Murray Stewart is an elite kayak, surf ski and ocean racing paddler. In each of those categories, he’s one of the best in the country. Across all three, he’s one of the best in the world. Whilst his athletic achievements are what he is best known for, there’s a lot more to Murray than moving fast in a boat.
The Stewart family migrated from South Africa to Australia in early 2000. “Little Muzz”, a tiny 13 year old about to start high school, had always punched above his weight. In South Africa he had represented his state in water polo, swimming and cross country running. People would watch this kid winning races with legs half the size of the rest of the field, but whizzing twice as fast! The same mental toughness that caused him to win then is the source of Murray’s strength now.
Paddling has always been in Murray’s blood. His father, Robbie, was one of the top sprint, slalom and surf paddlers in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s. Robbie’s Olympic dream was denied due to the ban on South African athletes competing. The dream never died in the Stewart house.
Murray was a talented junior on the surf ski, bagging national medals whilst excelling in his high school exams. He didn’t start kayaking until mid-2005 – chasing his mates around Manly Dam to help their surf ski paddling. His first ski coach, Tony Vieceli, is still one of Murray’s biggest supporters and mentors. In the middle of an impressive first year out of juniors, Murray contracted glandular fever and was out of the boat for a summer. During that hiatus, Murray switched his university degree – staying at Sydney University, but committing to another 5 years of study to follow in his mother’s footsteps as an Architect.
In late 2006, fully recovered from his illness, Murray joined MWKC and gained his first national selection (in the u23 team) just months later. His first international tour saw him winning the u23 K1 1,000m in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He still wasn’t the biggest athlete on the water – in Poland the Bellarussian paddler who came 3rd stood taller than Murray from the bottom step of the podium – but “Little Muzz” had started to grow, and the Australian paddling community had started to take notice.
Unfortunately, any dreams that Murray had of Olympic selection for Beijing were halted in mid-2007. He was in South Africa for the ocean racing world champs, but collapsed from stomach pains the night before the event. He still raced – he didn’t go halfway across the world to pull out – but when he got back to Australia, doctors realized that his appendix had burst and created all sorts of surgical complications. Murray was in hospital for his 21st birthday and, after an agonizing few months of recovery, eventually got back in the boat. His progress was halted again when he fractured a spinal process – one of the little wing-like bones that poke out from your vertebrae. Many people would have given up if they were put in Murray’s position in early 2008. Not Murray. He kept fit by training on the spin bike. He went through the kayaking movements on a home-made ergo, so that his muscles wouldn’t lose the memory of perfectly efficient movement. His first week back on the water was February 2008, having lost a lot of weight and not paddled for months. He qualified for the national kayak team less than eight weeks later.
Since 2008, Murray’s career has gone from strength to strength. After more solid performances at an u23 level, he trained with the Australian Beijing Olympic squad in Hungary before blitzing the World Surf Lifesaving Championships to win the Open Men’s Single Ski. He won the Twenty Beaches in 2008, and was runner-up in the World Ocean Racing Series in 2009; beating his long-time rival turned coach, Tim Jacobs. After winning the single ski at Aussies ‘09 – the biggest accomplishment that an Australian surf ski paddler can dream of – Murray switched his focus to the London Olympics.