Competitive paddling remains a rush
MIRACLE HOT SPRINGS, Calif. – If you passed through the sunburnt canyon of the Kern River in late August, you might have been lucky enough to glimpse an armada of tiny boats dancing on the churning waters below.Chances are you sped onward, however – and missed a chance to see world-class athletes drawing gold from the waters of the Sierra Nevada.The U.S. Slalom Nationals came to this hidden stretch of whitewater, but beyond the competitors, their families and some avid paddlers, few took notice.While competitive kayaking and canoeing gave rise to the recreational paddling that has created traffic jams on some rivers, it remains at the margins of sport despite its wet and wild rush.That left front-row seats for the few hundred people who gathered in the shade of oaks along the river banks as the best paddlers in the nation navigated a liquid obstacle course on a day of triple-digit temperatures.”I just like it when they go through these things and they make it,” said Willie Thomas, 80, of nearby Lake Isabella, one of the few locals watching.”These things,” as Thomas called them, are gates – sets of poles dangling from wires crisscrossing the river – that racers must thread on a rough ride downstream.Over about a quarter mile, competitors must pass through 18 gates, each a few feet wide. Six gates must be navigated by paddling upstream. Hitting a gate with a boat, body or paddle brings a two-second penalty. Missing a gate costs 50 seconds.As the boats came into view, paddlers battled the current around a bend as they rode a frothing tongue of greenish water that propelled them over a rock and past the first upstream gate.
With the flick of a paddle blade, the athletes grabbed the reversing current of an eddy behind the rock, and spun their boats upstream.A stroke or two later, they were through Gate 5 and shooting back out across standing waves to the other side of the river, where they powered through the next upstream gate before turning downstream to tackle the rest of the course.Much like the event, competitive kayaking has fought an upstream battle to draw fans and racers.Whitewater sports have plunged deeper and steeper toward the extreme since plastic boats – capable of withstanding scrapes and blows from rock-choked rivers and streams – began replacing delicate Fiberglas models in the 1970s. The boats have gotten shorter and more maneuverable and enticed more paddlers to run wilder waters and bigger drops.Slalom racing, an Olympic sport since 1972, remains somewhat sedate by comparison, relying more on an intimate knowledge of water movement, strength and finesse.The slalom boats also are different. While they have decreased about 18 inches in length – to about 11 1/2 feet – they’re made of high-tech materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar, which makes them strong and lightweight, about 20 pounds, but still more fragile than plastic.Leaders in the sport are divided on whether the popularity of racing is ebbing or flowing in the United States, but they agree that more needs to be done to lure a new generation of racers for the national team.”In Europe, these are the athletes that are on their Wheaties boxes,” said Jamie Tidmore, 22, of Bryson City, N.C., who won the women’s national championship. “It’s just a different game.”David Hearn, a two-time world canoe champion, coaches juniors in the Washington, D.C., area and wants to start after-school programs to train future racers.
“We just want to spread the disease,” Hearn said.One of the challenges is that rivers tend to be in remote mountains and only can be run in the spring after snowmelt or during heavy runoff. Dam releases have helped make some runs more consistent – and artificial whitewater courses in urban areas, such as Reno, Nev., Boulder, Colo., and one being built in Charlotte, N.C., draw more boaters of all disciplines.Long dominated by East Coast racers, there is growing interest in the sport in the West.Colorado has high school races. Some races in California are open to anyone in any boat, and organizers hope they will attract more serious racers.”We have a different philosophy on the West Coast,” said Terry Valle, organizing director of the race on the Kern, about a 150-mile drive north of Los Angeles. “We do it for fun. In the East Coast, they don’t do it that way.”The future of the sport may be in the hands of two of the youngest competitors on the water at the nationals: Cully Brown, 9, and his brother, Rogan, 13, of Durango, Colo.The two have been paddling for years, thanks to parents who are such avid boaters that they paddled – and swam – the monster rapids of the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon.”It’s a way of life for us,” said their mother, Lynn Brown. “It’s not like a baby-sitting sport. You’ve got to travel thousands of miles across the U.S. It’s not just throwing a soccer ball in the back of a van.”She tallied some of the costs: $600 for four nights in a hotel, $100 a day for food – and then there is the equipment. Boats cost $2,000 and paddles cost $200. That doesn’t include life vests, spray skirts, wet suits and other gear.
Erik Amason, 20, a student at George Mason University, estimates he spends up to $5,000 a year training and traveling. And he spends much of his week working out – nine times in a boat and four times a week lifting weights.That work paid off as he finished third in the solo canoe event Sunday.”It’s a high-caliber race, but it seems more like a fun race,” Amason said.Indeed, there was a fraternal feeling at the event. Competitors cheered for each other from the sidelines and the winners were given beer mugs along with their medals – out of view of the world passing by on the highway in the distance.—On the Net:U.S. Slalom Nationals: http://www.kernslalom.comDavid Hearn: http://www.daveyhearn.com/
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