Long distance, surf ski and sprint paddlers rejoice: South African paddling legend Oscar Chalupsky, along with co-author Graham Spence, have a new memoir on Chalupsky out, called “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
Read Review by Nancy Soares
“No Retreat, No Surrender” starts out with a bang, and like Oscar it doesn’t quit. The story starts with his cancer diagnosis in 2019, then leaps back to Oscar’s childhood in Durban, South Africa. Born into a family of smart, tough boat builders and paddlers, he also lived next to some of the best beaches and surf in the world. Opportunities to paddle and race on both river and sea abounded, and there was also the Durban Surf Lifesaving Club, which had a massive impact on his development into a phenom.
Oscar’s father and grandfather taught him the mindset of a champion. The message: you want something, you earn it. Oscar discovers he’s a natural competitor and the story takes the reader from his competition as a young teenager in the Iron Nipper (“they didn’t use the word ‘iron’ for nothing”) to the 1977 and ’79 National Surf Lifesaving Championships and beyond. By training for these events, young Oscar learned lessons about preparation, mindset, fitness and determination that would serve him for life.
Nicely, each chapter ends with a brief section on Lessons Learned — from Chapter 3, “Ignore negative people”; from Chapter 6, which centers on the Molokai Challenge: “The big picture was too scary to contemplate, so I decided to take each step as it came”; from Chapter 8: “Positive aggression can be good. Don’t worry what other people think”; and in Chapter 26: “It’s never too late to reinvent yourself”.
Oscar is a natural at rough water swimming and paddling and his path has been as rough as the water. Starting out as a young unknown, he encountered the entrenched old guard resistance that so often tries to stifle new talent. In the 1983 Texas Challenge the real challenge came not from his competitors but from officialdom. Oscar surmises that race officials “didn’t want to believe anyone could paddle that fast” when he smashed the course time by 30 minutes.
Oscar made it to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and learned more lessons, both philosophical and technical. For example, while in Durban before the Molokai Challenge he paddled a weighted boat in full winter gear wearing a wetsuit. When he went to Molokai, paddling in the Kaiwi Channel without the extra weight or the wetsuit Oscar flew, winning the race 12 times.
Throughout the book, Oscar expresses appreciation for the support he receives from family, friends, business people and fellow paddlers. “No one succeeds in their life on their own,” he says. His brother Herman, an elite paddler in his own right, pushed Oscar during competitions, challenging him to produce faster times. About the 1985 Texas Challenge Oscar says, “There is no doubt that two brothers pushing each other to the absolute extremity resulted in such a fast time”, although later during the 1995 Molokai Challenge they crossed the finish line holding on to each other’s skis, bows exactly equal.
The book goes back and forth from talking about competitive sports to talking about business, both often navigated the same way. As a husband and father Oscar needed to make money not only to support his racing but also to support his family. Starting out in the world of finance, over the years he moved into a full-time career in the paddling world, starting Chalupsky Paddling and Adventure School, going into business with Greg Barton to found Epic Kayaks, finally ending up in Portugal with Manuel Ramos and Nelo Kayaks. Then there’s the World Cup series of six races, the first series of which was held in 2006/07 with the US Championship in San Francisco, the Australian World Championship in Perth, and the Dubai Shamaal in 2006, then in 2007 the King of the Harbour in New Zealand, the Molokai Challenge, and the Durban ARB Surf Ski World Cup. Thanks to this brainchild of Rob Mousley, a founder member of Surfski.info, Oscar became champion of the world at 44 years old while beating much younger paddlers. As for the Molokai Challenge, Oscar won it for the 12th time in 2012 at 49 years old. “Age is not everything,” Oscar says.
And he helped convert kayaking into a multiracial sport, especially at the three-day, 120-km Dusi Canoe Marathon, the most celebrated river race in South Africa. The Dusi started back in the 1950’s, but in an effort to boost entries, Oscar started taking celebrities like Unathi Msengana, a judge on the popular TV show Idols, and soccer legend Doc Khumalo down the river through jutting rocks, slick portages, and raging rapids. As Oscar says, the response was “simply staggering”. It got to where one time he and his paddling partner Clive Barker, the South African soccer coach who steered the national team to victory, had around 30 youngsters vying to carry their kayak on a portage. Crime in the valley practically disappeared, the race grew in numbers, black participation grew exponentially, media coverage expanded, and sponsorship grew. Black paddlers now dominate the first 10 places in the Dusi Marathon.
In 2019 Oscar was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer and given six months to live. Three years later he’s still here and still paddling and even looking for a surfski designed for big-wave riding so he can catch the 100-footers that roll in to the little town of Nazare in Portugal. As he went through cancer treatment he continued to learn lessons, and the importance of sharing your experiences.
The pace of this book, like Oscar himself, does not let up. Graham Spence has done a marvelous job of teaming up with Oscar to write a tremendous addition to the all-too-slim collection of works by and about the elite athletes of our kayak world. Athletes and non-athletes, kayakers and non-kayakers alike will love this book. Deep gratitude to Oscar for firing me up, moving me to tears, and galvanizing my enthusiasm and love of life. “No Retreat, No Surrender” is a paean to Life, to living life with passion, humor, enjoyment, and determination. Bravo!
Donate to Oscar’s cancer fundraiser here: http://campaign4cancer.co.za/wp/
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