Everything I Know About Canoes & Kayaks, I Learned At The National Slalom Championships

Let me introduce you to Henry Hyde. He’s a talented kayaker from Colorado, by way of Frisco, Texas. If he looks a bit on the young side, there’s a good reason for that. He’s 9 years old.

The son of two elite paddlers, Henry has been in a kayak since the age of 3 ½ (well, other than for meals and bedtime stories). He’s been competing in junior events since he was 6.

He was in Maryland recently – as was I – to take in the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom National Championships at the Bethesda Center of Excellence training center. There was one small detail that differentiated our visits though. Henry was there to compete in the National Championships.

Aside from what this says about Henry Hyde, it also speaks volumes about the ascendant state of this sport in America, for while he was the youngest competitor to tackle the difficult whitewater course, he was by no means the only person under the age of 20. And they were all here to compete on the same course and under the same conditions as decorated Olympians.

While Henry never had a realistic chance of medaling, he acquitted himself well, and there is no doubt in my mind after watching him that he will compete for an Olympic gold medal as early as 2016. As long as he does his chores and his homework in the meantime.

Canoe and kayak slalom rules are simple. Paddlers have two trials in which to negotiate the river in as short a time as possible, and the faster of those two runs is their score for the event. Where it gets tricky is the penalty seconds. If a paddler touches a gate they are assessed a two-second penalty. Should they miss a gate entirely, 50 seconds are added to their time.

You can recover from touching a gate, but missing one pretty much precludes you from medaling. To the best of my knowledge, there were only four runs all day in which no penalty seconds were assessed. This just in…this sport is hard.

From the very first run, the competition was much different than I had envisioned – largely due to the dual direction of the course. Although one’s performance is ultimately measured in the amount of time it takes to negotiate 22 gates over a quarter mile of rapids, this sport is not about pure speed. This is because many of the gates that the paddlers must negotiate require them to reverse course and paddle upstream against the current. Should a paddler get going too quickly through the green-colored downstream gates, it’s more than likely they’ll give back all the time they’ve gained as they struggle back upstream to go through the red gates.

Even going downstream requires a battle with the current, as the key is to continually position yourself on the right side of the river from which to attack the next gate. Steering oneself is at least as important as propelling oneself – and both require a great deal of upper body strength and dexterity. In the end, the true currency of success is in charting a course that requires the least number of paddles.

Much like synchronized swimming, this is one of those sports that to see in person is to be awed by the talent that it requires to merely compete – let alone to excel.

In setting up the competition, the organizers seeded and “bibbed” (OK, I made up that term) paddlers in the inverse order of the number of qualifying points they’d earned in various competitions throughout the year. Consequently, the least decorated and typically younger paddlers went first, followed by more and more experienced athletes, finally culminating in anchor spot runs by experienced Olympians.

I could literally watch the evolution of what that additional experience delivers.

In an analogy that’s a stretch even for me, it was like witnessing how cartoons were originally created – by taking a stack of slightly different pictures and fanning them to simulate motion. Since each run of the competition came right on the heels of the preceding one, it created a visual “fanning” of successively more experienced paddlers, enabling me to make relative comparisons as to what separated the Olympians from the aspiring Olympians.

Which more or less gave me enough knowledge to be dangerous. I became the Cliff Clavin of canoe and kayak. Keeping that firmly in mind, here’s what I learned…

Strategically speaking, sometimes the best way to navigate a gate is not necessarily to go straight through. In fact, a backward approach often works best to help position the approach to the next gate.

Also, some “gates” consist of a single pole that “merely” requires the paddler to go around it on one proscribed side. All that a paddler needs to do to complete passage of those gates is to position their head on the proper side of the pole. By any means necessary.

Ashley Nee at the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom Nationals

Women’s Kayak Champion Ashley Nee

Since all gate poles dangle from guide wires stretched across the river, and hang down to a point a few feet above the water, a boat can be directly underneath the gate while the paddler spins, ducks or leans their torso barely enough to wrap their head around to the legal side of the pole. Upper torso strength and agility are key. Being a practicing contortionist helps as well.

I also learned that all paddlers wear around their waists a neoprene “collar” that snugly fits over the edges of the opening in their canoe or kayak. They climb in, secure the collar to the rim of the opening, and voila! – a water-sealed vessel. Most of the paddlers don’t bother taking the neoprene collar off between runs, instead wandering around the venue looking much like they’re wearing a very short hoop skirt.

Zachary Lokken Is The Height Of Fashion

Granted, this may not be fascinating to you, but consider that I was once enthralled by a potato that bore an alarming resemblance to a profile of Richard Nixon.

As for the actual competitions and their respective winners…

In the first round of kayak competition, there was only one penalty-free run – by Eric Hurd, who thus earned the first round lead. The second set of runs saw flawless performances by Denny Stock and former U.S. champion Brett Heyl, as well as a speedy run by Jure Poberaj that received just 4 penalty seconds. All three overcame Hurd’s time and usurped his hoped-for trip to the medal stand. Hyle’s gold medal represented his fourth national title.

In the women’s kayak, the best score was actually turned in by Dana Benusova, a “foreign guest competitor” from Slovakia, who was thus ineligible to win a spot on America’s national team. Among U.S. paddlers, all conversation about a national title began and ended with just two women – Ashley Nee and Carolyn Queen. Nee’s flawless run in the first round stood up well enough throughout the day to prevent Queen from being crowned champion (seriously, could you have resisted that cheesy pun?).

Another Slovakian, Matej Benus, was the only canoe paddler to turn in a perfect run all day, and had he been an American, he would have snared the gold medal. That instead went to Ben Frakker, who defended his national title comfortably – as did Caroline Peterson on the women’s side.

As for me, I discovered yet another Sport That I Could Never Dream Of Competing In. I am pretty sure though, that I could still post up Henry Hyde on a basketball court.

Brett Heyl Winning the USA Kayak Slalom National Championship

Men’s Kayak Gold-Medalist Brett Heyl

Men’s Canoe Champion Ben Frakker

Women’s Canoe Gold-Medalist Carolyn Peterson

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