SMOOTH IS FAST
At the Verbund-Wasserarena the fast line is simple – stay left, turn left. But staying on that line is not as simple as it seems. Boiling eddies along the left wall want to grab your bow and spin you out, throwing your fragile composite craft at destructive man-made objects. You can avoid this by going closer to the center. Crashing through breaking-wave after breaking-wave, which cross curl one direction followed by another, losing momentum, and adding seconds to your run.
The arena is an artificial course, sitting on the Danube Island, just 10 kilometers from the cultural city center of Vienna, Austria. It has a limited gradient of 12 feet, but drops all of it in one continuous rapid – forming a loop through its entire 250 meter length.
Regina and I arrive at the venue on Saturday June 20 – one week before Worlds. The travel has taken us 10 days since our plane touched down in Milan. In that time, we have roamed the timeless marble canals of Venice by kayak; spectated the King of the Alps extreme race on the Passer river in Italy; stumbled upon a leg of the Tour de Suisse cycling race; wandered across alpine mountains, and along swollen glacial streams; as well as paddled some Tirolean whitewater. The fastest driving route from Milan to Vienna is estimated to take nine hours. We took the scenic route. Now we have to meet up with Tomas Slovak, whose company, Kick The Waves, is one of the few manufacturers of race boats. The transaction is simple. He says, “Here is your boat,” and entrusts me with a glistening red and black hot rod of a kayak – at a small fee – for the duration of the event.
On Tuesday, Verbund is packed with wildwater boats. Official training has begun and athletes are cramming runs into the 50-minute blocks. The rest of Team USA also arrives.
Hugh Pritchard, from Montpelier, Vt. (pictured below) is a past Olympian – competing in the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City as a member of the British biathlon team.
Marin Millar, from Seattle (pictured below), is a consistent member of the U.S. squad. She has just arrived from the world cup races occurring the week prior as the lone representative of the US kayak team. Two other men’s kayaks scheduled to race are unable to attend – leaving us one boat short to compete in the team run. Between all of the disciplines, some countries have nearly 20 representatives here, plus coaches and staff. The US currently has three.
We realize that along with transporting Hugh’s boat, the Swiss team have brought along the patriotically painted Prijon kayak of Kurt Smithgall, which they have been storing since Kurt competed at last year’s worlds. Coincidentally he is currently on the Austrian-German border assisting in glacier research. The team doesn’t waste any time convincing race officials to allow him as an alternate, and convincing Kurt the glaciers will still be there next week. He will arrive by bus on Friday – with just enough time to get some runs in before the opening ceremony.
The crashing whitewater in the course provides plenty of excitement. During an early practice run, I find myself magnetically drawn to an eddy along the outer wall. In an instant I am facing the wrong direction, drifting backwards through the lower portion of the course. Upstream I find Sebastiaan Verhaagh, of the Netherlands, charging right for me. Falling over the next ledge I muscle out a few backstrokes to avoid being surfed in the hydraulic and triggering a collision. He lets off the gas as I slide through the pour-over. I apologize for being in the line of fire, as we drift into the pool. Sebastiaan has a jolly grin, “It’s getting a bit tricky out here.”
Surfs, broaches, and swims accumulate through the week, along with makeshift boat surgery outside the athlete tent. The atmosphere between competitors is more relaxed than I would have expected, reminding me more of a local creek race. Fellow competitors are easy to befriend. We all have similar stories from this whitewater channel, and advice is easy to come by.
Sabrina Barm, a German C-1er (pictured below), who was also the first woman to race North Carolina’s Green River Narrows OC-1 last November, provided sound insight, which would be preached from multiple sources leading to race day. “This course is not about paddling hard, it’s about being on the line.”
Of course, applying that insight for the qualifying heats, and for this iteration of Team USA’s first-ever synchronized team run, is a whole other matter.
— Stay tuned for Potoczak’s next installment and read PART II: From Sea to Summit and PART I: Vienna Bound.