Oscar and co-author Graham Spence have done an outstanding job with this book. 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. Here are some of my faves. 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”. Chapter 8: “Positive aggression can be good. Don’t worry what other people think”. Chapter 15: “Have courage in your convictions… In the end you have to be the judge of your own actions, and also live with them”. Chapter 16: “Believe in following your own advice”. And 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. For example, in the 1983 Texan 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. Another Lesson Learned: “Don’t be discouraged by obstacles in your way. Not all people see your successes as achievements – they see them as their own failures”. It’s true that instead of celebrating excellence, some people seem to resent innovators who shine. But that didn’t stop Oscar.
Oscar made it to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and learned more lessons. Some lessons were philosophical: what is success? What makes a successful person? Other lessons were technical, like those about preparation and training. Traditional methods didn’t match up to Oscar’s own way of prepping for a race. 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. Again and again, with gratitude and humility Oscar credits those who have helped him.
Other great things about No Retreat, No Surrender: fab photos, training tips, business tips, financial tips, and thrilling stories from so many races. I also like the way the book goes back and forth from talking about competitive sports to talking about business. In many ways, they’re the same thing in the manner in which they have to be navigated. 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. The whole saga of the inception of Epic Kayaks is a worthy story in itself.
Then there’s the World Cup series of six races, the first series of which was held in 2006/7 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. It sounds exhausting but reading about it is so exciting. 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. Also, running throughout the book is the theme of the Molokai Challenge, the premier ocean contest which Oscar won for the 12th time in 2012 at 49 years old. “Age is not everything,” Oscar opines.
And all the other races, including the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the most celebrated river race in South Africa, a “3-day, 120 km dice down two rivers that come together in a jagged valley of a thousand hills and ends in an Indian Ocean lagoon”. One of the most important aspects of this race post-apartheid is that it was a major catalyst in converting kayaking into a multiracial sport. Black paddlers now dominate the first 10 places in the Dusi Marathon. The Dusi started back in the 1950’s, but in an effort to boost entries, Oscar, motivated by marketer Ray de Vries, 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 100-fold in a huge win for everyone.
But back to the cancer. In 2019 Oscar was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer and given 6 months to live. However, because of his creative and determined approach and the support of family, friends, and good doctors, 3 years later he’s still here and still paddling. Oscar decided right away to cherish every minute of life he had left, because if he did that, cancer would not defeat him. Now, despite the cancer Oscar is 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. Fortune favors the brave.
As the book shows, Oscar learned valuable lessons from pretty much everything that’s ever happened to him. This habit of self-reflection is one of his keys to success. As he went through cancer treatment he continued to learn lessons, and one of the most important was to open up and share your experiences. Here’s a Lesson Learned from Chapter 30: “It’s only through discussion, acceptance, and interaction that you discover how many hidden gems of advice and wisdom are out there, and that everyone wants to help. If you don’t open up, it’s like paddling in a bubble and not learning the secrets of riding downwind”.
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 Chalupsky for firing me up, moving me to tears, and galvanizing my enthusiasm and love of life. Stuck in the doldrums? This book will raise the wind and set you skimming across the waves on a virtual surfski. It’s a thriller, a treatise on entrepreneurship, a lesson in business management, a training manual for athletes, a travelogue, a motivational book, a superbly entertaining autobiography, and more. No Retreat, No Surrender is a paean to Life, to living life with passion, humor, enjoyment, and determination. Bravo!
This book will not be available in the US until January 2023 although you can pre-order from the usual websites, so if you want a copy in time for Christmas, go to https://www.takealot.com/books/all?qsearch=9781776390205 and buy this book! To help Oscar’s chosen organization in being a strong, sympathetic, and responsible voice for South Africans affected by cancer, please donate at http://campaign4cancer.co.za/wp/
I had no idea I’d find so many parallels with the Tsunami Rangers in Oscar’s story. For example, Oscar and his family built their own kayaks. Similarly, with Eric’s input, Glenn Gilchrist’s design, and Jim Kakuk’s practical skills, the Tsunami kayaks, built on the surfski concept but designed for entering rock gardens and caves, expeditions, and surfing were born. Also, much about Oscar’s approach to paddling and life is similar to Tsunami philosophy and practice, from playing psychological tricks on competitors to confuting naysayers. Moreover, Tsunami Rangers John Dixon and Don Kiesling have both raced the Molokai Challenge multiple times, having cut their teeth in the Tsunami Ranger Extreme Sea Kayak Race, a race through Maverick’s with 6 surf zones to navigate before the finish. In addition, the Rangers got a lot of flack back in the day for doing things their way when sea kayaking was mostly a flat water sport. Naysayers talked trash. Now people all over the world are enjoying kayak surfing, rock garden play, and sea caving, getting out in rough water and having a blast. On a personal note, Clare Chalupsky, Oscar’s amazing wife, describes Oscar as she first met him: “enthusiastic, fun-loving, exuberant, and always so cheerful – he was a real breath of fresh air”. She could be describing Eric, co-founder of the Rangers, as I first met him in 1975. Oscar is a kindred spirit. His book opened my eyes to the thrilling world of surfski racing and I am devoutly grateful for the opportunity to read it and write this review.