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2014 Wildwater World Championships - Day 1

June 11, 2014 -- Valtellina Italy

by Doug Ritchie, USA Wildwater Team Member

Update, Day 1 of racing, Adda river, Valtellina Italy, the classic race

It was a wild ride;

The river is still rising, I'm thankful that the organizers changed the start, the upper section with this much water would be pushing class 5. The organizers changed the start to just above the sprint course rapid. It's huge and pushy with big rocks. But we've all run it and there are tons of safety people.

How hard is it? In a race boat at the world championships trying to gun this thing at full throttle? I dunno… you'd have to be here to make the call yourself.

The organizers say we are to get in "between" the sprint course rapid and the next rapid upstream. I go up there and can find no discernible difference between the bottom of one rapid and the start of the next. Fortunately there's an eddy with people in life jackets standing in the water helping racers get in.

I walk back down the course to watch the women racers. In practice there were two huge rocks that we ran a line between. It's about 20 feet wide and the rocks were maybe 4 feet out of the water. Today they're nearly covered and the waves above are so big that from a boat you can't see anything at all. I stand and watch about half a dozen of the world's best women fly off huge waves trying to make the center chute.

U.S. paddler Marin Millar begins her run. I watch her start way river right then break left on the top of a steep 5 footer and run the left side of a huge wave train. She's set up really well. She's heading straight for a really big breaking wave, that's actually the right line, in fact at this level it's the only line. She get's walloped but her boat is still straight and she's lined up well for the chute. She drops in but the river surges and surfs her way left.

Marin drops over a big rock, into a hole, blows through but gets knocked over by the next roller. She sets up and hits her roll but she gets hammered and knocked back over. She sets up a second time, I know she's gotta be running out of air, she hits her second roll and everyone, from every country, is either standing with their jaw dropped wide open or cheering. Later the German woman who finished 4th would congratulate Marin and speak about how great Americans are on big water.

I watch a few more and begin to wonder if watching is such a great idea. In my practice run I got pretty close to sideways and had to back my tail into a hole to get my boat headed down river again. Anna Zasterova of the Czech Republic is next. I know her family well and want to see how she does. She's a past medalist at the world level. In practice she really stuck her line and she hopes it will go well in the race. She's right on line until the center breaker above the chute. She gets slammed hard left, now she's almost sideways being swept into the river left boulder. She back paddles hard on the right then leans upstream and lays on a massive left sweep to try and bring her bow around. It works, she makes the chute but now she's getting pushed way right. Not enough speed, she can't steer, she gets blown way right and has to fight to keep from eddying out on the right shore. She gets things back in control and disappears around the corner. Now I know watching is not helping me.

I get up to the start eddy. It's chaotic. There's nowhere to warm up, only one eddy with about 12 Wildwater boats in it. I get in and paddle to the top of the eddy then back paddle down and then up again. Trying to stay loose, pretending to warm up. The river, just out of the eddy, is a freight train. One guy ferries across but I'm worried about not making the ferry and getting pushed below the start. Immediate disqualification if you do that. Everyone stays in the eddy. Some racer flips and can't roll, he bails, I yell "swimmer!" because, aren't you supposed to?

I finally get queued up for my start. It's easier now, helpers hold your boat. A guy from Japan takes off in front of me. I'm amazed at how fast he's going and then realize it's mostly the speed of the water. The beeper times me down and I take off. I start right and break left early in the wave train, looking for the huge breaking wave in the middle. If I can hit it I figure I'm in the right place. I see the wave and fight it to get lined up straight. I smack the wave in the worst part; all I see is a gray mass of water as it hits me in the face. It must be two feet over my head. I break through and make a good line in the chute but I start to get shoved left into what I know are big holes. I sweep hard on the left and my big Tonga comes around fast.

Lots of rocker in this boat, I'm glad about that. I take several waves in the face but I'm on line and moving well. I round the corner under the Roman bridge and think "that was a wild ride, now only 14 more minutes".

The rest of the race is great. Less chaotic and though the rapids are big you have time to line up. I have a good race and finish about a minute and 20 seconds off the winner, in 41st place.

American Kurt Smithgall finishes just behind me in 47th place.

When the race is over up at the top of the pack is American Emmanuel Beauchard in 14th place.

It was a wild ride for everyone. Tomorrow is the team classic event, then come the sprints on Saturday.

Ciao from Italy,

Doug Ritchie