By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BERRIEN SPRINGS — Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky went head to head at the Berrien County Youth Fair.
These were nicknames given to a handful of fast ducks that took part in The Great American Duck Race on Wednesday at the south end of the fairgrounds.
Robert and Kathy Duck (yes, they’ve heard the jokes) set up their rectangular shallow swimming tank that was used as the platform for these races between 42 mallard ducks.
Dozens gathered around the 16-foot-long tank that had four barriers to create swimming lanes.
Robert and his wife began bringing The Great American Duck Race to fairs across the country 18 years ago. It’s last appearance at Berrien Springs was five years ago. The couple from New Mexico has brought their race to 37 of the 48 continental states.
The duck race originally began at a small town’s community festival in 1980 in Deming, N.M. Robert heard about the race and entered his two pet ducks. The first year of the original races, there were 186 ducks. Robert’s best duck finished third.
For the next 12 straight years, Robert’s ducks took first place. In New Mexico, Robert estimated they’ve won more than $50,000 racing ducks. Robert likes to joke that duck racing is as important in New Mexico as NASCAR is in North Carolina.
“It got to be so much fun for me that I began to wonder if there was some way for me to make a living off this,” Robert said. “I realized they have pig races in fairs, so I created a duck racing show.”
After that Robert got a call to make an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” To this day, Robert carries a picture in his wallet of him talking with former host Johnny Carson.
At the time of the first race Wednesday, the ducks waddled out at the start of the opening music. The duck racing show was educational, as Robert provided some trivia on ducks from their appearance to their molting patterns.
The set would include four heat races and a final matchup between the winners of the four previous races. The Great American Duck Race is offered every day of the fair at 1, 4 and 7 p.m.
Each person selected from the crowd was handed a live duck to hold gently over the end of one of the race lanes. Once the starting horn was blown, fairgoers dropped their ducks into the water.
“I just love seeing the happy kids,” Robert said. “They have a great time doing it, and for most of them, it’s the first time they’ve every held a duck.”
The fastest ducks were saved for the last race. Robert said one of the ducks holds the world record in a timed course at 0.83 seconds.
Mae Stangl, 11, had the duck that would go on to win the final race.
The Stevensville resident, who named her duck “The Lord of the Wings,” said she watched one of the races Tuesday. Stangl said she won after picking up on what made the previous racers successful.
“I noticed the ones who splashed the most really got the duck going, so I tried doing that,” she said. “I thought it was fun to hold a duck, even though it was scratching me and everything.”