On Saturday and Sunday, March 24 and 25, the best canoe and kayak racers from around the United States met on the Nantahala River in western North Carolina to decide who wins and who loses in the last big white water race of the season, the U.S. Open Canoe and Kayak Championships, sponsored by Bank of America.
Although this is one of a series of regional races, it was a very important race because it was the last race before the U.S. Olympic Team Trials held April 12-15 in Charlotte, N.C. Competitors used the U.S. Open to judge their chances at the Olympic Trials and to assess the competition. A win or a strong finish at Nantahala would prepare racers for the intense competition they will encounter at the Olympic Trials.
The Nantahala race helped competitors refine their techniques, refresh their training regimens, and make sure their boats are properly outfitted and trimmed for the races.
Just like in any other sport, the greater the competition, the greater the need for good coaching. The Nantahala Racing Club, our local club, is coached by Rafal Smolen who came here from Poland to coach racing. Rafal is a tall, softspoken man of incredible intensity that has raced and coached his entire life. Rafal moved his family to North Carolina to pursue his coaching career because the southeast is part of the genesis of the sport in the United States. The head coach of the U.S. Team is Silvan Poberaj, who came from Slovania to pursue his coaching career.
These river racers ranged in ages from mid-teens through mid-thirties, and they all seemed to share a deep love for rivers and intense competition.
The paddlers that compete at this level of competition are hardcore racers and they train all year to build their strength, skills, and confidence to take on competitors from all over the United States. Racing is a power sport, so the competitors spend a lot of time lifting weights to build strength, running and bicycling to build their cardiovascular stamina and endurance, and boating to develop their skills and confidence.
There were fifty racers in the U.S. Open on the Nantahala and some home town favorites were involved in the event, such as Scott and Alita McCluskey from Sylva, North Carolina. Scott has paddled and raced most of his life and when he is not racing, he builds houses. Scott races open canoes and C-1 and C-2 (decked canoes). Scott and Alita are also the course designers and they actually put up the gates and thought of ways to make the course as challenging as possible. Scott, who is 33 years old and at the upper end of the racing age bracket, says that he still enjoys it as much as he ever did, but old injuries, like with all athletes, make it somewhat harder. With his lifetime perspective, Scott says the most important thing is to “cherish the moment.”
Zuzana Vahna is a former racer from the Nantahala Outdoor Center and is the race coordinator for the U.S. Open. Suzana has spent hundreds of hours preparing this event for the public and meeting with racers, sponsors and organizers from all over the country.
Some of the young paddlers who hoped to make a big impression at the U.S. Open included Caroline Queen, a topranked U.S. racer who hails from Washington, D.C., but trains in Charlotte, N.C. Caroline says the way to success is to “challenge yourself and grow all the time.”
Jeff Larimer and Eric Herd paddle a C-2 and won their division at the U.S. Open C-1s and C-2s are enclosed boats that look like kayaks, but are actually canoes because the boater kneels instead of sits in the boat and uses a singlebladed paddle instead of a double-bladed paddle. Because Jeff and Eric are in the same boat, they have to know how the boat responds, how the rapids affect the boat, and how each paddler responds to everything that happens during the race; they literally have to “feel” what their partner is doing in the other end of the boat in order to coordinate their moves to create speed and control. This year they will spend 342 days practicing their racing skills.
Jeff Larimer and Eric Hurd have been paddling for fifteen years and it paid off big with a win this week at the U.S. Open in the OC-2 (open canoe, 2 man) division. Their winning time was 115.21 seconds. This win will put them in the best possible position for the Olympic Trials coming up in two weeks in Charlotte.
Scott Parsons, one of the oldest competitors in the race at 33, won the men’s K-1 (one person kayak) division which is considered the most competitive division in the race. His winning time was 98.6 seconds. Scott is a former Olympian and competed in both the Athens and Beijing Olympic Games.
Ashley Nee, age 22, from Washington, D.C. won the K- 1W (single kayak, women’s) division with a time of 116.79 seconds. Casey Eichfeld from Charlotte, N.C. won the OC- 1 (open canoe, one man) division with a time of 108.85 seconds. Lisa Adams won the C-1W (decked canoe, one woman) division with a time of 168.94 seconds.
None of these races would have happened without a ton of volunteer work from dedicated fans like the moms and dads that feed, house and transport their teen-aged athletes to all the training and race events. Course designers, organizers, media specialists, timers, rescue personnel, and sponsors are all integral parts of the final events.
A Long-History of Paddling
The Nantahala River is rated Class II and Class III and is considered an easy run, but the course designers use their knowledge of the rapids and their ability to test the racer’s skills to design a course that is tough for any competitor. The designers hang gates (brightly colored poles) from wires strung across the river and slalom boaters must negotiate the river and the gates at the same time. If a racer hits a gate or misses a gate, penalty points are assessed against the run time. Some of the gates require a paddler to turn around and go back upstream and some gates are located over hydraulics in the middle of rapids that requires intense concentration by the racers to keep from flipping upside down and losing valuable time.
The wild-water portion of the race is a classic down river run that is all about speed and uses boats that are faster, but less stable than the highly maneuverable slalom boats. Both races are timed events and every second counts.
Kayak and canoe racing has a long history in the United States, but this type of racing evolved in Europe and reached its first big peak when canoe and kayak racing was included in the 1972 Munich, Germany Olympic Games. Carrie Ashton was the first American to ever place in an Olympic kayak
race when she finished second in Munich in 1972. The next big Olympic venue was in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, but the big break for Americans came with the inclusion of kayak and canoe races in the 1996 Olympics held on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Many of these young paddlers will gladly train for four, eight, or even twelve years for a chance to be on the U.S. Olympic Team and wear the red, white and blue team colors.
Kayak racing has evolved in different ways and the European tradition is quite different from the U.S. tradition. In most European towns, and all cities, there are clubs that sponsor and teach racing for children and adults and it is very much a family sport. Boat racing is as common in Europe as our ball sports are in the U.S. and as a result many of the best racers and best coaches have come from Europe. Boat designs have also been heavily influenced by European builders and many of the top race boats are still designed in Europe.
Play boating or rodeo competitions are a uniquely American twist on kayak and canoe competitions. Play boats are short and stubby and easy to turn, flip, twist, and roll. Play boats produce an acrobatic performance on the water and in the air and are judged on their complexity and difficulty of execution instead of a speed event.
The golden triangle of white water boating in the southeast includes the Nantahala River in North Carolina, the Oconee River in Tennessee, and the Chattanooga River in South Carolina and Georgia. These rivers became the birthplace of the modern era of white water paddling in the United States because of easy access, predictable flows, Wild and Scenic status, proximity to large population centers like Atlanta, Knoxville, and Charlotte, and, of course, the movie Deliverance. During the last forty years millions of people have floated down these southeastern rivers and used them as spring boards to careers in paddling, guiding and manufacturing.
Perception Kayaks was started in Bill Master’s garage in Liberty, South Carolina and twenty years later evolved into the world’s largest kayak manufacturer. Within a few years, Dagger Kayaks in Athens, Tennessee was in the thick of competition and these days Liquid Logic from Tuxedo, North Carolina is a widely recognized manufacturer.
There is also a strong link between white water racing and the U.S. armed forces. Tracy Click, a charming young woman from Huntsville, Alabama is retired from the U.S. Army where she was a parachutist. Tracy suffered some terrible injuries and was forced to retire, but then she discovered that she could use C-1 racing as a tool to aid in her rehabilitation and regain some of what she lost while serving her country. The racing community gave her a chance to heal, inside and out, and to become part of a new team of dedicated paddlers.
Also related to the military, Staff Sargent Stephany Whatley, U.S. Army (ret.) sang the National Anthem at the opening of the U.S. Open Canoe and Kayak Races.
Colorado is another state famous for its white water rivers and several of the top racers came from Colorado. Zach Loken is 18 years old and comes from Durango, Colorado. Nick Borst and Lisa Adams are also from Durango. Tyler Hinton is from Boulder, Colorado and has moved to Charlotte, N.C. so he can train for the Olympics and his teammate, Spencer Huff, is from Lyons, Colorado.
Washington, D.C. is another hot spot for kayak and canoe racers and Simon Ranagan, Anna Mara, Michael Rudnitsky, and Scott Parsons are all from the D.C. area.
The U.S. Open Canoe and Kayak Races are a family friendly event and there was no admission fee and the races always go on rain or shine. If you’ve never seen a white water race, this was a great venue to get up close to the action. One of the first things people notice is that spectators and competitors are friendly and accessible.