An Interview with Milo Duffek

As some of you might know, Milo Duffek passed away on 25th February this year. He almost never gave interviews. One of the very few, originally given by him in 2005 in Czech, got now republished in original Czech version here: Milo Duffek: Vítězství, nebo svoboda - Pá (including some archive photos)

I’ve used for translating to English and would like to present it to a wider paddling community. It’s an interesting read.


On February 25th of this year, Miloslav “Milo” Duffek, a Czechoslovak emigrant who became famous not only for the story of his emigration, for which he voluntarily gave up his world championship title, but also for his revolutionary approach to water slalom, died.

Milo was the first to use the Eskimo turn with a screw rotation and without a paddle, and his greatest invention was the so-called Duffek stroke. After emigrating, Milo lived in Switzerland with his wife Irmgard until the end of his life. In 2013 we met him at the Paddle Expo paddling trade show in Nuremberg, Germany, where he was inducted into the Paddling Hall of Fame. We are very happy that he gave an interview to the editors of HYDROmagazin in 2005 and that this interview was published in 2006.

Now we present it unedited as a memory of one of the legends of wild water. Text freely based on the interview with Milo Duffek from spring 2005 prepared by Honz.

"It was in 1953 at the World Championships in Merano, Italy. We stood there on the shore and stared with our chins dropped. What he was doing was something completely new and unknown. Twice as effective at controlling the boat between the goals. We, who had watched his first run, suddenly realised the importance of his new style and at the same time felt the inevitability of defeat for those who didn’t know the “Duffy shot”. Although we had to appreciate his amazing, exceptional and acrobatic way of riding, we naturally felt quite desperate. This was a revolution in whitewater paddling. We were trying to prove it couldn’t be true. We didn’t want it to be true! We were lucky in Meran. With a momentary loss of control, perhaps a hundredth of a second, the Czech boy missed the 14th gate by inches and only thanks to a hundred second penalty didn’t beat us all by “an eternity”. Walter Kirschbaum, 1953 World Champion.
(American Whitewater, fall 1958)

Míla Duffek was the son of doctors, i.e. class enemies. Soon after the coup, it was clear to him that the communist regime would never let him go to medical school. Therefore, he went to study gymnastics, his other passion, and during the summer holidays he used to go to the Ostrava coal mines year after year to atone for his unfortunate bourgeois origins. Even that didn’t help. He graduated from the pedagogical school and was not allowed to teach! But he could race. First he took up speed canoeing and several times qualified for international competitions in the USSR, Poland or Hungary, where, however, the Czechoslovakia never sent such an unreliable representative. Eventually, he began to ride wild water and soon stood out so much that (despite his despicable class background) two prestigious national representative clubs began to compete for him: the army’s Dukla and the police’s Red Star. And because he had a lot of experience with police surveillance and harassment, he chose the Red Star. From the first day in the national team, however, he had only one thought in his head - to get to the West, away, to the free world. Although he devoted himself to training and racing with the utmost diligence and care, he sacrificed everything for his main goal. Even the title of champion.

Míla, how did the whole history of your legendary escape to the West begin?

"The history started in 1951, when I was at the World Championships in Austria. I liked it there and I thought I could stay there, but I wasn’t ready, so I came back home. In 1952 we were in Leipzig in East Germany for the races and then we were invited to Berlin for the decathlon. I spent almost a whole day in Berlin on the underground track that ran under the West and East Sectors, and I wondered if I would stay there. And since I didn’t tell anyone back home, I went back again.

In 1953 , when I was already in the Red Star, where they still didn’t know whether or not they could let me go out (i.e. to the World Championships in Italy, ed.), there were races against East Germany in Liptovský Hrádek. There they told me ‘if you win, you go’. So I won. That was my biggest race. Especially mentally, I still remember it today. It was really all up for grabs there. There I knew that if I got out, any way, I was going to stay there."

So you qualified for the World Championships and you were allowed to leave, but that didn’t mean you had already won…

“There was a policeman from the Red Star who went to the World Championships with me, his name was Makalouš. He was supposed to guard me. He stayed with me in my room, we ate together, he helped me into the boat, he helped me with the boat after training, he just stayed away from me the whole time. But on the river, during training, I met the Swiss. They liked the way I raced and asked me how I did it. I didn’t speak German, I didn’t speak French, but we agreed with our hands that they would take me with them when I came to them after the World Championships. After a week of preparation, the races came. That was the toughest. I knew: if I won - and at the time it looked like I would win - I had to go back. There was one stretch on the course, the 14th gate, where there was nothing at all, the water was completely flat. So I went completely around it, without touching it. I had the fastest time, but a hundred penalty points. It was a clear choice - freedom or victory.”

Did you really know that clearly?
“I assumed that if I didn’t win, there wouldn’t be so much attention on me. And it worked. Because our team won (Jaroslav Váňa silver C1, Dana Martanová bronze K1, gold for women’s and C1 patrol, bronze for men’s C2 patrol, ed.), the evening was celebrated, and the next morning officer Makalouš, before paying my allowance, instead of having breakfast with me, said: ‘Go load the kayak’. I went straight to the Swiss and had nothing. No money, I had my boots, my training suit and my camera, my Leica. They showed me to get under the tarp of the truck and off we went. The departure was adventurous, from under the tarpaulin I looked out and saw groups of Czechoslovak racers in the streets of Merano. It was only a moment and they were already running around Merano looking for me. But I didn’t find out until I met them later, at a race in Grossreifling, Austria. The Pilseners were saying ‘Duffek has fucking fled!’.”

But I didn’t find that out until I met them later, at the Grossreifling races in Austria. I heard the Pilseners saying ‘Duffek is fucked!’."

Was it so easy to meet the Czechoslovaks again after the escape?

“It wasn’t. I didn’t even finish the races in Austria. When I met my former teammates, they warned me to leave immediately. Two Tatra trucks full of policemen came with them with only one task: to bring me back to Czechoslovakia. So I gave up on the race and left immediately.”

You got to Switzerland pretty smoothly here. How did you settle in Switzerland after you escaped?

“Smoothly, you could say. We arrived in Geneva and I had no idea what I was going to do. I had to learn German. The first job I got was carrying coal. Thirty tons a day, three times to load, first into a sack, then onto a truck and then into the cellar. I didn’t mind it at all, it was like training.”

Were you able to continue racing?

“I continued. I went to my first international race in Ulm, nobody knew me there, I won, and then people started writing about me. I was really riding in a different way then. I was riding like that here too, it just never got written about. They couldn’t. But that was fifty-two years ago. Back then, when you were filming, you were filming with a contraption. I started shooting differently. Then in America they started calling it ‘Duffek-stroke’”

And how did you come up with that?

Actually by chance, in Děčín at the races in 50. I swerved into the goal and fell into the water, but at the moment when I was falling, I reached to the side and it straightened out. So then I started trying it, well, I was still young. Eventually I got the hang of it reliably, controlling the boat with my knees and leaning far out to the side. Those kayaks didn’t handle very well back then, they were slow to turn and if you leaned too much you’d fall in. So nobody preferred to lean too much. I tried and tried and it started to go. Then I started trying it overhand too. And finally I combined it with an Eskimo without switchin the paddle side (called a screw, ed.), and that was kind of the first thing I came up with.

Another of the legends associated with Milo Duffek is the Eskimo. Milo, undoubtedly an extraordinary talent and hard worker, had no chance to realize himself in communist Czechoslovakia except in sport, and he made training, which at that time was only a weekend affair for most athletes, a daily routine. He was constantly improving his technique and when he wasn’t paddling, he was at least swimming regularly to get as comfortable with the water as possible. That’s how he perfected the Eskimo turn. First the screw method, still used today, and finally the Eskimo without a paddle. After his escape from Merano, he never again won a world title. The closest he came was two years later, in 1955, the year in which he won every international race he entered. But he finished second at the World Championships in Tacen, Yugoslavia. The victory he had once traded for freedom was forever denied him. He never regretted it. He became not only a multiple Swiss champion, but also perhaps the most respected canoeist west of the Iron Curtain. And while his former homeland consistently erased him from history, America admired him boundlessly, as only America can.

Míla, how did you become famous for the second time in America?

“In 1964, I was invited there to coach the national team. We were there for about two months, somewhere different every week, and they were always arguing about who I was going to sleep with. I did an Eskimo show for TV in Colorado, and I was also in California with a TV crew on the Feather River - that doesn’t exist anymore because they made a dam there. It was still wild then, and I had to go down it, just without a vest, without a helmet, half-naked. I went down, they filmed it, and then they said, ‘You’re doing that Eskimo thing with your hands, but you can’t do that in water that wild!’ So I took the paddle, rode the wave, threw it away and did an Eskimo. I guess I’ve had such a halo in America since then.”

At the last sentence, Míla, whom the world calls Milo, is grinning from ear to ear. In fact, he laughs almost all the time, but the memory of the Americans particularly amused him. After all, not only has he been celebrated so many times by American Whitewater magazine that they’ve named a shot after him, they’ve talked him into coaching their national team many times, they’ve even wanted to make a movie about him. His script exists and is housed in the Munich Canoe Museum. But he never cared about his fame. He didn’t even give interviews and so, apart from Radio Free Europe, where he was invited in 1954, HYDRO became the first magazine to publish an interview with Mila Duffek.

But the adventurous life of Swiss citizen Milo Duffek did not end with the end of his active paddling career. He changed several professions. After a stint as a coal carrier, he worked as a sports equipment maintainer in Bern, later, again in Geneva, in a photo lab, where he met his wife Irmgard, and finally became a gym teacher. He was Swiss champion not only in water slalom but also in volleyball, pioneered hang-gliding, later windsurfing and today his main hobby is diving.

“I was lucky to marry well. We did canoeing together and had such a decade of sports together - hang gliding, skiing, boarding, etc. When Irma started something, I joined in, and vice versa - that’s why we lasted so long. We still travel together today and celebrate our wedding anniversary by kissing underwater in as many feet of water as we’ve been together, this year it will be at forty-nine.” We look through photos of his travels and all the sports he’s been involved in. In my mind I admire his incredible vitality and optimism. “And you never missed Bohemia, did you want to come back?”, I try. “No,” comes the reply, “when you’re a refugee you can’t keep looking back, you just have to accept it and take it in.”

Milo’s recipe for a long active life: “You can’t let yourself be classed as an old man or say I can’t do it anymore.”