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A Paddler’s Quest to Compete at Wildwater Worlds

Part Four: Cause for Celebration

PHOTOS BY REGINA NICOLARDI
[Read more from Wild Water and Foreign Lands, chronicling Potoczak’s journey to compete this summer at the wildwater worlds with PART V: ‘The Road Continues’, PART III: ‘Smooth is Fast’, PART II: ‘From Sea to Summit’, and PART I: ‘Vienna Bound’]

CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION

"So, what order should we go in?" Kurt asks. Hugh and I respond with silence and indecisive expressions. Our first team run at 2015 ICF Wildwater Sprint World Championships starts in less than an hour. Not having an opportunity to practice together, we figure it best to find some flatwater on the nearby New Danube to work out a plan.

My nerves didn’t get in the way during the individual race on Saturday. I had spent all week working on the lines and felt comfortable getting down the artificial Austrian course clean. While none of the U.S. competitors made it through to the finals, I felt personal triumph for breaking the 50-second barrier, which had been a threshold I could not cross during training, finishing my second qualifier run in 49.42 seconds. The team run, however, is a different matter: Three boats nearly 15 feet long, performing a synchronized sprint through continuous whitewater, attempting to stay close enough to produce the fastest time possible, but far enough apart to avoid crashing. My hear is pounding.

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At the starting pool we line up with our sterns against the wall, Kurt out front, then myself, and Hugh as the anchor. With the clock counting down, Kurt looks back to us, “I’m going to take off on three.” We nod in agreement before he breaks into a dead sprint. I feel his wake rolling under my hull as I get the boat up to speed. The third feature kicks me into the center of the channel. In an effort to get left, back on line, I lean hard, and feel pretty good — only to realize I have cut off Hugh, forcing him toward an eddy. Looking back, I see him sideways in the channel before losing him from view. Kurt and I float through the rest of the course as slow as possible, even back-paddling so we don’t cross the finish without him. The roar of the spectators representing some of the 22 countries participating is our only clue as to what could possibly be occurring. When he finally turns the corner we all make for the finish.

Kurt, the author and Hugh.
Kurt, the author, and Hugh try to keep Team USA on track during the team run.

"That may have been the most cheering for Team USA I have heard all weekend," Hugh laughs. Taking out, he describes an ordeal of surfs and combat rolls. "I had the crowd in the palm of my hand," he adds, jokingly in dramatic Shakespearean fashion. We might not have had the fastest team run at 1:20.06, compared to the French group’s 43.66 (pictured below), but it could certainly grasp the award for most entertaining. Our second run contained less dramatics, but a similar result.

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..back up the ramp for run two
… Team USA heads back up the ramp for a second team run.
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Kurt Smithgall
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The author, Joe Potoczak
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The anchor, Hugh Pritchard

Then it’s all over. We are parting ways – bound for our home ports. Something I have wanted since I began paddling over a decade ago, spent the past 10 months preparing for, and traveled 4,000 miles to take part in, all boils down to four minutes and 10 seconds of racing. Comparing that time on the course to many other competitors, I got my money’s worth. I had the opportunity to see a beautiful part of the world, and spend time with some remarkable people. Before racing here, I assumed there would be an enormous amount of pressure surrounding the world championship, that competitors would be losing sleep and stressing themselves to exhaustion — perhaps some of them were. But what I witnessed during worlds were a group of paddlers simply enjoying this moment. Because getting here was the grueling victory, being here has just been the celebration.

— Stay tuned for Potoczak's final installment and read PART III: Smooth is Fast, Part II: From Sea to Summit and PART I: Vienna Bound.

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