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2014 Wildwater World Championships - Day 2
Master's Race

June 14, 2014 -- Adda River, Valtellina Italy

by Doug Ritchie, USA Wildwater Team Member

What you don't surrender; Well, the world just strips away - Bruce Springsteen, The Human Touch

I once asked many time U.S. National Champion and 10 time U.S. team member Tom Weir his thoughts about why the Europeans produce such fast racers. The number one thing he pointed out is that they're around fast people all the time.

I hoped that for the World Master's Championships some of their speed would have faded with age. And, that my recent experience training and racing with our current U.S. team members would help me carry the day in this afternoon's master's event.

The master's race for Wildwater is set up with the same gracious age grouping that we find for biking, running and other sports. Racers are put into 5 year age brackets and awarded medals based on their performance in their group.

But, that doesn't stop us from wanting to beat everyone in the field not matter how old they are. And, I'm no exception. In fact I'm probably a shining example. I know I have a legitimate shot to win my age group, but, what I really want to do is beat many time world medalist and Italian National Champion Robert Pontarollo. I don't care that Robert won a medal as recently as 2008. I don't care that he just became a master. I'm gunning for him. I want to beat everyone at the masters, not just the guys in my group.

The race starts at three in the afternoon, the same day as the Team Classic event in which I finished 9th with Emmanuel Beacheard and Kurt Smithgall. Emmanuel helps me get warmed up and we go down to the race site. Because the race has people of varying skill levels, the organizers start us below the sprint course. I put in up river anyway and run down to the official start line. The eddy under the old Roman bridge is quite a bit bigger than where we started the team classic this morning but there must be 30 guys packed in it.

There are 40 year olds with the latest gear and older men and women using their favorite boat from the 1970's. I see a couple of guys with thick glasses who look so nerdy I chuckle.

There's really no place to warm up so I ferry across the river and jam the bow of my boat into a poorly inflated safety raft and paddle against it for a while.

I look across and watch as the field starts one by one. I'm struck by the fact that guys who can barely ferry back and forth across the river, sure do look strong when they take off. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows how to get power on their blade.

"They're around fast people all the time" …Tom Weir's sage advice is creeping into my head.

As the start lists approaches my number I begin to realize just what a fight this is going to be. I see 40 year old Robert Pontarollo. I also see current British team member Jamie Christie.

I think, "Wow… didn't know Jamie was a master… This is gonna be harder than I thought".

Robert starts, Jamie starts, it's seeded younger to older. I see plenty of other guys I sort of think I might remember from back in the day. They all look strong, they're all fit. Even the nerdy goggle-wearing guys take off hard.

It's my turn. We got a beeper and holders and the whole works just like the Senior Worlds. I start and get on my stroke rate, I want to keep it high, stay in 3rd gear and keep my big Tonga running fast in the big waves. I've had the advantage of practicing this same section with Emmanuel and Kurt, I figure that will help me. I run through the first big rapid with no problem but as I enter the second, I see a boat with no one in it and safety kayakers trying to get it out of the river. It's right on my line; I'll have to break left to get around it if they don't move it quick. There's a bridge piling to the left. It's fairly ancient by American standards, maybe 200 years old, new for around here. The piling is stone and maybe six feet wide, a huge cushion piles off of it. I'll be fine even if I get over there, not like one of those horrifying 18 inch wide concrete death pilings you see on a lot of rivers. If you broach on a modern piling, you're doomed.

The safety crew gets the boat out of the way about 20 feet in front of me. I'm all clear for the next rapid. Things are good, I stay on line and push really hard looking for what we call "Mexico bridge".

I can hear the noise from the bridge before I see it. U.S. team coach Chris Norburry is on the bridge blowing a whistle. As I approach I notice he's got a cadence to it. He's blowing just faster than my stroke rate, I up the rate, he ups the cadence. I pass under the bridge and give him a huge "I'm gonna win this!" smile. I can hear Chris for at least another mile.

I follow the same line as we ran in the team event this morning, but this time I avoid the eddy in the middle of the river that Emmanuel pointed out. I push hard for the finish, going lactic, I see Emmanuel waving a huge American flag and yelling. I cross the line and feel really good about my race. Pushed it really hard, had great lines… Pontarollo? Christie? They're toast.

We get back up to the race headquarters and look at the results. I finish 3rd in my age group about 5 seconds off the winner. My age group winner, by the way, was one of the nerdy old goggle-wearing guys.

I take some solace, however, when I find out that I also would have been third in Pontarollo's 40 to 45 year old group. So, third in group D is also third in group A. I guess that happens when you're around fast people all the time.

But I wasn't the only American master out there today. I would like to introduce you to the 2014 Master's World Wildwater Champion for K-1 women - Marin Millar.

Marin smoked the rest of the women! If you want to get fast, hang around her.

Ciao from the Adda river, Valtellina Italy,

Doug Ritchie
2014 bronze medalist, Master's World Championships