Medal-winning Slovakian hero Michel Martikan lines up for the big drop. Photo: Jamie McEwan

By Jamie McEwan

Uganda's Prossy Mirembe in Bratislava. Photo: Jamie McEwan

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The official Opening Ceremonies of the 2011 Canoe Slalom World Championships did not begin until 7 p.m. Tuesday local time, so during the day there was training as usual on the course. With boat and gear inspection taking place off to one side, it was a good chance for me to meet new people as they stood in line.

I was particularly happy to chat with Prossy Mirembe of Uganda. It’s always interesting to run into a racer from outside the usual slalom countries, and I felt a certain tentative connection—my two sons have paddled on Mirembe’s home river, the White Nile. Mirembe paddled freestyle there for eight years, but only began to focus on slalom a year ago. She arrived here less than a week ago, without any coach or manager, and she’s catching rides to and from her hotel with the Greek team. Talk about guts.

Many of the representatives of out-of-the-way countries actually grew up in one of the usual slalom nations: I’m told that the Thai athlete grew up in Germany; the Lebanese in Australia; and the Nigerian in Britain. And Boukpeti, the popular surprise Bronze Medalist from Togo, grew up in France.

Why is this French C-2 team paddling on the same side? I'm not sure, but given the subsequent paddle twirl the sternman used to switch back, just hacking around. Photo: Jamie McEwan

Still, a number of the newer slalom nations have developed their own programs: China in particular, but also Brazil, Mexico, the Ukraine, and others. Since one of the fine points of the Olympic selection method involves a strong effort to have four continents represented in each event, some of these new faces will be seen in London. (Quick quiz: is Uzbekistan in Europe, or in Asia?)

I also had time to puzzle over, and ask about, a comment U.S. coach Silvan Poberaj made the other day. Silvan had said that the race was often won or lost at the course’s largest (though unnamed) drop. This surprised me, because any good paddler would run this drop without an instant’s hesitation. It’s simply a chute with eddies on each side and a powerful but unobstructed runout. It was pointed out to me, however, that the eddies on each side are higher than the main current, meaning they’re particularly difficult to enter without losing all speed and being washed low. And with today’s short courses and intense competition, fragments of seconds count; a low entry into one eddy can make a difference of five or ten places. In addition, the drop is steep enough that the approach is almost entirely blind, with the rocks on the sides smooth and washed-over so that they show no landmarks. I’m glad I’m not out there. (OK, not really.)

Finally, the Opening Ceremonies. I was forewarned, and brought ear plugs. For the record, it was very nice.

Opening Ceremonies: Children of Bratislava assemble to wave, in turn, the flag of every participating nation. Photo: Jamie McEwan

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.