By Tim Mutrie
“Everythings’s flowing great right now and we’ve got this overcast layer, so things are on the high side of normal—but it’s reasonable, it’s not flooding. I anticipate things coming up over the weekend, but judging by what we’re seeing, I expect it to be a phenomenal weekend for the kayak events.”
That was the comment this afternoon from Brad Ludden, a pro kayaker from Vail, Colo., who participated in the first Teva Mountain Games in Vail ten years ago, and every one since. This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the Mountain Games, and as such Ludden was hanging out along Gore Creek at the play park hole—site of one of the marquee events, kayak freestyle—watching the “Jackson clan” get familiar with the feature.
“Right now, Dane Jackson is literally yelling at Nick Turner to adjust the feature,” says Ludden, describing the high-tech controls that allow the likes of Turner to raise and lower the riverbed for optimal playfulness at the hole.
Ludden has since retired from freestyle kayaking and is now CEO of a nonprofit he founded 11 years ago, First Descents, which leads young adult cancer patients on outdoor adventures. This year, he’s competing in the steep creek race—which kicks off the Games’ paddlesport events, tomorrow (Thursday, June 2), on nearby Homestake Creek—as well as a four-event combo (running, road and mountain biking, and kayaking) called the Ultimate Mountain Challenge. Looking forward to the weekend’s festivities, and reflecting back on the Mountain Games’ ten year run, talking came easy for Ludden. His thoughts follow:
• “Oh gosh, ten years have gone by since its inception. … Back in the early days I focused primarly on freestyle, that was my strong suit, but now Homestake has become my focus. I love competing, I love the challenge, and I also like the challenge of cycling and running. And just like the Games have evolved, I like to think that I have too as an athlete.”
• “For those of us who were here at the beginning, it’s been phemonemal to see the growth of the event. It was new—maybe a few thousand spectators, and we didn’t have this world class feature on Gore Creek that we do now—so we were learning, it was the beginning. And then we’ve added new sports, and things have grown. Now there’s tens of thousands of spectators and every year just builds on the last.”
• “The feature on Gore Creek, it’s new as of a couple of years ago, but it was a complete game changer for the event. Gore Creek’s flows were unpredicatable. We were always putting a square peg in a round hole. We didn’t have the best feature to put on the show we wanted to. … But then River Restoration put this feature in, with control bladders and plates to change and direct the flow of the river and create the perfect feature… Nick Turner, he’s a former professional kayaker and he led the charge with the town of Vail when they were considering this feature. Eventually we sold them on this vision—here’s what we think we can do, and the payoff can be huge, but we’re not really sure either. But really it’s been the best thing for the Teva Mountain Games for kayaking since it started in ’01.”
• “The creek is really senstivite in its flows and can fluxuate even during the day, heat to heat of a competition. And to hold a world-class event you have to be able to react to that changing flow, and the only way to do that is to have a feature in the river bed that you can adjust. … The entire Jackson family is out here now, five people in the water, and, wait, two more coming on down.”
• “These games have definitely become one of the conerstone events for the pros. It’s got pretty big bragging rights, and carries a lot of credibility with it, so it draws the best talent and is pretty much an international event. To say you’ve won it is saying you’re as good as it gets. There is prize money and bragging rights, but it’s also for the spectators and the athletes and the brands that they’re representing.”
• “It’s not a multi-million dollar sport, we’re not an Olympic sport, there’s no drug testing. The sport is completely built on passion and culture and people come here because they love it. I was just speaking with Dane and Eric Jackson, some of the best freestyle paddlers in the world. I said, ‘Are you gonna do the creek race?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, of course, it’s fun.’ And I think that’s true of the rest of the paddling community—they’ll take every chance they can to get on the river.”
• “With Dane, I can’t even say the community was surprised [with his recent win at the Whitewater Grand Prix], but rather proud. I’ve been seeing Dane since he was 11—before he had enough weight to throw his boat around—and now he’s 17. And this year when he won the Grand Prix he sort of carved out his spot in the kayaking hall of fame—at the age of 17. He also proved that he has just begun. Not only is he gonnna continue beating everyone in freestyle, but now in the creek races too. It’s the beginning of a legacy for that kid.”
• “It’s interesting, I think kayakiers in general are pretty humble people, there’s no room for ego or back-stabbing. So because of that, that sense of community carries into the comps. No matter who’s in the hole, people are cheering for them. And no matter what happens at the end of the day, everyone’s going to get a beer together. People are in it for the right reasons. We accept the time we’re given on the river together.”
• “Hey Dane! How is it out there? Oh, he didn’t hear me. I think he’s freezing. It’s pretty chilly.”
• “I’d say the pariticipants are in the minority here. The majority are people from Denver, the mountains nearby, the Western Slope. It’s one of the reasons we live here: you getta come watch the best-of-the-best do what they do, just like World Cup ski races here. And I think the Mountain Games always marks the beginning of summer and everyone wants to show up for that: world class events, music, parties and food, and using our backyard as a playground to host a great event.”