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2014 Wildwater World Cup 1 - Classic

June 20, 2014 -- Lofer, Austria

by Doug Ritchie, USA Wildwater Team Member

Day of the first classic race (there are two classic races on this river)

We arrived in Austria on Monday evening, it is now Friday morning and the first classic race is set to go off at 10 A.M.

Kurt Smithgall and I are seeded near the bottom of the K-1 men's field since we don't have any World Cup points from last year. The rules say that we start in the lead group with all the other "no-pointers". I start third, Kurt is two boats behind me. One might think that it could possibly make things a little easier for us. We're seeded up in the lead group with racers who aren't so fast and thus we can focus on our line without worrying about getting passed.

If that's what you think, you're wrong. Apparently the Spanish National Team members don't have any World Cup points either. Kurt and I raced against them last week in Italy. They won. A couple of days ago the U.S., Spain, and Ireland did a practice run together. The Spanish boys looked really strong. Kurt and I are sandwiched between three of their racers. I studied Spanish in high school, hope I can remember "outta the way Yankee!"

Marin Millar is in a similar situation with one of the super fast German women right behind her.

The difficulty for all of us, not just the racers at the front of the pack, is that the Saalach river is quite easy up until the sprint course. But the calmer waters mean that racers who have something to prove will be killing themselves to prove it. On the Adda river last week, most athletes had to slow down and focus on their line. The whitewater was very demanding making it more difficult to catch the racer in front of you. Or, be overtaken. But here the first ten minutes are all about unleashing absolute fury.

Once we get into the sprint course the game changes. The sprint rapid is relatively narrow with large limestone boulders that make really fun and exciting chutes that we navigate. The speed of the water is relatively slow and the run is reminiscent of something you might do in a creek boat. I really like it. I keep having this idea that it's sort of like a Disney Land ride. However, in this case there is no track that turns you away from whatever fantasy danger is looming. You have to do the maneuvering. So it can be nerve racking when you're at full speed.

We heard earlier in the week that the bottom section of the sprint rapid is off limits because there is a wooden obstruction in it. The race organizers say, however, that the rapid is clear but the bridge itself is about to collapse and they don't want anyone going down there. Well, whatever, six of one half a dozen of the other; wooden obstruction or collapsing bridge, I ain't going down there.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Team Leader's dinner. Very nice, food was great, but I was seated next to the great Slovenian paddler Streco Masle. Slovenia, as I'm sure you know, used to be Yugoslavia. I'm glad you know it because I have trouble remembering who's who from that area. Used to be there was a Yugoslavia, now there's Slovenia, Slovakia, Bosnia Herzegovina and? Who am I forgetting? Serbia?… Note to self; check a map.

Where was I? Okay, yeah, Streco Masle was one of the greatest canoe paddlers ever; silver medalist, C-2 at Bourg in 1987, gold medalist C-2 in 1989 on the Savage in Maryland. Those are the two big awards I remember, I'm sure there are dozens more.

What strikes me most about Streco is his commitment to the sport and the continued development of young athletes. Year after year Streco shows up as coach of the Slovenian team. Year after year they win medals and host World Cup events and Streco Masle is in many ways the catalyst behind their success. Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the club he raced for and is now a full time coach with. Lemme' see here, that means the club was started in 1940. He said the club actually started in 1932 but that it changed its name and the city it was in, about the time World War II broke out. I asked him what type of canoe sport they focused on back in 1932. I assumed it must have been open canoeing or Olympic sprint racing. Streco looked at me a little bemused and said "Wildwater, it has always been a club for Wildwater. Sometimes we have a few sprint racers but not many come and we don't have the tradition so always it has been Wildwater, 75 years now."

I was amazed. He went on to say that they raced in wooden framed boats with canvas coverings much like the Folbots we know in America. I think the Fibark race on the Arkansas river was first run in 1950 or '51 and they raced folding kayaks, open canoes, rafts etc. It's amazing how far back the tradition of Wildwater racing goes and it was rewarding to sit with a man who has kept the sport vibrant and alive through his tireless efforts.

Friday morning, day of the first classic. It rained last night, the river is gonna FLASH!!! I'm thinking huge water today! The Lofer course is notorious for alpine rain storms that hit at the last minute and cause the river to go way up. It's rainy and cloudy this morning but when I take a look at the river I see that it's up maybe half an inch or so.

Marin, Kurt and I get up to the classic start at about 8:30 to do a warm up run. We link up with the Australians who have extra drivers. Rob McIntyre is Australia's top K-1 athlete and he is also on his country's U23 Olympic sprint team. "U23" is a category in sprint for racers under age 23. We should do the same for Wildwater, acknowledging up and coming athletes helps them stay motivated. Rob is wicked fast in a flat-water sprint boat and today's easier course may be to his advantage. On the other hand, everyone here seems to be fast.

We all complete our warm up run and get changed and back up to the start. My theory is I'd rather sit in the car at the start and freak myself out about the race than sit in my hotel room freaking myself out about the race and then miss the start. If you're gonna be freaked out you might as well be on time. We each have a pre-arranged time that we've decided to get changed and get out of the car. Mine is 10:00, My race start time is 10:37.

At the anointed moment, I get out and change back into boating gear. It's raining and cold. I think I'm gonna be too cold so I throw on a long shirt, then I think that'll be too heavy, so I put on a short sleeve shirt. Now I'm shivering. I get back in the car and fire up the heater. Now I'm okay but I need to get going. I jump out, get my boat and run across the bridge Now I'm shivering again so I run back to the car and grab a jacket and put it on over all my paddling gear. I get down to the river, get in my boat, and begin to relax. All I have to do is warm up a little and then race as hard as I can.

Wait a second! One more thing I gotta do, I need to find the Spanish guy who starts behind me and let him know that I'll move out of his way if he catches me. I've looked at the start list and I know his name and number. When I see him I call him by name and we talk as best we can and agree that if he catches me he should yell "Vámonos Yankee!" All three Spanish guys get a good laugh. I'm glad they know that I get the deal - if you get caught you gotta get outta the way!

The race starts and I see guys ahead of me fly off the start with high stroke rates that I wonder if they can hold. I start in two minutes, I need to lose this jacket. I strip it off and heave it on the shore. It's my turn to go, I'm really going to focus on taking hard strokes but also on keeping my stroke rate a little higher than I did in Italy. This river is shallow and sometimes it's best to raise the stroke rate to keep the boat speed up as much as possible.

I get my start and push really hard. I'm following a guy from Spain. He starts really fast but then seems to slow down. It was like he suddenly stopped paddling. Later, it looked like he stopped again, weird. But, I can't really tell what he's doing because even though I can see him he's a minute down river of me. With my eye like it is all I really see is a sort of blurry white thing on the river. Note to self; get your eyes fixed.

I race hard, knowing that this is like a ten minute time trial back home on Green Lake. The rapids are super easy and I want to go as fast as I can then stay in control during the sprint rapid. I don't look back until I get to a marker on the side of the river. I figure the Spaniard might catch me but not in the first ten minutes. I can't miss my marker; it's a big red house. I've chosen this place to look back because it's where the river narrows and leads into the sprint course. There's no place to pass from this point down so if Guillermo is right behind me I'll do the sportsmanlike thing and get out of his way. There's a sharp turn here so looking back is easy, Guillermo has gained huge on me but is maybe 20 seconds back. I make the call; he can't catch me now, only two minutes to go.

I make some little mistake on the top part of the sprint rapid. I know right away it's caused by me backing off too much. I repeat a mantra "hard strokes make speed, speed is your friend". I get centered again and pull harder, the boat responds and immediately starts handling better. I run through the more difficult section of the sprint course with no problems.

When I cross the finish line I drive for the river left eddy and get partially turned, I look back and see Guillermo just crossing the line, maybe five seconds back of me. We end up in the same eddy and I shake his hand and gesture in a way that is meant to ask if I slowed him down at all and he says "No, it is very good, no problemo!" I was a bit bummed that he had pulled so much on me. Later, when I got to see the results, I felt quite a bit better because Guillermo, an unranked racer from Spain, finished 7th overall. Well done Spain!

Two minutes and seven tenths of a second later American Kurt Smithgall crossed the line. Kurt started two minutes behind me. I'm going to cherish those seven tenths for the rest of my life. They may be the last advantage I ever see over Kurt. He is coming on strong and this trip to Europe may the turning point in experience that shows him the way to the top ten, a position he is fully capable of reaching. At the U.S. Nationals in May, my advantage over Kurt was roughly 45 seconds, in Italy last week it was down to ten, today in Lofer it was seven tenths of one second. Emmanuel and Kurt could be two thirds of a great K-1 team, we need the other third.

Marin starts about an hour after Kurt and I finish. That's quite a bit different than in the U.S. where we can run a whole race 25 minutes. I go back to the hotel which overlooks the sprint rapid and take a shower, grab a snack, etc. When I get back down to the river, the men's K-1 class is still on the water. I get to see U.S. paddler Marin Millar run through the last rapid. She too has improved dramatically over the last several months. She runs through the chutes and into a drop we named "creek move" with no problems. She's paddling more aggressively and steers her boat with sweeps strokes or doubles up on power strokes on the same side to keep her Loisach kayak headed where she wants. It takes a fair amount of courage to paddle hard when you're passing so close to big rocks and dropping into chutes with names like "death piton". Death piton is easy to miss, but please do so.

The official results are being posted on the ICF web site which you can access at

I finished in 32nd place, Kurt in 33rd and Marin in 16th position in K-1W.

I'm really proud of the fact that I would have been second in K-1W. The winning woman beat me by about ten seconds. At this level, people, both men and women, are really fit, really fast and very, very good.

We have sprints tomorrow and then another classic on Sunday. I'm going to go harder tomorrow, all of this time being around fast people is having an effect on me.

Aufwiedersen, from Austria

Doug Ritchie