Getting in those vertical strokes.
Focused on the course.
Pulling heavily during a kayak run.
Ferrying out across the falls...
Reaching deep for a cross-bow stroke....
Standing atop the podium for Canoe! Colleen Hickey, 2nd, and Jennifer Singletary, 3rd.
*All photos by John M. Thompson*
The Nantahala Gorge is beautiful in spring. The surrounding smoky mountains seem to be emerging from a winter of sleep, with mist rising from the valleys, the redbuds’ soft blooms popping open, and the purple slate faces dripping with icy spring water. I spent the last several days of the past week training there, shivering my way through morning sessions on the fast mountain stream that is the Nantahala River, and spending my evenings with fellow paddlers, tucked away in a cabin up the gorge. At the close of the week, it was time to turn my focus away from training, and towards competing…because this past weekend was the first major race of my season: The U.S. Open. Friday evening, I scrambled along the shore of the river accompanied by my marvelous coach, Joel McCune, and analyzed the gates which had been set above the rapids, planning my lines, my strokes, my movement. That night, after the memorization and visualization of the course had been imprinted on my mind, we athletes, parents, and coaches went out to local hot-spot, Guayabitos, for some pre-race Mexican food, and then hit the hay in preparation for the early morning to follow. I arose to the unfortunate sound of a steady rain pattering away on the roof of the cabin. Paddlers are used to getting wet, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never fun to have a race when it’s 40 degrees and raining…this said, I decided to turn the weather into a positive. Conditions that could detrimentally impact some competitors were going to stimulate me. This mindset really helped me, as I made my way down the course in my first canoe run. I finished it, fairly content (although one can always improve), with an hour before my first kayak run. I checked in with Coach McCune, and then sprinted up to the Subaru, with the glorious heat and cliff bars and water bottles it contained, to while away my hour. The kayak run went well, not my best, but not bad at all. I refueled during the brief lunch break, and then geared up for second runs. My canoe run was better than anything I had laid down yet. I remembered how I had felt at Worlds last year – the incredible, raw, powerful, yet graceful sensations that flow through me when I become the instinctive paddler I’ve trained to be. Afterwards, I took my final kayak run of the day (not quite as good as my earlier run), and went back to the cabin to warm up and get (finally!) dry. That evening, the racers gathered for a banquet (a.k.a. pasta!) at the restaurant above the river, and then retired early in preparation for the next day’s race. I awoke, to my relief, to the sound of birds, but not rain. However, the mist and cold, and swollen river, reminded me of the downpour of the previous day. Speaking of the swollen river – things on the course had changed. Several gates had been switched from down-streams to up-streams and changed positions, but more significant than these changes were the changes in the way the increased volume of the water increased the velocity of the course. I walked the course again with my coach, and reworked my plan for my runs. Confident, I watched the demonstration boats, and then walked up to warm up for my canoe run. It went incredibly well, although there was a lot of time I felt I could have cut. By the end of my run, the sun was seeping into the valley, warming the humid river air. My first kayak run was perfect – but at one of the final gates, I mindlessly blew by an incredibly easy down-stream gate…earning myself a 50 second penalty, and plenty of mental self-flagellation. I went to meet with faithful Coach McCune, to review video and refuel, and he helped me to let go of some of my frustration, and focus on the final runs. My final canoe run was an enormous, wild expenditure of energy and impulse…which almost worked, with the exception of one brief, but costly, roll. My final kayak run, however, was just as impulsive and energetic, but it worked. My run time was far faster, and I only incurred one touch (a 2 second penalty). I warmed up in the sun, laughing with the pleasure of finishing a race, and being on a beautiful river with wonderful athletes, and incredible friends and family on shore. I eventually got out of my boat, and got dressed to go to the awards ceremonies – where I was given gold in Junior Women’s Kayak, Junior Women’s Canoe, and (!) Senior (that is, all ages) Women’s Canoe! What an incredible feeling. True, I’ve been snowed in up in Wisconsin for a few months – but I sure am glad to be back on the waves where I belong…and I’ll be back here in North Carolina before I know it (Three weeks!) for National Team Trials. Peace and happy paddling.