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Reflections on the 2013 Wildwater National Championships

September 11, 2013

by John Pinyerd

The buzz around the 2013 Wildwater Championships being part of the Freestyle Worlds started building several months ago. I viewed it like I was getting to participate on some level in another World Championships, but this time it was right in our backyard in Bryson City, NC. Who cares if it was the Freestyle World Championships? We were part of it! And an ICF (International Canoe Federation) World Championships is always exciting! It is like 5-day long mini-Olympics, complete with an opening ceremony, a closing ceremony, with just one sport; my sport; PADDLE Sport! And imbedded in the event was our 2013 Wildwater National Championships (and 2014 Eastern Team Trials), all of which turned out to be great idea that was extremely well planned and executed.

Smelling the excitement brewing over the summer really got the competitive juices simmering again. So I did what I could do to get my wildwater racing mojo back. I cut a dozen pounds, converted my training from general fitness and an occasional hour long distance paddle to speed work, anaerobic threshold training, and more training on whitewater. And it was a good thing that I had. From the looks of most of the competitors at the event, most of them had too!

One glance at the start list made it pretty clear that it was going to be "odd man out" on who made the podium in nearly every class. Most of the racers are also longtime friends and I knew I was going to feel bad for someone. I was hoping it was not going to be me, although I knew I would figure out a way to find solace in the fact that I did my best and at this point in my life, I am thankful that I can still participate.

In K-1W Marin Millar made it clear why she had finished 7th in a World Cup last year and decisively won the day one classic race. Haley Popp, who has won a couple national titles herself, gave Marin a strong run in the sprints on day two, but was unable to overtake Marin and finished second. Veteran Jennie Goldberg was third in the classic and the lead turned out to be just enough for her to hang on to third overall after Bailey O'Sullivan's strong showing in the day two sprints.

In K-1, Emmanuel Beauchard turned out to be "the spoiler" and his performance surprised many of us. He is just a few spots away from making the French Team. However, I'm delighted to report that he is a US citizen and chooses to race for our red, white and blue (i.e. the "stars and stripes" instead of the red white and blue bars of France). That is fairly typical of the close knit nature of our sport and we are delighted to have Emmanuel as our top kayaker. Chris Hipgrave showed why he rarely loses on the Nanty and took second both days. Kurt Smithgall who has continued to improve was third. It was also very nice to have veteran paddler and many time team member Franklin Lewis back into the sport and to see a strong 4th place showing from him.

In my class, the C-1 class, it boiled down to how well new comer Rich Stewart (of LCKC flatwater C-1 fame) and veterans Chris Osment, Tom Popp and me stacked up against Jeff Owens. There is a reason that Jeff Owen has won a couple dozen National Championship titles in Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver Racing. He is that good and the gap between decked and open canoes is not nearly as big as some folks believe. The only question in my mind was if Jeff could fully bridge that gap, or if he was going to be in a similar situation to when I raced in WWOC DR Nationals last summer and finished 3rd overall both days. And there was always the unknown factor of what would happen when we raced our tippy C-1's through "The Feature" (aka the freestyle hole).

"The Feature" bounced all of the C-1s off-line to some extent, and in my case, I was able to recover quickly each time with minimal loss of time. Not everyone was that fortunate and it affected the results. Chris dropped from 3rd place to 5th. Rich moved up to fourth. Jeff ended up taking the Bronze, Tom had solid Silver runs both days. And in my case, I ended up winning both days and my 9th National Championship title.

And while I am grateful just to be able to still paddle, it was a thrill to race again at the National level and to be a part of the Freestyle Worlds. And of course, it was great to see so many friends. Our young 4-time National Champions in C-2 (Bryson and Colton Popp) certainly feel that way as well as Selena Popp who is really starting to master the C-1. Bern Collins (who Roger Nott announced at the start line was "older than Wesser Falls") feels the same way. Bern can't be half that old and he proved it by beating several of the other kayakers, all but two of the women, and all of the C-1s. Bern will retain the "beer cup" trophy until I beat him next year.

I am so grateful to have been a part of this. Thanks again to the NOC for putting on such a great event and to everyone who attended.