SEADRIFT – Norm Thomas has competed in the Texas Water Safari for the past 20 years – crossing the finish line 10 times and earning himself a spot in the race’s Hall of Fame.

But this year, Thomas played a different role by greeting racers as they made their way to the finish line of the 260-mile grueling canoe race.

“I don’t mind the graveyard shift,” Thomas said. “When I told them I’d do it, they jumped on it. Anytime I’m not paddling, I’m happy to be the guy waiting at the end. This only gets done with volunteers.”

Thomas, 66, pulled an all-nighter Tuesday and stayed until the end when Drew Della and Jon Schoepflin of Can 2 Kanu’ finished as the final participants with a time of 97 hours, 33 minutes – two and half hours shy of the 1 p.m. deadline.

Motivated by his wife Brenda Thomas’ cancer diagnosis, Norm Thomas battled to finish last year’s race with a time of 98 hours, 20 minutes – his 10th finish of his racing career.

Brenda Thomas passed away in September 2018 from her hard-fought battle.

But Norm Thomas knew she’d always be with him.

“She’s always been my captain,” the Corpus Christi resident Norm Thomas said. “She’s all up and down here.”

The last boaters, Schoepflin and Della, were competing with each other for the first time.

Schoepflin, 47, was competing in his 23rd Texas Water Safari, while Della was in his second race.

Schoepflin, of Austin, met Della, of Poth, last year and wanted to pair up for this year’s race.

“The things Jon and I went through... we butted heads,” Della said. “We’re both alpha-minded but in order to get from point A to point B, you have to be a team. He has 20 years of experience that I don’t have.”

“I went into this race with a friend and I came out with a brother,” Schoepflin added. “The reason I did it with Drew was because we met a couple of years ago. We did the Texas Winter 100K race and we thought, ‘let’s’ do the Water Safari.”

Unlike last year, the Guadalupe River was higher than usual and the Bay was relaxed.

The duo’s biggest challenge came Tuesday night when the changes caught up to them outside of Seadrift.

“Our biggest challenge was probably Tuesday night,” Della said. “We had done a certain cut and that cut was overgrown this year. We assumed it wasn’t part of the race so we came to a part of bay I was unfamiliar with. It was dark and we were paddling around the different areas. We committed and paddled back steam and pushed through the brush. Eventually, we made it through.”

More boats entered the Texas Water Safari this year than year’s past and a record number finished according to event director Allen Spelce.

Della and Schoepflin persevered and arrived at the San Antonio Bay with the finish line in sight by 10 a.m. Wednesday.

“On the way to the finish line, I don’t think about anything,” Schoepflin said. “I’m looking down, turning my arms into a machine so I can kiss my wife. This race is part of my blood. I’ve been doing it since 1997 and I’ll keep doing it until I’m dead.”

Rey Castillo is the assistant sports editor for the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at rcastillo@vicad.com, 361-574-1240 or on Twitter @reycastillo361.

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