When competitors show up at a marathon canoe race and see Serge Corbin at the start line they have good reason to feel discouraged. The 48-year-old part-time boat builder and pro paddler has posted a record of sheer dominance that few athletes in any sport can claim. Over the past 30 years he has maintained a winning percentage of 90 percent, notching 470 wins in 523 races. If you own a thoroughbred, seriously consider naming your steed Serge.
Serge Corbin is a world-class racer
Corbin’s Gretzky-esque dominance of his sport has been most evident in the three races that make up the Triple Crown of canoe racing. Corbin and various partners have won 17 of 22 attempts at Michigan’s 193-kilometre Au Sable Marathon. Closer to home, he’s come out on top in 25 of 30 attempts at Quebec’s three-stage, 200-kilometre Classique near Shawinigan.
Corbin’s history at the Triple Crown’s first leg, New York’s 113-kilometre General Clinton, is even more telling. He first entered and won the race as a skinny 17-year-old—the youngest paddler ever to win. He’s been first past the finish line each of the 27 times he’s entered. At the Clinton, Corbin doesn’t just take on all challengers, he also beats their descendants. When Corbin won last year he edged out a paddler whose father placed second to Corbin in the Clinton, a full 22 years earlier.
Though Serge Corbin is hardly a household name, marathon canoeing maintains a loyal—and growing—following across the continent. It is a sport without pretense in which one or two paddlers power a long, narrow, carbon-fiber canoe over distances ranging from 10 to 200 kilometres. Though the races often include portages, winning usually comes down to teams maintaining an efficient cadence of up to 80 strokes per minute, switching sides with bent-shaft paddles every eight to 12 strokes.
Born to paddle
At 5’11” and 160 pounds, the soft-spoken former electrician and welder from St-Boniface, Quebec, has the aerobic capacity of a fleet-footed Kenyan. With a narrow waist, long arms and skinny legs he is ideally suited to pushing a canoe. While there are far more muscular and imposing paddlers on the bank, Marc Gillespie, a long-time rival, suggests that Corbin was born to paddle. “His lats [back muscles] seem to go all the way down his back to his waist.”
Corbin wins while in the bow and stern. He’s a master in the shallows; adept into the wind and in rapids. He can burn from the beginning or sit in the pack and sprint at the end. He’s brilliant at the portages. He scouts the tricky sections of a course before a race like a cat burglar casing a joint. Mentally, no one is stronger.
Calvin Hassel, America’s most decorated C1 paddler who has teamed with a variety of partners, says he’s tried a variety of tactics to beat Corbin. “Nothing works,” he said. “He has no weaknesses.”
Corbin’s star shines bright
Of course, Corbin makes up only half a team. And it’s here that his reputation supplements his individual abilities. Not only do Corbin’s partners often toil in obscurity—it’s a little like appearing on stage with Cher, you don’t expect equal billing—they know they risk much in racing with him.
“If you lose with Serge,” says 45-year-old Jeff Kolka, who has teamed with Corbin to win five Clintons and eight Au Sable Marathons, “that’s what you’ll be remembered for. He wins every year not only because he’s an exceptional athlete, but because his partners take their game to the next level when they compete with him.”
Given Corbin’s historical dominance of the Triple Crown, his results last year left some wondering how much longer “le grand patriache” will continue his remarkable run. After edging Andy Triebold and Steve Lajoie at the Clinton in May, the two teams were side by side 15 hours into the Au Sable Marathon. Heading into a shallow section with the finish line looming, Corbin and Kolka missed a stroke; Triebold and Lajoie exploded and out-sprinted them to the line.
In September, they went at it again at the three-day Classique. Corbin and Kolka won the first and third stages by a total of 20 seconds but were outrun at a long portage on day two and finished in second place again. Serge supporters point out that Kolka had a bum knee and Corbin a sore foot.
Serge Corbin’s run continues for now
Corbin isn’t sure how much longer he’ll stay at it, though he’s talked about winning the Clinton four or five more times. His credentials have earned him the right to be taken at his word, and that’s bad news for anyone lining up beside him in a canoe. Because as long as Serge Corbin remains true to form, nine out of every 10 races he enters will be, for everyone else, just another battle for second place.