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December 17, 2004

There is nothing more invigorating to the brain and
soul than competing in an event like the World Freestyle Kayak Championships.
It is a moment of truth that every competitor faces, with each person
giving it there all to come out on top, but only one does. The intensity
doesn’t start the day of the competition, it starts long before,
building up and fading, based on real life situations, but always a fire
is burning inside reminding you of the pending battle. Team Trials is
the first real stomach wrencher that is a splash of cold water in the
face at the dawn of the battle. Preparations for that event most likely
started years before, with several failed attempts at making the team,
with this time having better training, and a real resolve to making this
year count. Making the team is a relief for those who have done it before,
being treated mentally more like that spot you had last year is yours
to lose this year, so the feeling is a little like digging in to hold
on. Trying to make the team for the first time is way more difficult,
because, as confident as you may be normally, you just don’t know
if you have the “right stuff” to actually do it, until you
have done it. It is a self-imposed extra hurdle that everybody faces,
like pushing a car over a little ridge to get it into a gas station, and
having one final bump that just doesn’t want to let you go over,
before hitting the downhill to the station. On competition day, many have
their worst rides ever, while a few rise up and nail it, and the fight
for a chance to compete in the World Championships is over.

The feeling one has after making the team depends upon
their opinion of their chances at winning the World Championships. Those
who just made the team for the first time, or perhaps were lower on the
roster, are more likely to have a feeling of relief and relaxation, like
the battle is over; not taking the training up to the big event as seriously
because they don’t feel they have a chance anyway. Those who feel
that they have something to prove at the World Championships, like that
they can win it, don’t usually experience that feeling of “I’ve
made it” for very long, because it quickly changes to, “Whoa,
now I have to compete against the best of the US, and the entire world,
and people will be watching!” The unknowns increase, because, who
knows how Yagi from Japan is paddling (great, so it seems!), or Tobi from
Germany, or ….. Everybody knows that the competition is going to
be as hot as it gets, with everybody going full on, and the rides will
be sick. So, finally, everybody settles into the realization that on January
25, 2005 when they do their first preliminary rides, they have to be sharp
and having the rides of their lives. If not, well, then, their names will
appear somewhere low down on the results sheet, and eventually fall off
the charts as the field gets paired down to the final five in each class.

Leading up to the competition, getting really close,
like now, everybody kind of takes an inventory of where they are in their
paddling at that moment. “Do I have trophy moves for the competition?
Can I do the staple big moves? How are my basics… blunts, backstabs,
air loops, back loops, clean and super clean cartwheels? Can I put big
move after big move linked together by basics to create a super high scoring
45 second ride? Can I do that consistently, or will it be a roll of the
dice?” That is where I am right now. Yesterday, with a flooded out
Rock Island (bottom lake flooded out the main hole, Brave Wave, and the
top hole and top waves), I practiced with Stephen Wright and the kids
in flatwater. 45 second rides to test my consistency with all of the moves
you can do in flatwater. Loops, cartwheels, Tricky Woos, etc.. It went
well and the kids are doing really well.

OK, the World Championships itself. This is the Aqua
Velva after a close shave (not that I use it, but the analogy I thought
of at this moment). Once you arrive at the site of the World Championships,
you are on a freight train that you can’t stop or get off of. You
are required to get an athletes badge to get into the facilities, and
a practice bib that you have to wear or you can’t train. You start
seeing all of the really good athletes from all over the world that you
forgot about and it is a wake up call that this is the big time, no freebees
here. Your first time on the wave or in the hole, everybody will be watching
and sizing you up, no matter who you are. The better you are the more
likely that you will look up on the bank and see much of your competition
watching, trying to figure out what your plan is going to be, so they
can make a better one. You can only hope that you are enough better than
they are that you can create a routine that they are capable of doing,
or at least as consistently as you are. That is the real kicker in freestyle.
Even if you can score bigger than anybody else, and do, if you don’t
score consistently higher, and have a single low ride when somebody else
has a high one, you will not win. I didn’t win either New Zealand,
or Austria (1999,2003) and had the highest scores of the competition.
This makes the competition really intense on each round. Every ride is
a battle, with tons of unknowns. For example, in prelims, typically the
tenth place scores wouldn’t be top 20 in the next round, because
everybody loosens up and rises to the occasion on the quarter finals.
For Semi-finals it is usually ridiculous, with people having the best
rides you could imagine at that spot and if your aren’t also having
“the rides of your life” then you can count on watching the
finals from the bank. In Finals- it is a hodgepodge. You get a few stellar
rides and typically lots of blowouts too. This is because the system for
finals is a knockout system where your only goal is not to get last. Winning
the rounds is not required, and trying to go too big is not always a good
plan. The other interesting thing is for example, the cut from 5 to 4
the average score might be 200, lets say. In the cut from 4 to 3 the average
score might be 350 with the lowest score being 300. Then from 3 to 2 the
average score might be 180 with the lowest score being 90. As an athlete,
your goal is to score consistently high. The challenge is the fact that
you will have to do 4 rides in a very short period of time (15 minutes).
Not only is it tiring (the last two rides you will do in 3-5 minutes,
if you make it that far). Mentally, you give it your all to make the next
round, then bam, you are back at square one, trying to make the next ride
as important, focused, and successful as the last one. The whole finals
experience is amped up 100 times by the fact that the crowds are huge,
the music and announcer loud, and the air is full of electricity. This
is a moment in time, that I have experienced and won, and experienced
and lost. I live for that type of moment. Where there are two people left,
and you are one of them. You have made it all of the way, you are tired,
still breathing hard from your last run, and the crowd is going nuts.
You have battled hard and are finally face to face with the last person,
invariably you look at the other competitor and you both smile at each
other, with all animosity suddenly gone, you accept your adversary as
an equal, usually followed by a hug, a high five, and a “good luck”.
Then your last ride is staring you in the face, while you can barely hear
from the noise, and your hard breathing and tired arms suddenly become
pumped one last time from the remaining adrenaline, with your heart rate
going through the roof, you give the judges your thumbs up, and like it
or not, it is show time! The final ride seems so clear in your head, you
notice every little mistake and immediately shift up one more gear, until
you hear the 10 second horn, knowing that the competition will be won
or lost in this last 10 seconds, trying hard to balance throwing big moves,
with staying on the wave, trying not to let the fatigue prevent you from
nailing your final moves as you hear the “times up” horn blow,
the crowd go nuts, and the silence that follows. At this point, it seems,
that nobody ever knows who won. It seems to always be too close to call
in the last two rides of every worlds and pre-worlds. I can remember each
one I made it to that point and my competitor. 1993 EJ/Dan Gavere, 1997
EJ/Ken Whiting, 2000 EJ/Jimmy Blakeney, 2001 EJ/Eric Southwick, 2004 EJ/
Billy Harris . On each of these- we waited, exhausted, mentally on a high
and still teetering on going really high or settling for second. Calculating
in your head, looking around seeing the spectators, coaches, and friends
telling their favorite (“I think you won”). It is not worth
even doing, but you can’t help it. They check and double check the
scores so it takes 3-5 minutes that seem like eternity. The whole time
you see your competitor getting “I think you won” comments
from their friends, and they see the same with you. I just watch my wife,
Kristine, who simply says, “I love you, you did great.” During
this time and that keeps me happy as my mental adrenaline keeps pumping.
Finally, the announcer says, “Coming in second place in the World
Freestyle Kayak Championships from the country of …. Is …..”
, Introducing our 2005 World Freestyle Champion…… What a ride!

I am in my final training stage for this event. I want
to be there, swirling around in the eddy with my worth opponent, when
the announcer says- “Introducing the 2005 World Freestyle Kayak
Champion….” And win or lose, I will be a happier, more complete
person, for having gone through the whole experience, starting with the
notion that I could make the US Team and perhaps compete at this level
once again.

🙂 EJ


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