BY JOE POTOCZAK
The Savage River. Its name alone is forbidding. And fitting for a river tucked away from the crowded Eastern cities, sitting on the fringe of Appalachia where a thick canopy blocks out light piercing through to the rocky riverbed. Ancient mossy boulders choke the stream’s continuous, tumbling pace of 75 feet per mile, though a dam quiets the Savage to a whisper. When the dam opens, however, unleashing the cold reservoir water, the river transforms. Growing from whisper to roar, the suddenly wild and ferocious stretch of relentless Class III-IV whitewater entangles with the air of cool summer mornings, blanketing the gorge in a mysterious fog that leaves outsiders wondering what lies within.
In late June of 1989, the river exposed itself to all. Thousands gathered along the country road that followed its course. People scrambled the steep banks, crouched in the lush forest, and filtered onto recently constructed observation decks. All wanted the optimum view of the red and green poles hovering over the rapids. They were here to witness the Canoe and Kayak Slalom World Championships – the first of which had ever been hosted in the United States.
Largely a European sport of interest, Americans not involved in whitewater paddling were generally unaware of slalom canoe racing. Those World Championships changed all of that. The waves of spectators preceded bands of major media outlets, including NBC, which made the American public aware of the sport’s existence. Beyond that, they also learned that their home country was dominant in certain aspects of the sport. Especially the men’s C-1 category, which featured reigning world champion Jon Lugbill and the man who posed the biggest challenge to him, fellow U.S. paddler Davey Hearn (Click HERE to read about Lugbill’s championship-winning run). This was at a time in whitewater paddling when slalom meant everything, it was the method which groomed the skills of paddlers at local clubs. The stars of slalom were seen as gods on the river. Here they were, legends of their day, capable of winning it all on American waters. Raw energy flowed through that gorge, as ferocious as the river and as engulfing as the fog.
This worlds not only provided a showcase for the paddlers that had been on top to declare their dominance on home soil. It was also a platform for rising stars to make their presence known.
“I had not raced with that many spectators or TV before,” says four-time freestyle world champion Eric Jackson. “I finally achieved my goal of making the USA team, I had ambitions of winning that event.” Though a determined and focused competitor, the young Jackson would commit costly penalties placing him at 16th in the men’s K-1. But it was the impression of racing at that level that stuck with Jackson. A level of competition which he didn’t want to leave anytime soon, and hasn’t to this day. The race on the mighty Savage blazed the road ahead for many of the athletes who participated there, creating foundations for some prominent paddling careers.
“I remember really enjoying the way we were paddling on our second run – loose, fluid and embracing the experience,” says Joe Jacobi, the current CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for competitive U.S. paddlesports. He played a different role at the ’89 Worlds, as a member of the US team in the C-2 division, partnering with Scott Strausbaugh to place fifth on the Savage – thanks to that second run. “I remember in a sea of cheering fans that followed us down the course, at one point, I could hear my mom’s voice, clear as a bell.” This was the memory Jacobi walked with — one that portrays both the chaos and clarity of a race. According to Jacobi there was more reason for excitement other than what was going on at that moment. After being absent from the Olympic program since 1972, canoe slalom had just secured its spot in the 1992 Barcelona games. This brought a renewed optimism for the future of the sport. (Jacobi would go on to win the gold medal in C-2 with Strausbaugh at the ’92 Olympics.)
Making the race a success was a tireless effort, not only on the athletes part, but on the volunteers and organizers that built the event.
“Everybody did their part,” says safety volunteer Dale Briggs. “They stayed focused, and that resulted in a well executed race.”
Briggs spent 17 days at the venue leading up to and during the competition. He was a member of the event safety team, and part of a group called Team Ohio – who along with another group called Team Delaware were coordinated in their tasks by safety guru Charlie Walbridge. But according to Briggs, that race was in the making for much longer than 17 days. Whitewater Championship Incorporated (WCI), was charged with the task of making the Savage a destination for world class events. Briggs worked with WCI for three years in this endeavor, creating an invitational race in ’87, and a pre-worlds in ’88, both designed to calibrate the course for the ’89 championships. Documenting the experience was also a major importance to Briggs. Lugging around camera equipment, with the help of fellow Team Ohio paddlers Pamela Dillon and Ted Rowe, he shot when he could. Now, his work and others’ span the Internet, serving as the historical accounts from those worlds.
Twenty-five years have passed since the ’89 event, and a new chapter in world-class racing is ready to begin in western Maryland. The ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships have returned to the United States once again, taking place at the Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI), a man-made course just 20 miles drive from the site of the Savage. Tomorrow, on Sept. 18, 2014, the first racer will leave the starting gate, bringing the sport’s attention back to a U.S. audience. And though this time it won’t occur on a wild river, when that racer takes their first stroke, the crowd will certainly roar.
— Stay tuned for the author’s ongoing coverage of this year’s Deep Creek 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, which kick off tomorrow (Wednesday Sept. 18) with the K-1 men’s preliminary heats, and click HERE for live results.