The French C-2 team of Lefevre and Gargaud-Chanut paddle on the right entering the upstream, then switch back in the eddy. Photo: Jamie McEwan

By Jamie McEwan

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — “Why is this French C-2 team paddling on the same side?” I asked in the caption to my photo in Bratislava #3. Now I know that my guess was wrong: They weren’t “just hacking around.”

In the C-2 final Saturday, that same French team—who I discovered is the legendary Fabian Lefevre and his partner Denis Gargaud-Chanut—was the last boat down the course, and after a beautiful run up top led on the splits by over a second as they approached the last drop. At the very lip, Gargaud-Chanut switched sides so that they pulled into the eddy with both paddling on the right, where LeFevre switched back before pulling back into the current to finish the last two gates.

Slovakia's Jana Dukatova limbos a pole. Photo: Jamie McEwan

USA's Casey Eichfeld reaches for the one long essential stroke. Photo: Keith Boynton

They were the second C-2 in the Finals to switch sides. I love to see people switch, just because it’s crazy and different—but it seems that Lefevre and Gargsaud-Chanuts’ lead slipped away right there in that upstream, allowing the reigning World Champions, the Hochschorner brothers, to retain their title. The Frenchmen ended up seven-tenths of a second back, with the Skantar cousins of Slovakia third.

It was a classic French versus Slovak race-off—unorthodox radical Frenchmen taking on the controlled, superbly balanced Slovaks. Michel Martikan of Slovakia and Tony Estanguet of France have been vying for the top spot in men’s C-1 since Estanguet’s surprise Olympic win in 2000; now the rivalry has extended to C-2—Lefevre/Gargsaud-Chanut were also second last year. The Frenchmen have the more elegant style, but often seem to be skating on the edge of control; the Slovaks may have less flair, but they also have an uncanny ability to make paddling erratically surging artificial whitewater look simple.

The Women’s Kayak Finals featured equally striking contrasts in style. World Champion Jana Dukatova of Slovakia showed the great control we expect of the Slovak team, though she brought her own sense of calm and willingness to let the water do the work in the tricky offsets. But perhaps she should have pressed harder? In any case, the Austrian Corinna Kuhne retained her World Championship title by paddling with such skillful power she overcame a two-second penalty to win. Maialen Chourraut of Spain was third, paddling very smoothly but perhaps less dynamically than the top two.

And then the slalom gates were moved back to the easier setting for C-1 qualification runs, both men and women. Easier gate placement can make qualification more difficult, as the result times tighten up and the slightest bad luck or misjudgment can move a racer down ten places.

World Champion Corinna Kuhne of Austria putting the hammer down. Photo: Jamie McEwan

In Men’s C-1, only Casey Eichfeld moved on to the Semifinals for the U.S., placing 22nd of 67 starters—and in a nice show of consistency would have qualified on either run. Tad Dennis looked strong, but penalties and a time error or two knocked him down to 48th. And Benn Fraker had two good runs right up to the big drop, only three gates from the finish line; but on both runs, he had trouble exiting the last upstream and took a fifty on the next gate. Ouch.

The Women’s C-1W class featured two young U.S. paddlers, Hailey Thompson and Colleen Hickey. Although Thompson was within the top 20 after first runs, she was bumped just over the line into 21st, while Hickey picked up 50’s on both runs to place 25th. It’s hard to keep pace with this fast-developing class.

So it is Brett Heyl, Scott Parsons, and Casey Eichfeld competing for the U.S. in tomorrow’s K-1M and C-1M Semifinals—and here’s hoping they move on to the Finals, which follow midday. The Canadians, too, qualified two kayaks and one C-1 into the Finals. There will be a total of 19 non-Europeans in the three Semifinals, out of a total of 80 competitors. 2011 World C-2 silver-medalists Lefevre and Gargsaud-Chanut will race in their respective individual classes, K-1M and C-1M; both qualified for their Semifinals. Following the three Finals, team races will be held in all classes. Another full day of racing—and then the party! Don’t forget the party!

Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world's best slalom paddlers compete for the sport's most significant prize. Among them is Jamie's son, Devin, racing in the USA C-2 with Casey Eichfeld.