently, Duffek was displaying an independent spirit at this time. To humble Duffek, the communist organizers said he could only compete if he beat the East Germans in the preliminary races. The East Germans were the elite K1 paddlers of the time, but Duffek persevered and won, frustrating the authorities but gaining a position on the team for the International Championships. But his participation came with a catch. Milo would be accompanied at the competition by a guard who would spend every minute, night and day, with him.
In this breathtaking scenery and tight security, the secret weapon was unveiled, the Duffek stroke. In the practice runs, competitors from other countries saw Duffek and other Czech paddlers using a series of moves that allowed quick turns around gates. Up until now the accepted method of turning the long kayaks was the reverse sweep which was effective but speed killing. Duffek’s method allowed for tight turns followed by immediate forward strokes. The Duffek stroke and its variations are fairly advanced and no doubt other racers experimented with it in the time before the race; however, the consensus was Duffek would win the event handily.
Now we enter the shrouded reasoning of Milo’s mind. He was a gifted athlete who had dedicated his life to success in his sport. Duffek had met political resistance and persevered. He was on the world’s largest stage and was set to make history. He had beaten the Austrian and East German racers considered the best in the world. Surrounded by all these glorious possibilities, in the final run of the competition, Duffek failed. He placed fourth or was it 27th?
The Duffek mystery fogs the recorded history of the event. In any event, he lost. How? On approaching Gate 14, a relatively easy flatwater gate, he brushed it with the bow of his kayak, resulting in a then-standard 100-second penalty. Why? Duffek was known to be somewhat careless in his paddling at times, of displaying nonchalance to the outcome once his superior skill was evident. As Endicott noted, “Milo was a flashy racer, capable of brilliant moves, but he lacked consistency; some said concentration.” Later, in the 1959 Internationals, Milo was significantly ahead of the competition, when he simply missed the last gate, going right past it. So, in Merano, in 1953, was this what happened, a mental lapse, a lack of concentration? Or did he have another angle on the race?
Milo had spent time considering other plans beyond unveiling his new stroke or winning the event. Years later Milo said he felt winning his division would draw too much attention, making his new plans of escape to the West more difficult to realize. So, if he is to be believed, the Duffek maneuver, the Duffek deception led to the Duffek “Duffection.”
Some versions of Milo’s throwing of the race have him missing the final slalom gate and continuing to paddle on to Switzerland and freedom. Considering the gate he missed was number 14 and not the last, and that the Passer River flows into the Adige River, which empties into the Adriatic Sea in northwestern Italy, Milo could not paddle on to freedom. His departure, or Duffection if you will, came soon after the concluding festivities. By now, Milo’s bodyguard was invested in Milo’s success, acting not only as an overseer but also as an assistant, helping him move boats and other gear. The guard took Milo’s defeat to heart and during the celebrations drank morosely and liberally. So the story goes that Milo excused himself, went to the men’s room and escaped from a bathroom window. Milo hid with the Swiss racers and left with them to begin his new life in Geneva. The fate of the bodyguard is not recorded…
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