Racing to a Different Drummer

Meet slalom canoeing’s most dynamic iconoclast

This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

Photo: Adam Pretty

By Jamie McEwan

Fraker seems to ignore the stopwatch, remaining focused on the perfect path, the ideal stroke, the brilliant solution that resolves the chaos of churning water into a single, fluid line.

Slalom canoeist Benn Fraker, 23, is on a hot streak, having won the C-1 class at both the Pan Ams in March and at the U.S. Olympic Trials in April. Four years ago in Beijing, Fraker placed sixth, making him the highest-placing U.S.A. Canoe/Kayak athlete in those Games. He may well improve his result this time around.

If, that is, he makes the team. Fraker, for all his brilliance on the slalom course, can be inconsistent. Fraker started off strong at the trials, winning handily the first day, only to lose to Casey Eichfeld just as handily the second. On the third and final day, Fraker posted the most impressive run of the entire Olympic trials, besting even the fastest kayaks, and securing his win.

There remains a final showdown at the Cardiff World Cup, where both Eichfeld, 22, and the third member of the C-1 World Cup team, 18-year-old Zachary “Bug” Lokken, will have one last chance to qualify for London ahead of Fraker.

And then, one will go to the Games. Because Olympic participation is limited to one entry per country, some of the top paddlers in the world will be excluded, leaving a more open field for those athletes lucky enough to attend. An Olympic medal is not out of reach for the selected U.S. C-1 athlete, whoever that turns out to be.

Although there is no such thing as a typical slalom athlete, Fraker is a top contender for the “even-more-different” award. This is at least partly intentional. Evidence: the nose ring and shoulder-length hair. “I never wanted to look like Captain America,” says Fraker, who, at 6’1’, with sandy hair and gray-green eyes, could run that danger. Fraker’s two run-ins with the slalom disciplinary committee before the 2008 Olympics made him about as much of a “bad boy” as the slalom community could come up with. (Fraker also took beer to a screening for performance-enhancing drugs.) “I brought a lot of unwanted attention on myself in the past,” he admits. But in conversation, Fraker is sensitive and thoughtful. It comes as no surprise that he intends to major in philosophy at Georgia State.
American slalom racers, following in the grand tradition of Jon Lugbill and Richie Weiss, tend to be nonstop, hard-charging athletes. In contrast, Fraker is a minimalist who seems to ignore the stopwatch, remaining focused on the perfect path, the ideal stroke, the brilliant solution that resolves the chaos of churning water into a single, fluid line.

When it works, this is beautiful to watch. When it doesn’t, Fraker’s runs can jam up like a finely tuned instrument that has picked up a grain of sand. Take the heats of the 2011 World Championships. In each of his two runs, Fraker came into the last upstream with one of the fastest splits of the day—and then failed to reach the next downstream, incurring consecutive 50-second penalties. Fraker ended the competition in 63rd place. Eichfeld, his more consistent teammate, placed 19th.

That all-or-nothing brilliance makes Fraker the American slalom racer most likely to medal in London. It also means he’s the most likely to flame out in dramatic fashion. How he’ll finish his Olympic campaign is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: He won’t go quietly.

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