404km paddling quest for Men’s Health in Swan Hill

The majestic Murray River in Swan Hill is a sight to behold at the moment; vivacious, spirited and sparkling with life as it flows with a steady stream of confidence through our region, making a positive impression on locals and visitors alike. It is the lifeblood of our community and after a spate of recent events embracing our magical Riverside Park banks, we are in for a different treat next Friday 25th November. A group of diverse paddlers plan to grace our Mallee shores between 1pm and 5pm, as they complete the treacherous final leg of the renown Massive Murray Paddle.

And massive it is. Starting out in Yarrawonga on Monday 21st November, approximately 350-400 paddlers (over a large cross section of unique events and categories) will embark on a tedious five-day paddling journey of 404 kilometres – one of the largest of its kind in the world. And luckily for us, this reputable race that brings people from all over the nation, will be ending right here in our own backyard.

The river will be a vision of colour and variety as paddlers attempt the different categories and sections of the race. While some will paddle in a relay team, as a double, quad or even in an array of crafts such as a stand-up paddle board, surf boat or in a DIY home made version, some will be completing the demanding journey completely solo.

Greg Roberts, CEO of Murray Downs Golf and Country Club, is one of those daring people preparing to take on the massive feat for his second time this year. After completing the event in 2014 with a close friend in a double – while raising a staggering $16,000 for a YMCA Youth Leadership program in Swan Hill – Greg and his team mate set their sights on a similar goal this year. Unfortunately, their plans were dashed when Greg’s paddling partner suddenly developed bowel cancer just a few weeks later.

After much deliberation, Greg still plans to tackle the challenging course solo, but not without the underlying drive and determination brought about by his friend’s illness. With a younger brother who has experienced bowel and liver cancer recently, and his paddling friend who is living through this harsh reality at present, Greg’s fundraising plight took an alternative path. “I just thought, ‘I want to do something for men’s health.’”

His motivation became even more apparent when his resultant calls were unsuccessful. “If you want to do something for women’s health, you get in touch with ‘Women Touched by Cancer,’ but there is nothing for men,’ claimed Greg. So he approached the Health Promotion Department at Swan Hill District Health about how he could raise money for a program to help create men’s health awareness in our community.

So in conjunction with the Health Promotion Department, and under the Swan Hill Club name, Greg will not only set out on an extreme personal challenge in his sea kayak on Monday, but he aims to provide a much needed service to the people of Swan Hill. And as of Wednesday the fundraising total had already reached a mind-blowing $15,350.

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Greg Roberts is all set for the 404km solo journey next week.

Originally from Sydney and moving to the area over eight years ago, Greg claims he was a complete beginner up until 2014 when they decided to enter the event that year. “The first one was an eye opener. I didn’t realise how hard it would be,” said Greg. “It is physically and mentally demanding.” Something his teenage daughters didn’t realise until he told them to try sitting on the floor in an upright position with their legs out straight for forty minutes. “They couldn’t even last ten minutes. Then they had some concept of what eight hours paddling was like,” said Greg.

Although physically and mentally taxing, the thing that surprised Greg most about the event was the people.  “Everyone talks about the challenge. But the thing that shocked me the most was the camaraderie on the river,” explained Greg. “People looked out for each other (on and off course) all the time. ‘How are you travelling? Do you need help?’ ” And with such high river levels, this year comes with the added benefit of picturesque elevated views.

Greg is not the only Swan Hill resident who will be paddling into the home crowd next Friday afternoon in Riverside Park. Swan Hill residents Anthony Duffin (raising money for the Jane McGrath Foundation) and Hayden Collins (choosing to generously donate his time to the MASP Kokoda Youth Mentoring program and using Movember as a secondary fundraiser), are courageously taking on the solo challenge in less than a week also. Meeting Hayden through the local Canoe Club two just two years ago, and training frequently together this year, Greg light-heartedly joked, “Hayden is a much better paddler, but he’s probably got two decades on me too.”

Four dedicated local female residents – Kylie Kelly, Sandra Whitfield, Kirsty Russel and Teresa O’Brien  – who started paddling for fun at the start of the year, are also setting out to complete the unthinkable task under the relay team name YOLO, while generously raising much needed funds for Swan Hill Women Touched by Cancer.

While there are a number of groups of youth competing such as The Blues & Brothers (a group of Victoria Police members and indigenous youth) and Blue Mountains Grammar School, there is scope to get more young people involved in this community event in future. “It would be great for the local schools to get involved,” said Greg.

And with new owners, Sydney Harbour Sea Kayaks, enthusiastically taking the reins and injecting some new life into this massive event in 2016, the race is stronger than ever. “They’ve done a really good job with social media and all the hype leading up to the event. There’s been so much more this year than there’s ever been,” said Greg. And the entry numbers reflect its continued success.

Paddling in Swan Hill is one of those local sports that could easily fall by the wayside with a widely held assumption that it is inaccessible to the majority. But Greg says that is not the case. Last year after completing the race they donated their double kayak to the Swan Hill Canoe Club and Greg says there are canoes there for people to practise in. “They are fantastic. If you said, ‘look I’ve never paddled, but I’m interested in getting involved, can I come down?’ They would meet you there and take you out on a boat. They were so good to us when we first started.”

Greg recalls their initial paddling attempt vividly. “The first night we went down to the Canoe Club two years ago, they put us in these boats and we fell out; left, right and centre. It was free comedy for probably three weeks,” Greg said. However, with the help of more experienced paddlers at the club, and lots of practice, they soon mastered the art of paddling. “We did it in a 730 last time, and they are almost unsinkable,” said Greg.

Greg believes the first section is going to be the most challenging. Paddlers are set to take on 93km of river in just one day, but due to the recent flooding, they will now repeat this leg on day two. “It’s the longest day, and although there is a bit of hype surrounding the first day, you have to back it up and do the same thing the next day,” said Greg. “It’s a big mental challenge.”

This year Echuca have embraced the event. Day three is set to culminate on their shores after 78km on the river, and after three days of tiresome paddling, competitors are in for a smorgasbord of food and entertainment that night in the historic Port of Echuca. The fourth day – a meagre 62km in comparison (but a marathon in itself to the rest of us) – has them residing in the small local town of Murrabit for their final night before the concluding stretch of 77km into Swan Hill on Friday.

As the week-long paddling journey culminates in Riverside Park next Friday afternoon and the park is lit up with excitement and relief, it really is worth coming down to support hundreds of competitors in their final leg of this epic challenge. Presentations will take place in Riverside Park followed by the “After Party” at the Swan Hill Club with live music from 8:30pm.  As an event that has been bringing our Murray River to life for many decades – not to mention the endless benefits it provides our local communities as hundreds of people seek accommodation, entertainment, places to eat and raise money for vital community projects – it remains a ‘massive’ asset to the region.

Since 1969 the spirit of giving has been at the core of this popular event. And it is uplifting to see, that after 48 years of paddling through the various towns abreast our region’s iconic Murray River, its authenticity remains. The event’s slogan ‘connecting people, river, and country’ truly reflects the origins of our mighty river and keeps our generous community spirit alive.

If you wish to support Greg’s efforts and help raise awareness for Men’s Health you can do so on their facebook page https://www.facebook.com/menshealthswanhill/ or you can donate direct at https://www.mycause.com.au/page/141577/mens-health-swan-hill

If you want to find out more about Team Yolo and ‘Swan Hill Women Touched by Cancer, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/TeamYOLOpaddling/

For more information about the event visit the event website www.massivemurraypaddle.org.au

Alternatively, you can visit and like their Facebook page to stay updated https://www.facebook.com/massivemurraypaddle/

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Training on the river in Swan Hill
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