'Dusi King' Pope-Ellis dies

2010-06-18 13:09

Durban - Veteran canoeist Graeme Pope-Ellis, a 15-times winner of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, died in an accident on his farm in Pietermaritzburg on Thursday.

Pope-Ellis, 62, was driving his tractor, doing some ploughing, when the tractor rolled over him, according to a statement released by the Dusi organising committee.

Between 1972 and 1990 Pope-Ellis, who completed the three-day race 46 times in succession from the age of 17, won a record 15 times and placed second on three occasions. Only a broken boat in 1979 prevented him from finishing among the top two for 19 consecutive years.

Martin Dreyer, who was coached by Pope-Ellis and stayed at his farm near the Uzimdusi River in the early part of his career, is next best with seven wins.

Pope-Ellis's 15 victories include three in a K1 boat and 12 in a K2 with three different partners - Eric Clarke, Peter Peacock and Tim Cornish.

In an article published on the Mail and Guardian website in January, in which writer Kevin Davie argued that Pope-Ellis is the greatest sportsman produced in South Africa, Dreyer praised his mentor, who took him under his wing when Dreyer was looking for guidance as a young paddler.

“Graeme was everything I ever want to be, as an athlete, a devoted husband to Wendy and father to Lee, and just as a human being,” said Dreyer.

“When I arrived on the scene in 1998 with serious plans to get into the top 10, no-one really wanted to help because I was a threat. But not Graeme. He took me into his home for months, and showed me everything he knew about the race.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Dreyer.

“There I was, a kid reading “Pope’s” autobiography in total awe, and he was taking me into his home and teaching me everything me knew.”

“I had a deal with Graeme, which sadly I am not going to be able to honour,” added Dreyer. “I promised that I would do the Dusi with him when he was 70. But the Dusi will always be about Graeme Pope-Ellis. For ever. There is no need to try and manufacture any other tribute to him,” Dreyer said.

Ant Stott was another Dusi champion who was shaped by Pope-Ellis from his days as an aspirant Maritzburg College schoolboy.

“I'm devastated,” said Stott. “He was one of the greatest role-models in my life. I loved his gentleness and humility.

“He was a total icon in our lives, and taught us a huge amount,” Stott added. “He would pick us up from school, take us to the river, show us his "lines” down the rapids and for these kindnesses I will be eternally grateful.”

“It's going to be hard to imagine races in future without him there. He was just always there, at even the lesser canoe races. He filled a huge space and will leave a massive gap,” Stott said.

Current Olympian and former winner of the Hansa Powerade Dusi junior title Shaun Rubenstein was another who’s life was shaped by Pope-Ellis, ever since he met him as a wide-eyed five year old.

“I was the proudest guy in the world when I used to be taken to my judo competitions by the “Dusi King”, recalls Rubenstein. “It was when I decided to give the Dusi a shot at 15 that he really took me under his wing and taught me so much.”

“Graeme and his wife Wendy were like parents to me,” said Rubenstein. “They opened their homes and their hearts to me. When I won the world marathon championships, the first person I phoned from France after my parents was Graeme Pope-Ellis.”

“Graeme made me who I am today as a paddler. He taught me the work ethic I follow today, and, even though he wasn’t a sprinter he took such a keen, enthusiastic interest in my career. I can still that croak in his voice when I phoned him to tell him that I had qualified for the Olympics,” Rubenstein added.

“Graeme taught me to get out of bed with a smile on my face, every day,” says Rubenstein. “He had such passion for life and it rubbed off on everyone around him.”

Tim Cornish won four Dusi titles with Pope-Ellis, and was reeling in shock at the news of his death.

“He was absolutely meticulous in his preparation,” said Cornish. “I only had to train and paddle with him. Tactics, local knowledge, equipment and preparation was all taken care of. He was amazing.”

Pope-Ellis will always be remembered for his epic Dusi duel with Danny Biggs, and the two classic encounters with young upstart John Edmonds, which are still on record as the closest Dusi finishes in history.

“I've known him since I was eight,” said a shattered John Edmonds. “I remember I was allowed a turn with the hard roller when he helped my brothers build their first boat- he had the neighbouring farm,” recalls Edmonds fondly.

“I loved the needle Graeme was always able to bring to our paddling, even until recently – he was such a competitor! I loved the secrets he said he knew about the Dusi routes,” added.

“It’s really sad that we have lost him when he was just starting to relax,” added Edmonds. “From having been totally self-made, he was now able to host out-of-province paddlers and share his wealth of canoeing experience."

Rick Whitton won the Grand Master title in the 2008 Hansa Powerade Dusi with Pope-Ellis in a new record time, and cherishes memories of “The Dusi King” going back to the days that he was learning the kayak trade with Gordon Rowe in Pinetown in the seventies, and Pope-Ellis spent some time in the factory learning the trade.

“He was the kind of guy that you just assumed would live forever,” said Whitton. “He was so positive about everything, whether it was his wife and family, his business, his sport or his friends.”

“In all the years I knew Graeme, I never once saw him fail to make time for a stranger or a youngster and a novice paddler who wanted to chat to him or ask a question,” said Whitton.

“He was a total inspiration to me,” adds Whitton. “When you competed against him he awoke his ability to dig deeper and try harder. You could be really shattered but he inspired you to dig deeper.”

“He was a champion in everything he did, a legend,” said Whitton.

Alexa Cole got close to Pope-Ellis when training with Abbey Miedema for their spate of women’s K2 victories. “Graeme’s passing will leave a huge hole in the paddling community,” she said.

Dusi spokesperson Ray de Vries said the organisers of the annual race were "absolutely devastated" by the news.

"Graeme was a South African sporting icon, having won the Dusi 15 times and paddled it 46 consecutive times," said De Vries.

"I was with him just last week when he rode the Unlimited Dusi Mfula mountainbike event along the route of the Dusi, and he was telling me how much he was enjoying the ride."


  • Rob - 2010-06-18 13:17

    This is such a tragic event. I knew Graham very well and to have something like this happen to such a humble, friendly and amazing person is devastating. Prayers and thoughts with Lee and Wendy.

  • Gillian Stokes - 2010-06-18 13:19

    My condolences to his family. What a tragedy. he will always be synonymous with the Dusi and will forever be the Dusi King!

  • JoJo - 2010-06-18 13:21

    R.I.P. Graeme.

  • Epic - 2010-06-18 13:22

    Rest In Peace Graeme!Your amazing canoeing achievements & wonderful memories will live on forever!You are with the Angels now.God Bless your Soul!!

  • Gideon - 2010-06-18 13:29

    Such a tragedy.He will always be the king. Rest in Piece....

  • Brent - 2010-06-18 13:30

    A sad loss, sounds like the type of mentor everyone should have in their lives, indeed, South Africa has lost one of the sporting greats, but I suspect those that knew him have lost far more in a loyal gentle friend, a loving father and husband and a humble man. My condolences to his family.

  • Vinessa - 2010-06-18 13:31

    My condolences to the family on a very very sad loss, our sporting world will never be the same again . Farewell to a legend.

  • BT - 2010-06-18 13:36

    Yet another great human being and an icon, has departed early. May you RIP Graeme. Condolences to all your family.

  • Gutted - 2010-06-18 13:40

    i am genuinely gutted. i never met the Pope but he was at every race on the weekends. there was a presence about him that was unmistakable once when my partner and i were stuck on a bank he was on the side of the river and pushed us back into the flow. we were amazed that this paddling god would even notice us never mind help!! “He was the kind of guy that you just assumed would live forever,”

  • John Camp - 2010-06-18 13:41

    South Africa has lost one of it's greatest sportsman

  • Francois - 2010-06-18 13:42

    This is a real great loss for SA. May you rest in peace. My condolences to his family and friends

  • FishAndChipper - 2010-06-18 13:42

    What a tragedy. Graeme would always chat to anyone, anywhere and was immensely modest. One almost felt like he remembered you when you spoke to him even though you were one of the Fish and Chips paddlers from the back of the field and the last time you spoke to him was at the previous years' Dusi. What a legend, you will be sorely missed by everyone.

  • Rodger Winter - 2010-06-18 13:43

    Graeme was a true legend and ambassador to our lovely sport. I am so gratefull I was able to greet him Last Sunday morning at the Dusi Mt Bike race. Rodger, Donna and Andrew Winter.

  • Sad - 2010-06-18 13:50

    Canoeing has lost a gentleman and a inspirational person. He will be missed.

  • cammie - 2010-06-18 13:51

    What a shock and what a tragedy! My heartfelt condolences to the Pope-Ellis family on their loss. Graeme has without doubt been an iconic figure in South African sport for many years, and will sorely missed by so many. This was a man who showed the world that you could be a world class talent in your chosen field, but remain a gentleman and an outstanding human being. We salute you Graeme, you will be missed but most definitely remembered!!

  • Johan - 2010-06-18 13:54

    What a tragedy! I remember like yesterday when my two friends and I stopped over in Maritzburg on our way back from 'Toti to pick up our Javelin canoes. We had just started doing triathlons and had ordered our "flat" boats from him. When we got there he took meticulous care in setting up the canoes properly and giving us tips on rowing when he heard that we were green in the sport. Our lovelies eventually had to drag us away. What a great man! My deepest condolences to Wendy and everyone else close to him. Johan

  • Carolyn Dewrance - 2010-06-18 13:54

    I am so very sorry to hear this, he was a great man, and a great athelete, My sympathies to his family, May you rest in peace Graeme.

  • Alfred Ross - 2010-06-18 13:55

    An icon has died, the Dusi will never be the same without the King. May he rest in peace.

  • Old Time Paddler - 2010-06-18 14:00

    He will be sadly missed. What a great.

  • Billy Kirkman - 2010-06-18 14:00

    I am going to miss chatting to Graeme one of the nicest people I have had the privilege to meet

  • Alfred Ross - 2010-06-18 14:02

    The Dusi should be renamed after the King. The Pope-Ellis Memorial Dusi.

  • Jason - 2010-06-18 14:04

    So very sad. What a booijtie. Admired him for most of my life.

  • Andrew - 2010-06-18 14:05

    I am a keen runner and when I struggle out of bed sometimes in the morning to go running, I think of a legend like Graeme who had it so much tougher and never complained.RIP, Dusi King!

  • whips excite me - 2010-06-18 14:25

    Hamba Kahle bra Graham! Long may your legacy live on. This is a sad day for SA.

  • Very very sad - 2010-06-18 14:28

    I never knew Graeme but knew Wendy from Horse shows many years back. I feel so sad for you and Lee on this very very sad day. This is such a sad loss - Graeme was an inspiration to everyone. Condolences to you all.

  • Stefan - 2010-06-18 14:31

    Very sad news. My condolences to his family. South Africa has lost one of its great sportmen. R.I.P Graeme

  • Jack James - 2010-06-18 14:32

    My first Duzi was in 1971 when Graeme won his first Duzi with Eric Clark. At the time it was the record. What I great guy and real tribute to the Duzi, Canoeing and sport in general. A great loss to South Africa.

  • Cameron - 2010-06-18 14:36

    RIP Graeme, what an incredible legend you were.

  • RAJAN - 2010-06-18 14:36

    Never met the man, never done the Dusi; whenever I have thoughts of doing the Dusi; one picture comes to mind and that is Graeme Pop-Elis. Rest in Peace Dusi King.

  • Mike JJ - 2010-06-18 14:38

    Difficult to beleive, and hard to accept. What a great person and ambassador for this country. Always willing to help and advise, a legend of his time. Prayers and condolences to Wendy and family. RIP Graeme.

  • Paddler - 2010-06-18 14:41

    Had the pleasure of dealing with him in business and the honour of paddling "his" race on a number of occassions, you inspired me as a youngster to do it. Thank you. A scholar and gentleman. RIP Graeme and condolences to the family.

  • Paddler - 2010-06-18 14:43

    Had the pleasure of dealing with him in business and the honour of paddling "his" race on a number of occassions, you inspired me as a youngster to do it. Thank you. A scholar and gentleman. RIP Graeme and condolences to the family.

  • John - 2010-06-18 14:52

    My sincerest condolences to the Pope-Ellis family. Graham was a wonderfully gentle man who will be missed by all he knew! Hamba Kahle Graham.

  • Mark Allen - 2010-06-18 15:07

    Graeme Pope Ellis built me my first new canoe back in 1983 I promptly wrapped it the first time I raced it. A week later he phoned me to say my boat was beyond repair but he had replaced it with a brand new one, he would not accept any payment. This is the sort of man Graeme was. The Dusi will never be the same without the 'Pope' Condolences to Wendy, Lee and family

  • Paul D-W - 2010-06-18 15:11

    It is true - when you think of the duzi - you think of Graeme Pope - Ellis, he inspired us all and walked up there with Ian Player. A diminutive man in stature but a giant on the river and in life. May god rest your soul Graeme, you will be missed.

  • Admirer - 2010-06-18 15:13

    Long live the King!!

  • Mbali - 2010-06-18 15:14

    He certainly was the king of the Duzi canoe marathon. God bless him - may his soul rest in peace... Condolences to his family and the Duzi family as well.

  • CT - 2010-06-18 15:33

    Knew him as long as I can remember - from the when days he used to fix our John Deere tractors from Tractor Services - a humble, quietly spoken gentlemen of gentlemen. A legendary sportsman whose stamp on the Duzi will remain forever. To Wendy, you have lost a gem not long after you lost your Dad - may Graeme rest in peace - he will be laughing with Peter now - he will be so chuffed to see him again. You are in our prayers

  • Paul Lanterme - 2010-06-18 15:43

    A legend who will be sorely missed ! R.I.P.

  • kevin - 2010-06-18 15:44

    What a legend ni his own time! Gone, but will never be forgotten - an absolute 'giant' of a man in everything he ever did. It was a please riding with you in the Dusi Imfula and hard to believe you have been taken from us so suddenly. RIP Graeme. A fine way to honour this great man - rename the Dusi to The 'Pope-Ellis Dusi Canoe Marathon'.

  • Graham Baird - 2010-06-18 15:57

    I did not know Graham well but had the pleasure of meeting him in the early 80's when I did a few Dusi Marathons. A real gentleman, always willing to help and give advice. We have lost a great man and sportsman.

  • Blayne Knox - 2010-06-18 16:16

    Condolences to his family from all here in Belgium. This is one we will all never forget. Grateful to have known him, a special person.

  • Chrissie - 2010-06-18 16:22

    The chancec of a tractor rolling over someone as able and fit as Graham are very slim. What happened?

  • Jakes - 2010-06-18 16:44

    Never had the honour to meet him, but from what I have read here, he must have been a wonderful person to know. Our country need men and women like this, let us all strive to also be a true hero, like Greame. RIP.

  • Coach - 2010-06-18 17:02

    I remember Graeme in the early 90s taking the time to come and chat to the boarders who stayed in the hostel on a saturday evening at merchiston about paddling and paddling the duzi canoe marathon. Condolences to his family, South africa has lost a fantastic sportsman and an even greater person!

  • Mike C - 2010-06-18 17:09

    What a massive loss. But what a legacy! If only other top sportsmen had half the character that Graeme had. I did not know him but such was his impact on all sports lovers in SA, that I feel a deep sense of loss at hearing this news. May God be with his family and friends.

  • Wayne - 2010-06-18 17:11

    Condolences to Wendy and Lee. Graham was a true gentleman,always willing to share his knowledge,he will be remembered for his wonderful caring nature and his positive outlook at life,as well as his numerous sporting achievements.

  • claude schrave - 2010-06-18 18:18

    Condolences to Wendy and the family. Graeme spent so much time on the Dusi showing us hopeless cases the way that I am not sure how he found the time to train enough to win 15 times. Cheers Graeme

  • Janine - 2010-06-18 18:28

    Tragic event. Never met Graham but admired him for the superb sportsman that he was. Condolences to his family.

  • Otto family (England) - 2010-06-18 18:33

    Our condolences to you Wendy, and the family. We have only met you and Greme a few times but the inspriation and joy of being that you both portrayed all the time is so memorable. What a shock. God bless you and all those close at this very difficult time and know that the positive memories that Graeme has given to so many will long outlast todays sadness.