The South African has recently taken up the newly-established position of the Canoe Racing NZ Development Coach based out of Cambridge. We find out more about the 34-year-old, who boasts 15 years of success both domestically and on the international stage.
Born and raised in Pietermaritzburg – about one-hour north west of Durban – Craig was introduced to kayaking as a 12-year-old. A lower back injury sustained playing rugby prompted the doctor to suggest a change of sport. A school teacher and coincidentally a former winner of the Dusi Canoe Marathon – South Africa’s flagship canoe marathon – suggested he give kayaking a go, which set him on a fresh sporting journey.
“I enjoyed swimming and being in the water, so I loved canoeing from the get-go,” he says. “It was a fun activity.”
An 18-month educational exchange programme during his school years to Belgium in 2001-2 provided a significant spur for Craig’s kayak career. Spending a period living with a host family of paddlers, he joined the local club and fully embraced the kayak culture.
“My time in Belgium was a big boost for me to take paddling more seriously,” he explains. “It was my first taste of formal coaching and my first time as part of a club set up, which acted as a springboard for my competitive development.”
On his return to Pietermaritzburg – a hotbed for South African kayaking – he began to make gains as a competitor. He competed at the World Wildwater and World Marathon Championships – finishing 12th in the junior section of the 2003 edition of the latter event. That same year in sprint canoeing, Craig snared a K4 1000m bronze medal for South Africa at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival.
Later featuring as part of the South African U23 sprint canoeing squad he official retired from competition in 2007 – at the age of 22.
He began coaching part-time in 2004 at a couple of private schools in South Africa, initially to earn some extra money. After a brief stint working in brand activation and marketing he decided to return back to kayaking to focus on a full-time coaching career.
“I realised coaching was something I was passionate about,” explains Craig. “At that time (in the late Noughties) there was a bit of a disconnect because many of the coaches in South Africa came out of Eastern Europe. I wanted to bridge that gap, so I drew on their knowledge and got my coaching qualifications.”
Wealth of knowledge
For more than a decade, Craig has built up a vast amount of coaching knowledge working in a range of roles for the Kwa Zulu Natal Canoe Union and Natal Canoe Club. He has worked as Head Coach, High Performance Co-ordinator and Elite Athlete Development Programme Co-ordinator. He has served as a South African team manager for the ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships and as head coach for the junior and under-23 Canoe Sprint World Championships.
He also served as assistant coach to Bridgitte Hartley, the 2012 Rio Olympic K1 500m bronze medallist, at the 2016 Rio Olympics and guided Jean Van der Westhuyzen to the junior men’s K1 1000m bronze medal at the 2016 World Junior and U23 Sprint Championships in Belarus.
“I was fortunate to be able to make a living out of something I loved and I was lucky to work with a lot of fantastic individuals,” explains Craig of his time coaching in South Africa in which he also run his own private coaching company – High Performance Training.
Despite never having previously visited New Zealand, Craig was excited at the prospect of taking up the role of Development Coach with Canoe Racing NZ by supporting athletes and coaches at Foundation, Paddle ID and P2P level.
“For me, the opportunity to experience a new culture and try something new is very exciting,” he explains. “I’m super fascinated by New Zealand sport, it is such a small country but always produces many top-quality high performance athletes. One of the big drawcards of the role of Development Coach is to work alongside aspiring athletes as part of a well-structured programme and help them attain a certain level.”
In the short-term, Craig plans to take over the interim coaching role of the men’s programme before solely focusing on the role as Development Coach. In his brief time in New Zealand he has been impressed by the potential within the men’s elite squad.
“There are a good bunch of young men who have been training to a high level or the long time,” he explains. “We are here to support them and help them achieve better results.”
In terms of the development role he hopes to identify clear pathways and interact with club coaches to aid coach education and help bridge that gap on paddlers journey to high performance.
“I’d really like to see a streamlined pathway in which athletes and coaches are all familiar with the steps needed to reach the top,” he explains.
“Knowing what is expected of them, and what they have access to on their competitive journey from beginning to end is important. It is nice to think everybody would working towards a common goal. This will ensure the best results for New Zealand at a junior, senior and even club level.”