On The Banks Of The U.S. Whitewater Slalom Nationals

Michal Smolem at USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom Nationals

Michal Smolen of Gastonia, NC

You know what I like about sports? I mean aside from all of the obvious things that would motivate a previously sane individual to spend a year of his life chasing down events to watch?

It’s the unexpected and the ironic. And I found both at the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom National Championships, where the unlikeliest of partnerships was on display.

The event venue, the Bethesda Center of Excellence whitewater course, is a man-made one, measuring 40 feet across and a quarter mile long. The beauty of this artificial river – and what makes it truly unique – is that the water that tumbles through it is always at least ten degrees warmer than that of the neighboring Potomac River, whose western shore runs parallel to the course and serves as its runoff point.

“How can this be?” the alert reader might ask. An excellent question.

Well, when looking for warm water, it helps to have friends that have an endless supply. For USA Canoe/Kayak, that friend is the Mirant Dickerson Power Generating Station – who also happens to be its landlord.

Back in 1991, PEPCO, the electric utility that preceded Mirant as owner of the power plant, agreed to help create a training course within the concrete channel that returns discharged water back into the Potomac. And there’s nothing that warms water better than running it through some electricity generators. Airlift some concrete boulders into that gush of nearly 250,000 gallons a minute, and you’ve got some serious churn. It was a marriage made in whitewater heaven.

This unusual affiliation came about in response to a fervent desire on the part of Team USA to create an official U.S. Olympic training facility whose environment would be as similar as possible to that which Olympians would see in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It worked then, and it continues to work now for the athletes that make up – or are working to become part of – the U.S. National Canoe/KayakTeam.

And it works for this Sports Fan, who recently headed to the upper reaches of the Potomac on a cool and misty morning to watch the best of the best whitewater “paddlers” in the country compete for a national title.

Everything about these Slalom National Championships was decidedly grass-roots, homemade and low budget. And also rock-solidly effective, from the pre-event information listed on the web site all the way through.

Put it this way. This is one of the few events I’ve attended that provoked absolutely zero confusion or indecision about when and where I needed to go, how to get there, and what to look for when I arrived. I simply followed well-posted instructions and was led point-to-point – from directions, to parking, to shuttles, to registration, to obtaining event documentation.

Nothing was four-color glossy, but everything was seamless. I love that.

Take for example the event program. It was printed double-sided on a single sheet of standard sized copy paper, and folded to create a four-page, 5 ½” x 8 ½” handbill that provided:

Inserted into that program was a half-sheet – also printed on both sides – that listed the names, bib numbers and home towns of each athlete, broken down by vessel type. I discovered later that the athletes would be paddling in the order of their bib numbers, making the numerical roster an actual athlete-by-athlete spectator guide.

Yes, competitors had been assigned identification numbers that matched the order of their appearance. I know, I know – this is waaaaay too common-sensical to catch on. But there it was.

Given that each program probably cost a couple of pennies, a quick calculation of the “Info To Cost” ratio was pretty near…well, infinity. Was it glossy? No. It wasn’t even necessarily that attractive. But it was exactly what I needed to make the event more enjoyable.

The information that wasn’t provided in the program was nicely supplemented by an emcee, who worked the event more or less non-stop to describe the backgrounds of the paddlers and how they were approaching their runs. He even worked in interviews of former Slalom Olympians and other luminaries of the sport. He recognized both sponsors and volunteers – all without sounding too commercial or cliché.

I half expected him to circulate among the crowd, put his arm around people’s shoulders and ask them how their day was going. And then actually listen to their responses.

There was even a professional deejay on hand, who had been hired to entertain during breaks, and to keep a nice background vibe going behind the commentary. It was like a coffeehouse – with boats hurtling by on a regular basis.

Even the fund-raising had a homespun charm to it. In a unique approach, the organizing committee had clearly been able to lay their hands on a generous supply of chrysanthemums – a staple of autumn landscaping in the Northeast corridor. Many had been used to decorate the venue for the event. As the day progressed, the emcee periodically announced that they were for sale. By the time I left there were very few remaining.

Even more beauty in simplicity – there were no bleachers at the venue. Instead there were picnic tables scattered along the banks of the course. Tastefully decorated with mums, of course. In addition, there were folding chairs propped up along the fence by the entrance to the course. It was literally self-serve seating. Pick a chair and pick a spot – you could change locations pretty much endlessly throughout the day.

Slalom National Bleachers

Or if you preferred a close-up view of the paddlers, as I did, you could climb down the hill to a prime fence-leaning spot. Because there was plenty of action to see.

USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom Nationals Action

Ottawa’s Kathleen Tayler

To be continued in the next post…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>