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2014 Wildwater World Cup 2 - Sprint

June 25, 2014 -- Lofer, Austria

by Doug Ritchie, USA Wildwater Team Member

The sprint course on the Saalach river in Lofer Austria is characterized by large limestone boulders that form a rapid which gives no option other than to run through tight slots and chutes. A perfect line means no tail crunch on one of the drops, we named that one "creek boat move", but perfect lines are seldom seen. I would guess we're racing on about 400 cfs, possibly 450 but not much more. To put that in perspective, the Adda river was running at about 4,500 cfs, roughly ten times the flow. The sprint course rapid is narrow enough that boulders force the water to pool up quite a bit in and around the drops. The rapid is fairly deep even at this water level and scraping over shallows isn't a problem. The trick is not running into a boulder at full speed.

The 2012 Jr. Worlds were held on the same course. Pictures of the course can be found on and Utube. I think the American Juniors will be proud to read about the number of senior racers who found the Lofer sprint course very challenging. There were some stunning desperation saves by top racers and also some who didn't quite make the save.

Though it was rainy and cold for the classic yesterday, Saturday morning proved to be warm and sunny. I can't get over how convenient it is to simply walk from our hotel down a quaint little path to the top of the sprint course. No loading boats, no driving, it's all very civilized. We do our warm up for the sprint by driving up to the start of the classic and putting in up there. As we paddle down we do a series of sprints with varying degrees of intensity.

The start of the sprint race is well organized except for one issue - they run the race in reverse order of yesterday's finishing times for the classic. The classic race was run in "bib order", if your bib is number 39 you start 39 minutes into the race. I like that, it's easy for me. I get on the water when I see the guys in the low teens getting on and then I find people with numbers lower than mine and all I have to do then is hope they're paying attention. If I miss my start I have someone to blame, perfect!

Since today's race puts the fastest guys last, regardless of bib number, I actually have to pay attention. There is no numerical logic to what I see around me as I sit in the upper eddy waiting for the starter to call my number. I remember my place from the start order and I'm getting ready to float down to the next eddy when I hear the starter call out a number. I can't tell if he says 37 or 47, so I yell back to him "thirty seven or forty seven?" He looks a little annoyed and sort of just points at me and waves me down. I think to myself "if you're going to use this confusing method to start, hold up a sign or something, this is too whacky".

I've been putting in some great practice runs and can proudly say that several racers from other countries talked to me about how good my lines were. I'm ready to gun it and feeling confident that I can put a good race together. Practice can be a funny thing though; It's easy to deceive yourself during training runs. Sometimes people don't practice with the same intensity that they're going to use on race day. I suspect that I was laying down great lines in training because I wasn't paddling at full speed. At least that's the best explanation I can come up with to explain what happened next.

I started hard on my first run and ran through the first part of the course with no problems. When I came to the first chute, essentially a "reef" of rocks with one obvious slot in the middle, I was further left than normal. I wasn't worried because roughly half the racers run the left side so I knew it would be fine. I shot through the slot perfectly and looked far down the river to line up for what is two moves away from where I am. I was paddling at full speed and when I looked back at what was right in front of me I basically had no idea where I was. The second "reef", tighter than the first, was right in front of me and I was way too far to the left. I had to lay on a right reverse sweep that was so hard I pulled a muscle in my rib cage.

I got the bow pointed in the general direction of the slot and managed to get my boat through. Then, of course, I took off in the futile attempt to make up for the lost time. Impossible! In a classic race it's possible to make a mistake and compensate later by sheer force of will, but in a 65 second sprint race there just isn't time. My first run put me firmly in last place with no one even threatening to bump me up to second to last. Well, wait a second! I actually did make it down on my first run. There were those who didn't! A member of the Italian team, who qualified for the sprint final at the World Championships last weekend, swam. He ran too far up on the side of one big rock and it shot him left coming off a drop, his bow pitoned the shore. He flipped, tried to roll, ran out of air and bailed.

My second run was better, a bit conservative but I did manage to finish. I'm not going to tell you how I did. I wasn't last. But pretty close. Marin and Kurt did well. Both finished their runs with good control and overall their percentages off the winning boat were closer than mine. The sprint is really fun to watch and even though the rapid is relatively easy, seeing people sprinting as hard as they can makes for some great moments; Guillermo Fidalgo de Leon (cool name huh?), the Spanish racer who finished 7 in the classic, shot off the creek boat move drop with too much left angle and slammed into a rock. He flipped, tried to roll and made it but then got pinned in an eddy. He frantically tried to get going but he had a rock holding his tail and his bow was jammed between two rocks on the shore. He gave up pretty quick and got out where he was. When athletes are giving it all they have and their boats are moving at top speed, even a tiny mistake can have big consequences.

Probably the best performance of the day was from Australian Robert McIntyre. Rob is a member of Australia's national flat water sprint team but also paddles Wildwater. He finished, tied to the 100th of a second, in 11th place. His percentage off the winner was very close however and it'll be great to see how Rob does at next year's Wildwater Sprint World Championships in Vienna.

The awards ceremony was held in the town center of Lofer. We enjoyed Bavarian bands playing traditional music and the street festival offered good food. There truly is great friendship amongst the teams, probably the greatest difficulty for socializing is simply the lack of a common language.

On Sunday Kurt, Marin and I piled into the car again and headed off back to Italy. This time the car was more cramped than on the trip here. We sent all our boats home with other teams with the idea that we'll use them next year, so all the gear we had stashed in the boats is now inside the car. We made it into downtown Milan through Kurt's great navigational skills and Marin's superb driving. And, miraculously, we found a place to park close to Kurt's hotel. It wasn't a legal parking spot, we were blocking the driveway to a secure entrance door to the local police office. The drive led to huge steel doors that slide open and were quite imposing. An officer arrived riding a motorcycle a few minute later and because he could squeeze through between the rear bumper of the car and a steel post he went on his way and ignored us. I guess that's the Italian way, park where you want as long as it's not impossible for someone else to get through.

The trip to our hotel was interesting, we made a couple of wrong turns but quickly recovered. The map was clear and we were about one kilometer from the hotel. That last kilometer took about half an hour and a whole lot of backtracking before we finally made.

But we didů.

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

Back in the USA!

Doug Ritchie