He had just competed in the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon with Siseko Ntondini, overcoming enormous obstacles along the way. It was a perfect story for the NGO Heartlines which, like Participant Media, the American film production company founded in 2004 by Jeffrey Skoll, is dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.
Fellow canoeist Brad Fisher had alerted film makers Robbie Thorpe (producer of Vaya (2016), Tell Me Sweet Something (2015) and Material (2012)) and Craig Freimond (writer/director of Material (2012), Jozi (2010) and Gums & Noses (2004)) to the story, thinking initially it would make a good documentary, but Freimond and Robbie convinced him that it would be great material for a feature film.
According to Freimond, who wrote the screenplay together with Robbie Thorpe, “The film had a very strange genesis. My producer Robbie got a call from these canoeists, basically an older white guy and a younger black guy from very different circumstances, who got together to do the Dusi and had an amazing and pretty unusual experience. What was essentially Piers and Siseko’s story needed more external drama, and more character drama, so we took both of those characters and essentially moved them quite far from Piers and Siseko.”
The story behind the Cruickshanks/Ntondini partnership was the creation of the Soweto Canoe and Recreation Club by members of the Dabulamanzi Canoe club, based in Emmarentia, a leafy suburb of northern Johannesburg.
In 2013, when going for his 10th gold medal in the Dusi, Cruickshanks had a disastrous race, breaking his canoe, but running the last 30 kilometers with his boat to the finish. Ntondini, then 19, had progressed through the ranks at the Development Club, and had come 11th in the same race, just missing his first gold medal. The following year’s competition would be a doubles race, and Ntondini asked Cruickshanks if they could do it together. They started training, but Ntondini developed a stress fracture in his leg which almost ruled them out. With the intervention of a zero gravity training machine, Ntondini was able to carry on training, and so they were able to start the race, but from right at the back of the batch. Over the three-day race they managed to make up 53 places, and come seventh, winning Piers his seventh, and Siseko his first gold medal.