TRIBUTARIES

The present, past and future of American slalom racing, in one run of the course


The medal podium at the World Championships or the Olympics is a long and turbulent journey. Few make it all the way, but all who start down that course do so with the support and wisdom of those who built the sport before them, like tributaries pouring their flow into a stream. At the Whitewater Slalom World Championships last fall, writer Wick Walker focused not on the medal favorites, nor on the powerful K1 class, but on two talented athletes working to raise their game to podium level, in a class, C2, with its own uncertain future. He found a sport and a whitewater community reassuringly familiar, yet evolving in ways almost unimaginable in slalom’s early decades.

Friends do not live in harmony merely, as some say, but in melody.
—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Four hundred feet above Deep Creek Lake in the Appalachians of western Maryland, Casey Eichfeld and Devin McEwan drop their brightly colored C2 onto the gently lapping pool above the start line. Bold red and yellow letters emblazon a pop art ZOOM the length of the blue deck, the twin cockpits forming the middle letters. Both a hope and a necessity, if they are to clear the barrier of the semifinals and secure a place among the ten boats contending this afternoon for medals at the 2014 World Slalom Championships.

Ready to Zoom: The boys' race boat (and McEwan's helmet) features custom art by McEwan's mother, children's author and illustrator Sandra Boynton. Photo by Wick Walker.
Ready to Zoom: The boys’ race boat (and McEwan’s helmet) features custom art by McEwan’s mother, children’s author and illustrator Sandra Boynton. Photo by Wick Walker.

Yesterday, their second qualifying run had gone well. They had worked their way down the turbulent course with the smooth, synchronized power that sets an elite C2 team apart. They were rewarded with a placement of fifteenth and advancement into the semifinals. Now in their fourth year of paddling together as a team (and each a lifetime on slalom courses), this year those sweet runs had come more and more frequently. Last winter it all came together in Australia, with a win in the Oceania Cup. They are not yet consistent, though, and their season now hangs on this one run.

10:22:00 From a vantage point beside the sluice from the start pool into gate one and the heart of the slalom, Pablo McCandless watches Casey and Devin surfing casually back and forth across the flume of water that emerges from the pump house to fill the start pool, their coordinated hip and balance adjustments familiar muscle memories occupying overstretched nerves. Pablo knows those butterflies. They cost him his chance to compete in the Athens Games, but then pushed him on to a slot for Beijing.

Like so many American racers, past and present, Pablo developed in whitewater sport mentored by Devin’s uncle, Tom McEwan, and he has known Casey since Casey began paddling as a child, so he watches this team with particular hope and interest. A dual citizen of the United States and Chile, Pablo grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and at age fifteen he asked Tom to teach him to run rivers.

Olympian and coach Pablo McCandless. Photo by Wick Walker.
Olympian and coach Pablo McCandless. Photo by Wick Walker.

Tom agreed – but only if the youngster also developed his skills by training slalom. In that hotbed of both racing and recreational paddling on the Potomac, Pablo flourished, representing Chile in the men’s K1 at the World Championships in 2005, 2006, and 2007, then in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Today he is here paying it forward, coaching for the International Canoe Federation Development Program, which identifies and supports talented paddlers from countries that do not have an infrastructure (clubs, courses, coaches) to develop international competitors. For Pablo this week is a rare return to racing; mostly, he has returned to his true passion, and his original mentor, teaching river running skills to paddlers at Tom McEwan’s river school in Maryland and Mexico.

10:26:00 Casey and Devin cease paddling and let their boat drift slowly across the pool toward the starter’s platform. Devin raises his eyes and, a half smile on his face, deliberately takes in his surroundings – his coping mechanism to tamp down nerves. On his left, only a sea of clouds separates the paddlers from a distant ridgeline. Uniquely, this artificial whitewater course sits atop a mountain, not in a valley. Water pumped from the lake far below fills the whitewater channel in summer, makes snow for the adjacent ski slopes in winter. To his right, a gusty west wind swings the chairs at the top of the ski lift, whips up dust devils in the parking lots, and billows the colorful flags above the spectators’ bleachers so that he can clearly distinguish the symbols of all forty two competing nations. So unique a place, he thinks. So cool we get to do what we do!

Behind Devin, his always extroverted, always energized partner leans forward, wraps his arms around his bowman’s torso with a powerful hug. Twenty-two years previously, equally irrepressible Lecky Haller delivered that same “sternman’s hug” to Devin’s father, Jamie McEwan, at the finish line as they placed fourth in the Barcelona Olympics.

Casey McEwan's father Jamie, with C2 partner Lecky Haller in their competitive heyday.
Devin McEwan’s father Jamie (in bow) with C2 partner Lecky Haller in their competitive heyday.

10:26:50 Pablo watches the team slide their boat beside the starter’s platform, silently concentrating their focus, waiting for the countdown beep. Glancing downstream, he notes with relief the slalom gates hanging still above the swirling water, shielded from the blustering wind within their rock-lined channel. Not a level playing field, but a steep and fair one today.

10:27:00 In unison the paddlers pull away from the starter, accelerate as they cross the electronic timer, and drop into the entrance chute. As the current seizes the boat and sucks it down toward the first two green downstream gates, offset to the left, their strokes pick up the tempo of the waves, and Pablo feels his own pulse beating in time.

A hard draw, and a phantom touch, at Gate 3. Photo by Kyle Boynton.
A hard draw, and a phantom touch, at Gate 3. Photo by Kyle Boynton.

10:27:11 Zig-zagging back to their right, the team enters the third offset gate low and too close to the right pole. Paddling on his left, Devin leans out from the bow with a powerful draw to rotate them toward the next offset. Pablo grimaces as momentum carries the stern yet farther right. From his position he doesn’t see the pole move, but the gate judge raises a finger to indicate a touch, a two second penalty.

Is this early bobble a sign that they are off their synch, that other errors will follow, and that the knowledge they are falling behind will lead them to abandon their game plan? In trying to rush, to fall farther off? Or will it simply be a wake-up, the shot of adrenaline that sparks greatness?

The boat spins downstream and both paddlers push to the next gate, a downstream, then angle sharply to the right across a small hole and into the eddy for gate 5 upstream. Their entry is high and smooth, their turn out of the gate crisp on Devin’s crossdraw as they plunge downstream through turbulence to the next two downstream gates. But Pablo notices both paddlers making tiny adjustments as they stroke, compensating for the unpredictable swirls but costing them forward speed. He is not checking splits, but overall he feels that today is neither as smooth nor as fast as yesterday’s qualifying run.

Eichfeld and McEwan make clean work of Gate 8. Photo by John Hefti.
Eichfeld and McEwan make clean work of Gate 8. Photo by John Hefti.

10:27:34 Upstream on the left, gate 8 is perhaps the best Pablo has seen yet from Devin and Casey. As they enter the eddy, with a single draw Devin pulls the bow and his body through the red poles and into the current again. Casey leans back to submerge the stern and drives forward with the spin, propelling them across the hole that leads to gate 9 upstream in the right-hand eddy.

Public address system, voices of Kent Ford and Lamar Sims.

K.F.: “At the top of the course, McEwan! and Eichfeld! McEwan from a storied family legacy, and Casey Eichfeld has been paddling since he was about three years old, and it’s showing in their tremendous moves across this current into gate 9. In at the bow, one stroke in and out of there.” L.S.: “Stalled a little bit on the entrance into nine but got out quickly.” K.F.: “We see a couple seconds off on the split time, but that means nothing because of the challenging nature of the bottom of this course.” L.S.: “What they really need to do is just keep a good solid run. There is so much spacing right now in the top ten boats, that if they stay on this pace, stay straight and fairly clean they should do themselves well getting into the finals.”

10:27:42 With practiced ease, John Hefti balances a camera and massive telephoto lens, its weight supported by a long monopod, in the crook of his left elbow, second camera at the ready in his right hand. From his perch on the rocks beside the midpoint concrete dam and chute called Savage Falls he can see and shoot upstream almost to the top gates, and the morning sun at his back is ideal. Most of his shooting these days is professional baseball and soccer for Getty Images; it’s fun to get back to a sport he knows at the gut, athlete’s level. Muscle memory informs his shutter finger when to shoot, feeling each move as if he were kneeling in the boat himself, water splashing in his own face.

Photographer and former U.S. Slalom Team member John Hefti.
Photographer and former U.S. Slalom Team member John Hefti. Photo by Wick Walker.
But it’s a more mature and athletic sport now than when he raced in the 1970s. The smaller, lighter boats dance down shorter, more compact and vastly more difficult courses with a speed and precision unobtainable three decades ago. Artificial courses like this are one of the reasons. Slalom athletes now spend a much larger percentage of their training time honing their skills, less traveling to find rivers with the right water levels, less carrying their boats back up muddy river banks, less addressing safety issues in natural streambeds. The important fundamentals haven’t changed, though. John is relieved to see parents, now even grandparents, still active paddlers and teachers, here supporting the next generation. Junior racers and even younger friends and siblings still race up and down the banks with cheers and admiration. The racers from all levels and all nations still mix, share tips, congratulations and commiserations. Institutions, sponsors and media have erected none of the walls he sees in professional and major collegiate sports. I’m glad it’s never grown up.

The 1989 worlds on the nearby Savage River were a triumph for the host country.
The 1989 worlds on the nearby Savage River were a triumph for the U.S. slalom community.

John takes in the neatly sculpted channel and banks, the bleachers full of spectators and rippling flags, behind them the vast grey sky and far ridges. This new athleticism has not come without important sacrifices. The very reason he, like almost all paddlers, got into whitewater sport was the rivers themselves–becoming a part of the beauty and the danger, the uniqueness of each river, each rapid, each water level. To this day, rivers thrill him in a way nothing else does. And his core fascination with racing was the dialogue between the paddler and the river. Like any good dialogue, there needed to be a consistent grammar and a rich lexicon. Not twenty five miles southwest from where he sits, John’s favorite racecourse had all of that, in spades. The site of the now legendary 1989 world championships, the Savage River’s near crystalline flow is fast, tight and continuous. Its intricate water formations are predictable and thus ultimately understandable for the racer. There’s a cozy beauty to it, sandwiched between steep hillsides of mountain laurel and mature forest.

The Deep Creek whitewater slalom course, seen from above.
The Deep Creek whitewater slalom course from above. Photo by Wick Walker.

Here, with silty green lake water coursing between banks of cement-grouted, quarried sandstone, drops and waves adjusted with hydraulic plates, surrounded by a manicured park, what dialogue were Devin and Casey experiencing?

VIDEO: Stall and recovery in Gate 9. Footage courtesy ICF.

John watches Devin and Casey spin into and out of gate eight with admiration. He feels the joy in the perfectly synchronized power as the two paddles drive the boat into the gate, then the thrill as the current seizes the boat on exit and hurls it downstream. He then grimaces in sympathy as the boat stalls on the eddy line entering gate 9. A similar move, awkward but not difficult, broke their precious rhythm as he and partner Carl Gutschick raced C2 at the World Championships at Spittal, Austria, in 1977. And as the brightly colored canoe cuts side to side across the turbulent flow through the next four green downstream gates, he feels that some of the awkwardness of the entrance to gate 9 remains. Unlike the beautiful synchrony of gate 8, now he sees two C1 paddlers in the boat.

Public Address System: L.S.: And there is a good move there at 15, that’s the kind of thing we’ve talked about, you know, a little bit of a touch but you just keep the boat moving. K.F.: Well, I’ve really appreciated how strong they’ve gotten this year. Their technique has made a tremendous jump this season.

10:28:06 Tom McEwan, Devin’s uncle, stands below the concrete sluice called Savage Falls, watching the middle part of the course with an air of bemused intensity. His rumpled jeans, plain black fleece jacket, and wire-rimmed glasses secured with neoprene and duct tape stand out in contrast to the sea of bright warmup suits in various national colors that surrounds him. This is his first trip away from the DC area since a severe injury sustained in Great Falls of the Potomac in June, and since the shocking loss of his younger brother Jamie, Devin’s father, to multiple myeloma that same terrible month. The stream of well-wishers is non-stop: athletes, coaches, fans, U.S. Team members from every team since the 1960s.

Devin's uncle Tom McEwan, a renowned kayak instructor and former downriver and slalom racer.
Devin’s uncle Tom McEwan, a renowned kayak instructor and former downriver and slalom racer. Photo by Wick Walker.

Tom feels, more than sees, their tempo increase as Casey and Devin stroke downstream into the fast tongue of Savage Falls and the bottom half of the course, both bodies moving more now, but with less grace. They attack the drop, where most teams have been content to slide cautiously. The extra momentum carries the boat a bit low in the eddy entering upstream gate 14 on their right, but they pull hard through on Devin’s crossdraw, surf across the wave at the bottom of the tongue, then back through the next downstream gate. Intent on spinning the boat left down toward gate 16, Devin reaches out to draw, and Casey sets the stern to pivot, a split second early. The green pole bounces off Devin’s paddle shaft midway between his hands. Now with four penalty seconds to compensate for, the pressure to speed up builds.

As do the penalties. They power into the next upstream, 17, slightly high and tight, and despite leaning his body back Devin cannot avoid brushing the inside pole.

VIDEO: Looping Gate 19. Footage courtesy ICF.

The gate 18-19 combination is probably the most difficult on the course–and the most revealing, Tom believes. From gate 18, downstream on the right side of the current, the tricky line runs left across a sizeable hole to a flush gate on the left edge of the downstream flow, its two green poles directly in line with the current, spaced roughly twenty feet apart. Cede the slightest bit of control to the hole, or to the eddy line on the left, and the boat will kick sideways as it washes into the in-line slalom poles. As Tom fears, the C2 careens into both green poles, and then the team must turn into the eddy and peel out to get both their bodies through the gate to avoid a 50-second penalty.

C2 team Casey Eichfeld, left, and Devin McEwan after finishing their semi final run. Photo by Regina Nicolardi,
Casey Eichfeld, left, and Devin McEwan after their semifinal run. Photo by Regina Nicolardi.

This sort of mid-course change, and subsequent unravelling, Tom knows, usually stems from a lack of the self-confidence to stay within the zone a team has trained for and know works for them, regardless of circumstance. This is part of “training to race, not training to train,” and it comes only in the crucible of international competition. Interesting, Tom thinks, that the two lifetimes of racing experience that Devin and Casey bring from other boats are not much of a factor; that mysterious, more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts creature that constitutes an elite C2 must learn this over again. He doubts they will move on to the finals today, but he knows they will emerge a more seasoned team.

Public Address System: KF: This is a very tough, tough move, the C2s have had trouble with this all the time. They are back on track. That was pretty quick. That was one of the faster loops for gate 19, but the penalty problems are starting to compound here for McEwan and Eichfeld as they work into the final upstream gate. And they are a little low, they are fighting their way through. Casey pushes off the rock. Now they’ll take the big boil up to the right to get speed across to 23-24. Now they’ll cross the finish. … We will have to watch and wait, as McEwan/Eichfeld move to eighth position. Again, it’s the top ten that will advance.

10:29:23 From a 30-foot scaffolding tower high above the course midpoint, Kent Ford and his long-time announcing partner Lamar Sims can observe the full length of the race course, as well as close-up real-time television of the competitors on a Jumbotron screen directly across from their elevated booth. Kent describes himself as three different observers watching each run, and his challenge is to keep the three distinct in his head and, especially, his mouth. The first is the on-air announcer, who must interpret the action for an uninitiated public, whipping up enthusiasm, promoting the sport, yet at the same time not influencing either gate judges or the competitors on the course with pronouncements from on high. From long practice at five Olympics and numerous World Championships, this comes as second nature.

Race-callers Lamar Sims (left) and Kent Ford. Photo by Wick Walker.
Race-callers Lamar Sims (left) and Kent Ford. Photo by Wick Walker.

A mute observer inside Kent’s head is the hyper-analytic competitor, coach and instructor, veteran of four World Championships between 1977 and 1985, holder of two gold medals in the C1 Team competition. This Kent Ford runs the course with each competitor, stroke-by-stroke, lean-by-lean, analyzing which moves cost time, which shave fractions of seconds, where the athlete will stand today.

Alongside the two objective observers is an emotional third: passionately devoted to the sport, to the U.S. Team, and to the lifetime of friends they encompass. Never has this passion been more tightly focused than now, as he watches Devin, the son of his lifetime friend and teammate Jamie McEwan, nephew of his early mentor Tom, finishing out his run with Casey. Memories of the teenage Devin partnered with his legendary father, before his struggle with cancer pulled Jamie from the C2, are sharp. Jamie’s death just months ago reverberates throughout the tight-knit international slalom community gathered on this mountaintop, and among those closest to him this World Championships has the sorrowful-celebration feeling of a wake.

Jamie McEwan (left) and son Devin McEwan at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty
Jamie McEwan (in stern) and son Devin at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty

Even as he calls the final gates of their run, the analyst in Kent knows that Devin and Casey have not made the cut. He could see the coordination fall apart, the gate touches accumulate, the missed lines cost additional seconds. And sure enough, sitting in eighth place at the finish, and with fourteen boats who beat them yesterday yet to run, the math is inevitable.

10:30:00 From separate vantage points, two figures with deep roots in the development of American canoe slalom, and deep concerns for its future, watch Devin and Casey drift slowly downstream after the finish line, every line of their slumped bodies revealing frustration.

Olympic C2 gold medallist Joe Jacobi, right, speaks with Bill Endicott, the legendary coach who guided him and many other outstanding American slalom racers.
Olympic C2 gold medallist Joe Jacobi, right, speaks with Bill Endicott, the legendary coach who guided him and many other outstanding American slalom racers. Photo by Wick Walker.

Bill Endicott is neither surprised nor disappointed by the result. They need to get stronger, he notes to himself, meaning both the team’s physical skills and the mental confidence that feed off each other to produce winning results. From the legendary coach who guided American C1s to world domination throughout the 1980s, an international competitor in C2 himself in the early 1970s, that thought is prescription, not criticism. The two talented, but very disparate, partners–Casey the hyperactive extrovert, Devin the seemingly laid back introvert–in the last few years have developed each other’s strengths and forged a team ranked 25th in the world coming into these World Championships. They exceeded that level in the qualifying rounds to achieve a slot in the semifinals. That they have now faltered is simply an accurate reflection of where they currently stand on their upward trajectory.

Imagine what they could do if they stepped up their training to the next level. The 2015 World Championships will be in London next autumn. A course they know and like, that will be an ideal test of skills and confidence built over another year of training. Moreover, London will be the qualifier for the Olympics to be held the following year in Rio de Janeiro. Over the next two years, Bill knows, some of today’s top boats will fade away, and a few of today’s also-rans will emerge into the very top rank. Casey and Devin could be on that cusp. They could not only make finals at the Olympics, they could conceivably win a medal. Bill wonders whether they will decide they want it enough – and whether it might be fun to coach them.

From the elevated VIP platform across the channel from Kent Ford’s announcing booth, Joe Jacobi also watches as Casey and Devin get out of their boat onto the finish platform, turn over their equipment to race officials for compliance testing, and put aside their disappointment long enough to represent the U.S. Team in front of a half dozen media representatives. If asked, Joe would agree with Bill’s assessment of their potential in the next two years, but in fact his thoughts are on what will happen after that. Not just to Devin and Casey. To his whole beloved C2 sport.

Kent Ford (left) with an old Team USA teammate, 5-time C1 world champion Jon Lugbill.
Kent Ford (left) with an old Team USA teammate, 5-time C1 world champion Jon Lugbill. Photo by Crede Calhoun.

Joe came into paddling during the 20-year gap after the 1972 Munich Games (where Devin’s father Jamie had won America’s first Olympic whitewater medal, a bronze), when whitewater was dropped from the Olympics and returned to its previous obscurity. Like Kent before him and Pablo after, he grew up in the D.C. incubator, mentored by Tom McEwan. He was coached by Bill Endicott, trained and competed daily with Jon Lugbill, Kent Ford, Davey, Billy, and Cathy Hearn. They were intense and passionate times, the paddlers carrying their training, equipment, and competitive skills to new heights–and all for the love of their craft. And for the joy. This was, after all, a sport still rooted in running wild rivers, sharing adventures. There was no Five-Ring-Fever, little recognition of their success beyond their peers.

And then in 1992, with perfect timing for Joe and his C2 partner Scott Strausbaugh, the Olympic doors swung open again in Barcelona. Devin’s father Jamie returned to the Games, after the 20-year hiatus, with Lecky Haller. Joining them were Joe and Scott, at their peak, hammering down the only Olympic gold medal run in U.S. Whitewater Slalom history.

Casey Eichfeld, USA, after missing a spot to advance to finals in men's C2.
Eichfeld after failing to advance to finals in men’s C2. Photo by Regina Nicolardi.

Now, though, after five grinding years on the U.S. Olympic Committee, and at the helm of USA Canoe/Kayak, the sport’s governing body in America, Joe is deeply ambivalent about whitewater slalom’s Olympic experience. The glamour, financial support, and recognition are real; they draw more and better athletes into the sport, motivate them to reach new levels. Yet the Olympics are the tip of a very tall pyramid, one that few will have the skills, timing, and yes, luck to achieve. Even among those who do, the “glory gulf” between the (arbitrary three) medalists and the rest is huge.

Moreover, what Joe has seen from his administrative hot seat are the ruthless algorithms that determine which particular sports, and even classes, are allowed to compete every four years. Number of countries competing, medals awarded, gender equity, television audience, influential countries’ preferences – all factor in ahead of Citius-Altius-Fortius. And a Solomon’s Judgment now hangs over whitewater slalom. With over forty countries competing at world level, and popular with television viewers and ticket purchasers, slalom will remain in the Olympics. But, the C2 class fatally skews gender equity, and the number of medals awarded will not be increased to add more women’s classes. The Games of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro will almost certainly be the last for the unique team sport of C2.

Without the prestige of the Olympics, most question whether the C2 class can remain viable in international competition. It could fade away entirely, as the athletes migrate to C1 and K1 where the Olympic dream lives on. Joe is not so sure, though. He has seen, has lived, both sides. Devin and Casey may help save the C2 class yet. They make it look fun.

Now almost twelve months after their semifinals run at the 2014 World Championships, Devin and Casey have made another step along their journey, winning gold at the Pan Am Games in Canada last July. They are in England training for the 2015 World Championships (16-20 September) – a vital test that will determine whether the United States qualifies to send a C2 boat to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Wick Walker competed in C1 Slalom in the ’65, ’67, and ’71 World Championships and in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He first published in Canoe & Kayak in 1979, and most recently in 2013. He is the author of “Courting the Diamond Sow: A Whitewater Expedition on Tibet’s Forbidden River;” “Paddling the Frontier: Guide to Pakistan’s Whitewater;” and “Goat Game: Thirteen Tales from the Afghan Frontier.”

VIDEO: Eichfeld and McEwan semifinal run. Footage courtesy ICF; still photo by John Hefti.