Final dispatch: Reflections on the Canoe Slalom World Championships
(Ed’s note: This is the last post in a series covering the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships. See earlier dispatches from Slovakia HERE.)
By Jamie McEwan
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Yesterday the Worlds ended. I’m talking about the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships, of course, not the end of everything. (That’s in 2012.)
Riding in cars or buses or airplanes back to their homelands today, slalom athletes and coaches are thinking about this year’s racing season, and planning the next. (Fools!) And even though I didn’t race yesterday, I still have those familiar old post-Worlds feelings: letdown, relief, nostalgia, the urge to sum up and reevaluate.
I got into Whitewater Slalom in an odd and unreproduceable way. When it was officially announced that our casual, backwoods spring-weekends pastime was to be a full Olympic sport… Well, imagine you’re playing pickup stickball in the street, and some Official-Looking Person comes along and asks if you want to play stickball in the Olympics. Sure! you say—of course you do!—and in two short years there you are taking the pitch in front of 20,000 cheering stickball fans. It’s great, it’s exciting, it’s everything you’ve dreamed of—yet every once in a while you remember how much fun it was playing a relaxed game in the street with a bunch of your buddies.
So as I see my son Devin, having just raced C-2 in the World Championships with partner Casey Eichfeld, enter the reevaluation stage, I wonder what wise fatherly perspective I can give. One part of me, quite frankly, wants to tell him, “Run! Get away from Slalom! It will suck you in, it will take over your life, it will break your heart!” C-1 legend Michal Martikan, being interviewed on TV last night after placing outside the medals for the first time (he began with a Bronze in 1995), was at one point close to tears. Four Olympic Medals (two gold), four World Championship titles—yet that’s not enough, Martikan still feels devastated. I think there are very few athletes who walk away from their seasons feeling satisfied.
Of course there’s another part of me that is already wondering how to help Devin perfect that slalom combination of fluidity and solidity that is so thrillingly effective, and so beautiful to watch.
But luckily I don’t need to know what the best advice is. Devin will do what he will do. And if he asks me to hold a stopwatch or video camera while he trains, well, hey, why not?
I was talking with renowned U.S. kayaker Scott Shipley, three-time World Cup Champion and three-time Olympian, before the race. Noticing the V.I.P. pass that Scott was wearing, as a member of the USACK board, I went into an I-hope-amusing riff on how being an athlete in the Worlds is only one step better than being a spectator, and that even with my lowly journalist pass—far less powerful than Scott’s—I at least get free lunches, more than the athletes ever got. Scott laughed. “Yeah,” he said, a little wistfully, “but the athletes have got the best pass of all. Because they get to paddle on the course.”
I can’t argue with that.
Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world’s best slalom paddlers compete for the sport’s most significant prize. Among them is Jamie’s son, Devin, racing in the USA C-2 with Casey Eichfeld.