Kelly, Hilleke survive the gauntlet |

Kelly, Hilleke survive the gauntlet

Chris Freud
Eagle County correspondent
TMG "8" Ball Kayak Sprint Finals DT 6-5

VAIL ” Saturday night, there was roller derby at Dobson Arena.

Sunday afternoon, the Teva Mountain Games had its own form of roller derby on the rapids of Gore Creek with the “8” ball kayak sprint finals.

In “8” ball, the task is simple ” beat your competitors down Gore Creek to International Bridge. The rub is that there are at least four other kayakers, called “8” balls, lying in wait to crash, smash and bash their boats into the competitors in the process.

“Are you kidding me? It’s the best feeling in the world,” “8” ball Matt Soloman said. “You come up the side and roll Nikki Kelly over. It’s awesome.”

Soloman certainly did tatoo Kelly in one of the biggest hits of the day, crashing into her and forcing her roll over. But the New Zealander rebounded to win the women’s division, while Tommy Hilleke of Asheville, N.C., overcame similar battles to win the men’s competition.

“You get taken out once or twice, but you know the other girls are going to get taken out, so you never give up,” Kelly said. “I didn’t really feel it. I know I got hit. I rolled with it and went upside down. Everyone said it looked bad, but I didn’t really feel it at all.”

After her encounter with Soloman, Kelly beat out Laura Nash and Robin Betts for the $200-prize check. In addition to an “8” ball win, Kelly also had victories this week in the paddlecross and the extreme creek race.

“Not a bad week,” she joked.

“She is an incredible paddler,” Soloman said. “I think we might try to recruit her next year to be an ‘8’ ball.”

No need, Matt. After the women’s final, she popped right back into Gore Creek to become an “8” ball for the men’s final.

“Last year, I went out in front and got clobbered right off the bat,” said Jason Beakes, who took second among the men. “So this year, my goal this year was to hang back from the start, wait for the initial pileup and then sprint for the finish. It works better.”

The general consensus among the competitors was to lay back, let everyone else get involved in a melee and stay under the radar of the “8” balls.

That was Hilleke’s goal, but he somehow found himself up front midway down the creek and raced to victory.

“It feels good to follow a party with a race like that,” he said, referring to Saturday night’s Teva Mountain Ball. “This race is a little bit different. You don’t necessarily want to be out in the front, I don’t think, because usually the front guys are the ones who get taken out. But if you find yourself in the front, you’ve got to be able to juke a little bit. I got real lucky.”

There is also the strategy of having letting rival competitors beat the living daylights out of each other. Case in point ” Steve Fischer and Tao Berman, who finished third and fourth, respectively.

“Fischer and Tao have such a big have such a big rivalry that they take themselves out a lot because they’re so competitive,” Hilleke said. “It just makes it easier for me. It slows them down, so I can catch them.”

However the competitors approached the race, there was no shortage of excitement.

“(It’s) not only the 8 balls, but the other athletes, too,” Beakes said. “I have a big bruise on my elbow already from this. But, it’s kind of cool to have kind of a contact element to our sport.”

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 614, or

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