By Chuck Hines
Before she graduated from high school in 1985, Becky Weis logged over 1,000 river miles, and soon thereafter she paddled some of the very toughest stretches of whitewater in the country, such as the Niagara River Gorge, the Upper Nantahala, North Chickamauga Creek, Overflow Creek, the Meadow, the North Fork of the Payette out west, and Chattooga Section Four at 5 feet. It was all culminated when she finished in a first-place tie in international freestyle competition in 1994.
But let’s go back to the beginning. I recall receiving a phone call from Becky’s father, canoeing guru Chuck Weis, in 1981. He said, “Becky’s run all the rivers here in Indiana, and I’d like her to get more instruction.” In those days, we had a very good YMCA kids’ kayaking club in Asheville, North Carolina, so I invited Becky, 13 at the time, to join us.
She came and shared a bedroom in our home with my own daughter, Heather, and after a rocky start on a paddling trip down remote Snowbird Creek, Becky soon blossomed in-to a whitewater whiz. Together we ran the Lower Green, Nantahala, Nolichucky, Tuckaseigee, and several other rivers around Western North Carolina, and Becky also trained with us at our slalom course on the French Broad River. When we conducted our annual French Broad River races, she upset the field of more experienced women and girls and took top honors in the slalom.
Becky went back home to Indiana but each summer thereafter returned to Asheville and then to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and she won the K-1W Jr. slalom races at the 1983 and 1985 U.S. Championships and competed in Europe. Then, as an older teen, she paddled all of the ‘hairy’ river sections mentioned above, and she was one of the first women to run the Class IV-V Green River Narrows.
She became certified to teach kayaking at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which she has said is her proudest achievement. Eventually she came to college here in Asheville and helped teach beginning-level students in our local program. Finally she took up freestyle (or whitewater rodeo) when it was first becoming popular and earned the aforementioned first-place tie – and Gold Medal – at a major international competition in Europe in 1994.
Still a resident of Asheville, Becky recently stated, “Much of the confidence and skill necessary for me to run all those tough rivers I actually gained from my early years of slalom practicing and competing.”
Today, in the Olympic Year of 2004, we have many good younger slalom racers who are striving to follow in the footsteps of such stars as Barbara Wright, Peggy Nutt Mitchell, Carrie Ashton, Cindy Goodwin, Louise Holcombe, Linda Harrison, Wendy Stone, Kara Weld, Cathy Hearn, Dana Chladek and many others, including Becky Weis, who’ve led the way in this very difficult sport.
What is whitewater slalom racing, anyway? Well, here’s a very brief history:
1932 – First slalom races held in Switzerland
1949 – First Slalom World Championships
1956 – First U.S. Slalom National Championships
1972 – First Olympic Games Whitewater Slalom in Augsburg, West Germany
1981 – Junior & Master categories added to the U.S. Slalom National Championships
1986 – First Junior World Slalom Championships
1989 – Whitewater Slalom World Championships held in the U.S. for the first time
on the Savage River in Western Maryland
1996 – Olympic Games Whitewater Slalom held in the U.S. for the first time on
the Ocoee River in Tennessee, attracting daily capacity crowds of 15,000+
over four consecutive days
1996 – First U.S. Junior Olympic Slalom Championships
2003 – A record 70 countries compete in the Whitewater Slalom World Championships,
all hoping to qualify for the 2004 Olympics
2004 – Olympic Games Whitewater Slalom in Athens, Greece on August 17-20
From a technical standpoint, slalom racing is a sport in which athletes in four different classes of racing boats maneuver down the river and through a series of 18 to 20 gates, at-temping to avoid hitting the poles that form the gates. The athletes are timed from start to finish over the course, which generally requires about two minutes of adept boat-hand-ling, depending on the difficulty of the river. There are such obstacles as rapids and rocks, pulsating waves and treacherous hydraulics, and it’s not unusual for the water level to go up or down during the competition and for the wind to cause the poles to swing freely. Athletes must be moving forward through some gates and upstream, against the slower moving current, at other gates. Missing a gate entirely is a 50-second penalty. Touching a pole with one’s body, boat, or paddle, even barely, is a 2-second penalty. Each athlete is given two race runs through the course, with the total time determining the results. Oh yes, one other thing: the slalom courses not only change from one river to the next but also are changed by a team of course designers from the Qualifier race one day to the Final race the next day on the same river. Therefore this is a competition of constantly changing challenges, maybe more so than any other sport, and at the highest level, just a single touch of one pole, resulting in a 2-second penalty, can keep a racer out of the medals. To succeed, athletes must be fast and clean, meaning they must be moving at top speed from the starting gate to the finish line while maintaining expert boat control to avoid the dangling poles and the various river obstacles. It is not easy.
The four categories or classes of competition are C-1 (men’s solo canoe), K-1 (men’s kayak), K-1W (women’s kayak), and C-2 (a decked canoe in which there can be two men, two women, or one of each). Through the years, including this year’s Olympics, all slalom racing boats had to be long and narrow, but starting in 2005, the boats can be half-a-meter shorter, possibly removing about 10 inches from each end.
Races and training camps are conducted around the country every year, with a dozen of the key sites being Atlanta; the Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina; the Ocoee River in eastern Tennessee; the Bethesda Center of Excellence in suburban Washington, DC; the rivers of Pennsylvania, which host the yearly Penn Cup series; the rivers of New England; the urban slalom courses in South Bend, Indiana, and Wausau, Wisconsin; the St. Francis River in Missouri; the many rivers of Colorado, where slalom races have been held for over 50 years; the Guadalupe and San Marcos Rivers in Texas; the Kern River in California; and all the excellent whitewater rivers of the Pacific Northwest. While these locales usually have the most races and camps and the best coaching, there are many other sites from Asheville to Alabama to Albuquerque where slalom racing is pursued and enjoyed. During the winter months, gates are frequently hung at indoor pools from coast to coast, offering a novel type of practicing and competing.
Overseeing all of this slalom activity, from the sanctioning of beginning-level races to the selecting of our National and Olympic Team members, is an organization called USA Canoe & Kayak, which is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In an effort to present a fairly complete picture of the U.S. women’s slalom racing scene in 2004, Chuck Hines recently interviewed a dozen athletes, coaches, and slalom leaders, from well-established stars to aspiring youngsters to those in the middle, representing every corner of the country. Following is a listing of these ladies and then their comments when interviewed:
Chuck Hines: When did you start paddling? Racing?
Candice: I started paddling in 1998, when I was 13, after my Mom – who’d been paddling for three years - encouraged me. I had attended the Nantahala Racing Club’s fund-raiser and met their 1996 Olympians, and thereafter I did some weekend trips with my Mom on the Nantahala and Tuckaseigee Rivers. I started racing in 1999 and went with Olympian Wayne Dickert on his “Vans Across America” trip for kids. Then in 2000 I started to train more seriously.
Michelle: I started paddling in 1995, at the age of 15, when my Mom and I helped Mark Poindexter conduct a slalom race on the Guadalupe River near New Braunsfels, Texas. Olympian Ben Kvanli was there and asked if I wanted to give it a try, and the next thing I knew, I was going up and down the river. I haven’t stopped paddling since. I started slalom racing pretty soon, as every paddler I knew was a racer. I liked the challenge of the gates, and running them made my paddling so much better and so quickly.
Amy: I started paddling here in Ohio when my Dad, who is a Professor of Recreation Studies at Ohio University, initiated a paddling program for his students. I was 11 at the time, and I fell in love with it. We soon were paddling on the Yough. in Pennsylvania and the New in West Virginia. I began racing when I was 14 in the Ohio-Penn Cup series. At first I was against competition and raced only because some friends urged me to do so. But I won the race and decided it was a pretty cool sport!
Rebecca: I started paddling when I was 10 at a YMCA camp in Wisconsin. My whole family was involved. The instructor, Ray McLain, was a slalom racer and coach, and he spent a great deal of time with my family. Thus we were introduced to slalom racing right away. Eventually Ray took my older brother, Todd, and older sister, Lindsey, and me to races around the country.
Jennie: So many boats, so little time! I started paddling in 1980 in recreational boats. In about 1990, I discovered slalom. Training, I learned, was actually fun. It wasn’t long before I found out how much it helped my confidence and skills in Class V river-running. I enjoyed it so much that I got involved in organizing racing here in the Pacific Northwest. I dabbled in wildwater racing, but it wasn’t until 2000 that I really got hooked. The balance and boat control required in wildwater improved my slalom racing, and in turn my slalom paddling improved my sprinting in wildwater. I think everyone should try both.
Gwen: I started paddling at the age of 10. Our house was on a bay in northern Wisconsin, and my Dad thought it would be a good idea to get sea kayaks for us. Soon thereafter we took a class at the local YMCA to learn how to actually paddle the kayaks. This is where I met Ray McLain and a girl who was in high school by the name of Rebecca Bennett … now Rebecca Giddens. They started to teach me slalom racing. I‘ve always been a competitive person, and I entered my first race about six months later. I took 1st in my age group. Needless to say, I was hooked.
Jennifer: A high school friend and slalom racer, Aurele Lamontagne, took me to watch a race below Great Falls on the Potomac River in 1983. I was mesmerized when I watched Davey Hearn, Jon Lugbill, and Bob Robison surfing the top wave at Rocky Island together with such power and grace. I wanted to go home to the Chicago area and learn how to paddle and surf like that. That winter I learned to kayak in a swimming pool with the Chicago Whitewater Association under the guidance of “River Mom,” i.e. Marge Cline. In the spring, I went on several beginner paddling trips, mostly to Wisconsin. As soon as I was running rivers, I was also competing in slalom races in my plastic Dancer in pools, under bridges, and down rapids. I’m certain that learning slalom skills in the gates helps you learn to use proper technique and have more control running whitewater rivers. Already finished with college in 1987, I made a New Year’s resolution to see how good I could get at slalom racing. After driving around checking out different training areas in the U.S., I landed in Bethesda, Maryland.
Hannah: Our neighbors and family friends, David and Peggy Mitchell, both having been top international competitors, started a kids’ kayaking club called Mascoma Express to get their own children interested in the sport. When I was 8 years old, they invited me to take lessons, and for two years, I would go kayaking twice weekly in their small pond in Canaan, New Hampshire, with about 20 other youngsters. I was hooked immediately, and by the time I was 10, I was off the pond and running rivers. That same year, I competed in my first race, and by age 12, I was traveling to races around New England with Mascoma Express.
Sarah: I started paddling because my older brother, Coby, was doing it, and I had to do everything that he did. He first taught me to roll in our backyard pool in Michigan. I started running rivers and really paddling when I went to Proctor Academy in New Hampshire for my freshman year of high school in the fall of 1991. Proctor had a kayak program run by Bert Hinkley. I had always been a water bug, so kayaking was a match made in heaven. My first race was in the spring of 1991 at the Mascoma Express. I raced at the Junior Team Trials later that spring, where I finished last!
Molly: The first time I got in a slalom boat was in Tacen, Slovenia. My brother was on the Junior National Team, and my parents were chaperones, so I had to tag along. I fin-ally got a chance to sit in a boat and paddle, and I decided this was what I wanted to do from then on. I was 12 or 13. I had only paddled in slalom boats, so it was natural for me to start racing a year later.
Paris: I received my first kayak when I was 6 from Santa so we could paddle around the lake at our mountain house in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina. I didn’t start in slalom until I was about 10, and then I practiced once per week with Mike Hurd in Atlanta, Georgia.
Terry: I started paddling 10 years ago. A Class III river runner, I see slalom as just a chance to have fun. I’m definitely not fast, but I always go to whatever slalom races are around to see if I can actually make all the gates. My main interest is organizing quality racing events.
Chuck Hines: Where have you raced, and what have been your top accomplishments?
Candice: I’ve raced in about 10 states and in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, and Slovakia. Probably my top accomplishments were being on the U.S. Junior Team for three years and finishing 1st in the K-1W Junior category in the 2003 U.S. Cup series.
Michelle: I’ve raced in 26 states and in two foreign countries, Canada and New Zealand, and I would love to get on some of the courses in Europe. I think one of my greatest accomplishments has been helping start the Red River Racing Team and more recently the Power Olympic Outdoor Center. This has given hundreds of people the opportunity to en-joy the sport. As for race results, during my younger days, I was a three-time qualifier for the Junior Olympic Championships. Then I won the Midwest (Missouri) and South-west (Texas) qualifying races for the U.S. Senior Team Trials in 2000. At that time, I started college. So I’m coming back fresh this year and recently won the 2004 Southwest Qualifier for the Senior Team Trials.
Amy: I’ve competed in 19 states and also in Austria, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Re-public, and Norway. I was U.S. Junior Champion in 1992, a Bronze Medalist at the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1993, and a fourth-place winner in the Team races at the pre-Worlds in 1993.
Rebecca: I’ve raced in 15 states and trained in several others, and I’ve competed in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland. Being the 2002 World Champion in K-1W and participating in the 2000 Olympics and winning a 2000 World Cup race are my top accomplishments.
Jennie: I’ve raced in a dozen states from coast to coast and also in Canada. Along the way, I competed in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Slalom Team Trials on the Ocoee, and I’ve been the U.S. Masters K-1W slalom champion in 1995 and 1997, the World Masters K-1W champion in slalom and wildwater in 1998, and the U.S. Masters champion in K-1W wildwater in 2000.
Gwen: I’ve traveled to 18 or 20 states for training and competing, and I’ve traveled to 14 different countries over the past five summers. Although I’ve been the U.S. Junior and Junior Olympic Champion, my top accomplishment was making fourth boat on the U.S. Senior Team last year while I was still a Junior, which gave me a chance to compete in a World Cup race in Slovenia, in which I placed 10th. Another accomplishment was running the Green River Narrows in North Carolina. I’d heard so much about this difficult Class IV-V section that I was scared to paddle it, but I am proud to say that I’ve paddled it twice.
Jennifer: I’ve raced all across the U.S. and have also competed or trained in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Ire-land, Italy, Japan, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. In 1990, I was a Silver Medalist in the K-1W Team race at the pre-World Championships at Tacen, Slovenia, with teammates Dana Chladek and Cathy Hearn. In 1993, I was a Gold Medalist at the U.S. Olympic Sports Festival. In 1995, I was a coach to my husband, Davey Hearn, when he won the World Championships. I was a volunteer for the U.S. Team since 1988, assisting with video, splits, and race support, and I coached at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Hannah: I‘ve raced in 12 U.S. states as well as Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. As a junior, I teamed with Anna Jorgensen and Aleta McCleskey to earn the Bronze Medal in the K-1W Team race at the Junior Worlds, and I finished 8th individually in the same competition. I was thrilled to compete for the U.S. National Team in the 2002 World Cup and Senior World Championships, as well as the World Cups in 1999, 2003, and 2004.
Sarah: I have paddled all over the U.S. and in at least 20 other countries including Australia, Europe, and Central and South America. My biggest accomplishment has been winning the Silver Medal in K-1W Team at the 1999 World Championships with two of my absolute best friends, Rebecca Giddens and Mary Marshall Seaver. Coming back from shoulder surgery is also something of which I am very proud.
Molly: Sites in the U.S. include the DC area, of course, plus six other states. Internationally, I’ve raced in Austria, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. As for accomplishments, I haven’t been racing long enough to have anything really good. I guess the best would be finishing as the top K-1W Junior at the recent U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Paris: The states in which I’ve competed are Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The countries are Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. As for accomplishments, I was 1st in the Cadet (14-under) K-1W races at the 2003 Junior Olympics and U.S. Cup series. I also qualified for and competed in the re-cent 2004 U.S. Senior and Olympic Team Trials.
Terry: I’ve only raced in California and Nevada and am not a top contender. But as the organizer of events, I’ve been more successful. The California rivers have not been taken too seriously by the major powers back East in the past. However, we know that what we have here in the West is very, very good and unquestionably of national and international quality and difficulty. We were granted our first major event (in recent years) in 2000 when we hosted both the U.S. Slalom and Wildwater Championships. We made every effort to make it more than just another race and were very successful in our endeavors. After that, we were asked to bid for a Wildwater World Cup event, and we ended up with all six World Cup races, which we held over a 10-day period in 2003. Since our home river, the Kern, has over 40 miles of outstanding features that are easily accessible, we were able to give the competitors a series of races they will never forget. We also conduct the Kern River Festival each year, which attracts a variety of excellent racers and freestylers, and it serves as a Junior Olympic Qualifier. The community here exceeds anything else put together by any other (paddling) organization, and we are very proud of our work and accomplishments.
Chuck Hines: Where do you train, and who have been your most important coaches or mentors?
Candice: The Nantahala is my home river. It has decent whitewater, nice facilities, and is just five minutes from our house. The Ocoee and Tuckaseigee are two other training sites. In college at Warren Wilson, we have a small slalom training course on the Swanannoa River that flows through the campus. My greatest inspirations have been Cathy Hearn and Rebecca Giddens and also Wayne Dickert and John Brennan. My current coach at Warren Wilson is Olympian Lecky Haller.
Michelle: I train in Texas, which most people find hard to understand, but I reside in San Marcos, the entrance to the Hill Country, at the Power Olympic Outdoor Center, and we have tons of water on the San Marcos, Guadalupe, Colorado, and Comal Rivers. The water is 72º the year ‘round, and thus we train the year ‘round on our gates. Actually, the training is awesome here. Mark Poindexter got me started in the sport, and my husband, Ben Kvanli, showed me that it was possible to succeed. Lee Leibfarth is a fine coach and was very encouraging when I worked with him, and it also has been incredible to work with Cathy Hearn, who has such a great attitude and an amazing amount of knowledge.
Amy: Growing up in Ohio made training tough. I had a lake to paddle on and a flat-water gate area on our local Hocking River. On some weekends, I traveled to South Bend, Indiana, for whitewater practicing. I trained alone with no coaching other than what I received at the few training camps offered annually, and therefore I feel I never really reached my potential during those crucial developmental years. After I received my college degree, I moved to Atlanta to serve as Executive Director of the Atlanta Center of Excellence, and there I finally began quality training with good coaching and other athletes with whom to train. My third location for training was in Pennsylvania. I had several whitewater rivers, but no gates and no coaching, and I was dealing with freezing weather in the winter months. I did have adequate weight-training facilities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Weight-training in this sport is very important for enhancing power, so having good weight-training facilities is a must. Those who’ve helped and encouraged me include Fritz Haller, Peggy Mitchell, Kent Ford, Kara Weld, and Cathy Hearn.
Rebecca: Right now I’m training on the Kern River in California. I didn’t realize the training out here in California would be so fine. Between the Olympic Training Center in San Diego and Rio Bravo, and now Miracle Hot Springs on the Kern, it’s awesome training. Eric and I put up all the gates at Miracle with a lot of help from the local community. My most important mentors have been Ray McLain, who taught me in the beginning and then encouraged me to work with many other coaches, and my husband, Eric Giddens, a U.S. Olympian, who has trained by my side since 1995.
Jennie: One training site is Lake Washington in Seattle. It’s close to home and work and has City lights, allowing for paddling 24 hours per day year-round. It has about 30 gates, which is good, but they are not adjustable, which gets a little boring after a while. It is near the freeway, so it’s kind of noisy. Another site is the Cedar River near Landsburg. It’s often hard to get to after work, but has easy access and parking. Gets low in the summer but otherwise is good Class II-III with new gates that are adjustable. Also I train some at Tamahi Rapids on the Chilliwack River in British Columbia and at Duwamish Waterway, which is influenced by the tide, so if your timing is good, you get to work against the current, sometimes even both ways. My early mentors included Boo Turner, Stephen U’Ren, Maylon Hanold, and Eric Young. My more recent coaches have been Saskia van Mourik, Toby Roessingh, Margaret Langford, and Mike Druce.
Gwen: As a student at Western Carolina University, I do most of my workouts at the Nantahala River, a 40-minute drive from my dormitory room. There is also a flat-water training site and a moving-water site called the “Slab” on the nearby Tuckasegee River where I can paddle between classes. As for mentors, my first coach, Ray McLain, probably has had the most impact on my life, because he’s the one who really got me to love kayaking. My next coach was Lee Leibfarth, and he taught me a lot about attitude and how to remain positive even in negative situations. My coach now is Rafal Smolen, and I’m learning from him how to paddle like the “big girls,” which is cool.
Jennifer: The Potomac River has good year-round whitewater from Great Falls to Little Falls. We also have 50+ moving-water training gates on the Feeder Canal, and this is the bread and butter of slalom practicing. The C&O Canal is good for sprints, stroke drills, endurance, and time trials. The Navy’s David Taylor Model basin, a long indoor tow-testing facility used with special permission by our local athletes, substitutes for trips to warmer climes in the wintertime. The Dickerson Whitewater Course at the Mirant Power Plant not only has warm water but also can be used for whitewater training. We have a small training room in the Brookmont Community Church. We have a good support group and a sense of community among our Bethesda-area whitewater athletes that perhaps helps athletes stand up to society’s push for “normalcy.” All in all, this is a very good place to live and train. As for those who’ve helped me the most, my husband Davey and his sister Cathy always have new ideas and challenges that help me learn something new each day out on the water. In my beginner days of paddling in the Midwest, those who helped me included Marge Cline, Tom Piccicilli, Norm Birchler, Tam Fletcher, Ray McLain, Colleen Hayes, Bob Obst, Winslow Soule, Jim Tibenski, and John Connet.
Hannah: Since leaving New England six years ago, I’ve lived and trained in Atlanta, and I love it. We have a good flat-water slalom site, an easy whitewater course, and a more challenging whitewater course with pushy waves and big, deep eddies. The downsides to training in Atlanta are the fluctuating water levels, which often means lots of time spent adjusting pole heights, and the lack of a full-length racing course. My top mentors have been the Mitchells, who were excellent coaches and continue to be unbelievably supportive. I was also impacted greatly by Maylon Hanold, the U.S. Junior Team Coach in 1995 and 1996. I never ceased to be amazed at her strength, intelligence, sense of humor, leadership, and great taste in music!
Sarah: I currently live in Washington, DC, and train under Coach Silvan Poberaj. Jennifer has already covered the DC training sites above.
Paris: I train in Atlanta, at the same sites as Hannah Larsen. I would only add that when-ever the wind is blowing, the nearby wastewater treatment plant really stinks. Mike Larimer, one of the 1996 U.S. Olympic coaches, from Atlanta, coaches me the most at my workouts and races. My older teammates, Michael Montagne, Hannah Larsen, and Austin Crane, help occasionally.
Molly: I train in the DC area, on the river, at the feeder canal, and at Dickerson, and my Coach is Silvan Poberaj.
Terry: Since I race only for fun, I don’t really train myself, but I can say that my kayaking has been enhanced by such coaches and mentors as Bob Campbell, Tom Long, and Joe Jacobi, who come to our area annually for our Gold Medal Camps, which have been very successful. A wonderful trait of slalom is that boaters, no matter how famous they might be, are always willing to share their time and knowledge with ordinary, everyday paddlers. We are treated with respect and taught as if we were better than we really are, and for this I admire our national stars.
Chuck Hines: What have been your biggest problems in slalom training and racing?
Candice: Learning to lighten-up on myself, to let myself grow while dealing with all the technical changes that your paddling goes through, and remembering to keep on having fun.
Michelle: The flip side of living and training here in Texas is the amount of traveling that must be done to the big races in Colorado, Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Carolina. It takes a bit more time and money for us to do such traveling, and sometimes we don’t get as much practice time at the race sites as we’d like. Also, there’s the challenge of looking within myself and knowing I CAN do it on the slalom courses.
Amy: Money! It hindered everything I did and surrounded every decision I made. In order to become an elite athlete, travel is important and racing in Europe is a must. But the sport is not marketed well and sponsorship money nearly impossible to find unless you’re in the ‘top three’ in the country. Making the leap from mediocre to excellent means continual training with other top athletes, receiving quality coaching, and racing internationally. Basically, it’s a full-time job. But it’s hard to find the money to do this. A second problem for me was a lack of good coaching to help critique my skills.
Rebecca: Letting go of a bad race or workout has been a problem for me. Coming to the realization that the bad moments will come again, and taking them as part of the learning process. Allowing those moments to make me stronger as a paddler and as a person.
Jennie: I should have started earlier. I can’t believe I didn’t discover this sport until my late 30s. Currently my biggest challenge is being able to do as much paddling as I’d like while holding a full-time job and paying enough attention to my wonderful husband!
Gwen: The biggest problem for me as a slalom racer has been the number of dropouts in the sport, the number of people who are no longer paddling and racing. When I started, there were so many girls and boys of my age with whom I could paddle, but now there are only a few of us left. I still have fun, but it was better when my best friends were paddling with me.
Jennifer: Whitewater slalom racing puts a significant financial strain on younger athletes’ families, and on college students juggling studies, jobs and training, and even on older, seasoned veterans who are trying to make the Team and plan careers. I had to put myself through college before I could put my earned income into whitewater racing. There just is not enough funding to support our dedicated athletes, whether they are young or young at heart.
Hannah: My biggest obstacle has probably been my recurrent shoulder problems which started in 1999. I have found that, besides rest, the best way to prevent irritation is by weightlifting, which stabilizes the muscles in and around the shoulder. My other big obstacle has been financial. To seriously commit to this sport, one must come up with enough money to pay for all the traveling, equipment, race fees, plus the usual stuff like day-to-day housing and food and a car. This can be pretty tough at times, but all of the penny-pinching and debt is nothing compared to the opportunities and experiences the sport has given me over the years.
Sarah: Injuries have been my biggest problem. Every athlete, however, has been plagued with injuries, so it’s just something we all have to deal with.
Paris: The biggest problem I have had would be learning to roll up in whitewater. Also, I tend to get really nervous before races, but I’m starting to get over my nervousness.
Molly: The biggest problem in slalom is the lack of a cooperative attitude. The back-stabbing, egotism, and “me” attitude all undermine the athletes and the sport. In addition, there is disorganization at the national level and an absence of long-term planning.
Terry: Like most recreational racers, my biggest problem is getting through all of the gates, remembering to breathe while paddling, and making it to the end of the course!
Chuck Hines: For those who’ve been involved with slalom racing for at least ten years, what have been the major changes in the sport?
Amy: Kayaking has become much more popular amongst the general public. Slalom is now a regular Olympic and Pan-American Games sport. The rules have changed, which has made the athletes more conservative. Courses have become shorter and faster. Emphasis on year-around training has increased, even for Juniors and Cadets, and the Junior Olympics has made a big impact for the developmental age groups. The number of artificial courses is increasing. Still, there is a lack of knowledge about our sport, and sponsorships have decreased.
Jennifer: When I first started racing in 1984, there was only one artificial slalom course in the U.S., in South Bend, Indiana. In those days, slalom courses were three to four minutes long and had 25 to 30 gates, of which 8 to 10 of the gates were ‘upstreams’ placed in the slower moving currents or eddies. There were mandatory reverse gates and a 5-second penalty for each gate touch. During the 1996 Olympics, spectators bought tickets to watch the athletes take their practice runs one day, and then watched racers compete in two race runs with the fastest athlete from either run climbing onto the podium.
Today, many more national and international races are contested on artificial courses. The slalom courses are shorter with 18 to 20 gates and take about 90 seconds to two minutes to complete. For each gate touch, there is a 2-second penalty. World races have a Qualifier and a Finals format where up to six gate changes are made to the slalom course after the Qualifier, in which as many as 60 to 100 boats may have been entered in each category of competition. The top 20 to 40 boats in each class advance to the Semi-Finals, and then only the fastest 10 get to take another run in the Finals. More countries are competing internationally, but sadly the Olympics seem to be getting smaller, with only 20 of the 61 countries that raced in the recent World Cup having qualified athletes for the Olympics in August.
The new ICF shorter boat rule is sure to spice things up this fall and well into next year’s racing season as paddlers may experiment with different boat lengths, trying to figure out how much boat to remove from either end, while still maintaining good forward speed and quality boat performance.
Rebecca: The increase of public knowledge about our sport has been encouraging. Fifteen years ago, when I said I was a kayaker, people didn’t even know what a kayak was. Now you mention kayaking and people know what slalom racing is. I believe all this will help the growth of our sport and the depth of our athletes. Also, artificial man-made courses are getting really big. In addition to slalom, they have rafting, and they’re making a lot of money.
Sarah: This is a hard question to answer because I believe the affects of change are not seen for a while. Change is hard. I love this sport the way it is, but at the same time I know that things can always be done better.
Terry: There has been a trend for our governing bodies to concentrate on the higher-level athletes while neglecting the average and beginning boaters. Also, the new scoring sys-tem whereby both race runs are counted instead of just one run has proven discouraging, especially for beginners, because if they mess up just one time (very likely for beginners), they are out of contention. As a result, here on the West Coast, we are now ignoring the combined scoring rule for the beginner and intermediate classes, and unlike many parts of the country, we are seeing an increase in the number of races and number of participants. Our slalom clinics fill up fast, and so do our “citizen’s races,” which are open to everyone and have a variety of competitive classes.
Chuck Hines: What do you think could be done to bring more young girls and boys into the sport of slalom racing?
Candice: There are some incredible coaches out there at the local or club level, but funding is a problem at the national level because there isn’t any. Slalom doesn’t have the financial sponsors that other disciplines have, such as whitewater rodeo. Thus it takes a special person to rise to the top in slalom, one who has the monetary resources to train and compete. I think it would be good to start off as many kids as possible with slalom, even if it is just for fun, to help them sharpen their technical skills. From there, the ones who have the passion to go on in the sport will do so.
Michelle: I think the best way to attract young people is to have more races for juniors that get attention and publicity. The Junior Olympic Program was (is) a great idea. The first one at Wausau in ‘96 and the second one at Charlotte, North Carolina, in ‘97 were outstanding because all the juniors were there, and thus we had a chance to compare ourselves. For juniors, it’s inspiring to see the best people racing. It makes you want to stick with the sport and perform better. I believe our slalom program has to be built from the bottom up. If there’s too much focus on the champions only, we’ll never have anyone following in their footsteps.
Jennie: The biggest hurdle for kids is the travel and the equipment costs. Our rivers and lakes and waterways, especially in urban areas, where most children reside, should have aquatic centers with boathouses and on-site coaches.
Gwen: I would like to see us getting more young kids involved through the Junior Olympics, as I remember this activity in the past playing an important role.
Jennifer: It would be great if every slalom youngster would bring two friends to practice with him or her, either in the pool (winter) or outdoors (spring, summer, autumn). Take the newbies paddling on easy flatwater first and let them try paddling in the gates. Then the experienced paddlers and parents could help with logistics and getting the kids to the river to practice. I remember one paddler, Craig Denton, who brought two boys with him to the big national races for a couple of years. He donated his used racing boats to the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and he said that if every racer would be responsible for training just two new young paddlers annually, it would help us grow our sport immensely. Coordinating with local paddling clubs, paddling schools, and paddlesports programs, re-introducing slalom racing as a way to hone river-running skills seems logical. Inviting paddlers to compete in plastic boats and having lots of age groups (i.e., “citizen’s races”) would help attract more whitewater paddlers, families, and kids to racing.
Hannah: These days there are fewer kids starting to kayak and subsequently to get into racing, which does not bode well for the sport. When I started, the national junior development program seemed to be more organized and more inclusive. There were more adults who were starting kids’ programs and asking nothing in return, such as the Mitchells in New England, the Freeburns in Colorado, the Longs in Idaho, Ray McLain in Wisconsin, and Wayne Dickert in North Carolina, to mention a few. The National Team staff coached us juniors at various training camps, which was an amazing opportunity to learn from and be inspired by the best.
Paris: I really don’t think there’s just one way to attract people to kayaking. I first paddled on a lake, and after I became comfortable there, I started going down some smaller rivers. Later I learned about ACE (the Atlanta Center of Excellence) from a friend and started paddling and racing with them.
Molly: Slalom is so inaccessible even to those who Want to do it that it is silly to even think about attracting more kids to the sport without first making it more accessible. In many parts of Europe, nearly every town has a club and a slalom course which become centers for recreational activity and volunteering. Here in the U.S., slalom sites are few, and the atmosphere often unwelcoming. With the availability of more clubs and courses, we could go into schools and recruit.
Terry: Introductory programs specifically aimed at kids need to be made available where they live. This is why we from the Kern River area have started a new program through the Los Angeles Dept. of Parks and Recreation. It’s open to any child who wants to join, with weekly lessons on a flat-water lake and also some flat-water slalom and some kayak polo. There will be trips to the Kern as the year progresses. We all know there are thousands, millions, of kids out there, and we just need to take our programs to them in order to get them involved.
Chuck Hines: What are your future goals, in slalom and otherwise?
Candice: I am currently pursuing a degree at Warren Wilson College in a combination of art, outdoor leadership, and creative writing (poetry). I assist in teaching the other paddlers here. While my own training is now down-scaled due to my studies, I hope to remain as involved as possible.
Michelle: My future goal in slalom is to keep enjoying the sport and make the U.S. Team at some point. I have been a member of the U.S. Marathon Team, so I’ll continue to hone those skills, as well. This year, the National Kayak Polo Championships will be held in Texas, and I’m practicing with the Austin team and plan to participate. Outside of my boat (s), I am a Clinical Laboratory Scientist, and I would like to earn a specialty in Trans-fusion Services. I am also thinking about going to Physician Assistant school.
Amy: Nowadays I’m in the working world, and I am now a recreational racer. Somehow I never mastered the money issue. I always had dreamed as a kid of racing at the Olympics and being part of the U.S. Team and traveling all over the world, but it was just too difficult to do it alone, to work and study and train and travel and find financial aid. So I have stayed involved in the sport as a volunteer serving on the USACK Board of Director as an athlete representative and on the USA Whitewater Slalom Board as Chair of the Team Support Committee. Futuristically, I would love to have my own business serving ‘at-risk youth’ through an adventure counseling program.
Rebecca: I hope to keep active in the future of our sport and work with up-and-coming athletes.
Jennie: I will continue to strive toward that perfect balance in life of paddling, family, friends, learning, and adventure. I plan to make sure that my paddling is always, above all else, FUN. In addition, I want to do my share to be active in river preservation. I can’t imagine a world without free-flowing rivers. That’s why I’m now donating my time to American Whitewater, serving on the Board of Directors. Without wild rivers, whitewater becomes only a sport and not a Way of Life. For me, whitewater paddling is both, whether I’m racing or just running rivers.
Gwen: My future goal in kayaking is to continue training through the next four years with my eye set on the 2008 Olympics. I’m also planning to stay in school to become a nurse.
Jennifer: I hope to continue sharing the joy of whitewater paddling with those of all ages and spread the word that kayaking/canoeing is a ‘fun’ way to explore the world and can be a lifetime family sport. I want to provide coaching for paddlers of all ages through the American Slalom Excellence program, and of course we all need to encourage everyone to become a good steward of the environment and especially our waterways through American Whitewater and similar organizations.
Hannah: This may be my last official season, and I hope to make the World Cup Team and improve upon my 2002 World Cup finishes. Afterwards, I want to go to medical school and eventually become a psychiatrist. I’d also love to start a kids’ kayaking program and give something back to this sport which has given me so much.
Sarah: I will be done racing after the Athens World Cup this year, and I think my only goal left with slalom is to be able to look back at what I did and feel pleased. Racing is hard – we set out to be the best in the World and I never quite accomplished that – but I am proud I at least tried. I gave it all I had, and that’s all one can ask of them self. I hope to stay involved and help out future slalom athletes like so many people did for me. As for non-slalom goals, I am starting a job with the Security Exchange Commission in May. I have always wanted a career, and I am very excited to start down this new path. Now that racing is over, I also look forward to spending as much time as possible with my family and friends.
Paris: My goal is to make the U.S. Junior Team and compete in Europe, and then, eventually, when I’m older, make the Senior Team.
Molly: My future goals in slalom are to continue to train hard and to achieve some success nationally and internationally. In real life, I plan to become a veterinarian.
Terry: I want to see more people entering the sport. I love kayaking and want others to discover the outdoors, doing something physical, and not being afraid of the water. My work with the Los Angeles Dept. of Parks and Recreation is a step in this direction. I’d like to see more slalom races for the ordinary or “citizen” boaters. We now have a permanent race course set up at Miracle Hot Springs on the Lower Kern River which is available every day at no charge. Our organization will be hosting more clinics by top athletes to encourage more participation. We will be concentrating on getting more kids involved. Working at the grass roots level is what is especially needed to help our sport grow.
Thank you to everyone who participated in this interview!
About the author: Chuck Hines is a former slalom racer who has coached women’s and men’s national champions in swimming, triathlon, water-polo, and whitewater racing, earning induction into the Western North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame for his coaching feats. He served as President of the Nantahala Racing Club of Western North Carolina in the 1990s. The Nantahala Racing Club has placed its whitewater athletes on eight U.S. Olympic teams, including this year, while winning numerous national championships.
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Last updated: January 18, 2006