Though he is one of only three New Zealanders with at least three Olympic golds tucked away in his medals drawer at home, kayaker Paul MacDonald has been strangely undervalued in his own country.
MacDonald was overshadowed in public awareness by his team-mate and great friend, Ian Ferguson, which may explain why New Zealanders tend to underestimate his accomplishments. Yet he won as many Olympic gold medals as Peter Snell and was a New Zealand sports great.
MacDonald competed at three Olympics and won five medals – no New Zealand has won more. He also gathered six world championship medals. He was part of the golden age of New Zealand kayaking, in the mid-1980s, when Ferguson, Grant Bramwell, Alan Thompson and MacDonald stunned the kayaking world with their against-the-odds triumphs.
The Auckland-based MacDonald had a strong background in surf lifesaving when he turned to kayaking in the late 1970s. In 1980 he and Ferguson teamed to win the national K2 500 and K2 1000 titles. These were MacDonald’s first New Zealand kayaking titles and signalled the beginning of a marvellous sports partnership for Ferg and Macca, as they became known.
By 1982, MacDonald had become a world-class paddler, which he confirmed by winning a silver (with Thompson) in the K2 500 race at that year’s world championships in Belgrade.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the New Zealand kayakers were unstoppable and MacDonald won two gold medals, as part of the K4 1000 team and with Ferguson, who was eight years older, in the K2 500.
There was a cloud over the gold medal splurge at Los Angeles because most Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the games. The New Zealanders claimed the effects of the boycott were overstated, noting that they had beaten their major rivals in pre-Olympic meetings in Europe.
MacDonald and Ferguson proved their point at the world championships in Belgium in 1985, when they won the K2 500 gold medal after a tight race against the East German and Soviet Union paddlers.
At the 1987 world champs in Duisburg, MacDonald, stepping out of Ferguson’s shadow, earned the honour of representing New Zealand in the K1 events. He was brilliant, winning the K1 500 from Andreas Staehle of East Germany and Attila Szabo of Czechoslovakia, and combined with Ferguson for gold in the K2 1000 and silver in the K2 500.
During the mid-1980s, there were only about 50 competitive kayakers in New Zealand, so paddlers like Ferguson and MacDonald, lacking the necessary opposition at home, pushed each other to new heights by being brutally competitive in training. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Ferguson and MacDonald took gold in the K2 500 and silver in the K2 1000, and MacDonald was a close third in the K1 500. This lifted his Olympic medal tally to five.
Though Ferguson, in particular, was reaching the veteran age category by the late 1980s, he and MacDonald continued to train ferociously.
In 1990 they took the silver medal in the K2 10,000 at the world championships in Poland. Even at Barcelona in 1992, when they were using an outdated kayak, they were good enough to make the Olympic K2 1000 final and to record their best time.
MacDonald competed at national surf lifesaving championships throughout his kayaking career and won five individual titles in the open surf ski race from 1980-87, plus titles in the open Malibu board race in 1985 and 1986. In 1982 and 1985, he represented New Zealand at surf lifesaving and in 1985 he captained a world surf lifesaving team.
In 1992, MacDonald came out of retirement to win the national surf ski and double surf ski titles.
After retiring from kayaking, the popular and outgoing MacDonald maintained a high profile for several years as a television presenter, featuring on Top Town and Clash of the Codes, which he helped produce. He later become involved with the Oceanman and Super Series lifesaving contests at Piha Beach and became a co-ordinator of an annual dragon boat festival.
MacDonald was a Sports Foundation governor in the late 1990s. He was a finalist in the Sportsman of the Year awards (the precursor to the Halberg Awards) in 1985, 1987 and 1988. He shared the Lonsdale Cup with Ferguson in 1985 and won it on his own in 1987.
He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1997.