RENO, May 12–Call it a day of overcoming odds. Eric Jackson, the ever-young 42-year-old world freestyle kayak champion, used his considerable experience to his advantage in claiming his second straight Reno River Festival freestyle rodeo title. In the women’s field, Australian Tanya Faux, battling a nasty bout of bronchitis that left her voice as scratchy as sandpaper, won her second straight title, too.
Jackson, riding his bright orange Jackson All-Star, topped Team Jackson teammate Stephen Wright in the finals. Wright, easily the biggest air catcher in the competition, was in fine form, popping his blue All-Star higher than any of his foes. However, EJ assembled a nearly flawless final round of phonix monkeys, loops, and McNastys. What separates EJ from the others is his combination of aptitude and strength on the wave, rarely getting flushed off the feature.
Joining EJ and Wright in the Round of Three semifinals was local favorite Jay Kincaid, which made it an all-Team Jackson semifinal. Wright, who took third place last year, topped Kincaid, the 2004 champ, 117-115. EJ ended his semifinal ride with an athletic tricky woo and a peace sign to the crowd, and tallied a competition-high score of 157.
Faux was joined by Teva teammate Nikki Kelly and Jackson Kayak’s Emily Jackson, Eric’s 16-year-old daughter, in the women’s Round of Three semifinal. Faux put together a score of 55. Kelly totaled 54. Emily turned in an unusually low 28 and was eliminated. She was clearly disappointed after her performance, but her father and mother, Kristine, blew kisses to her from across the river to cheer up their daughter.
Many competitors in the men’s field compiled high marks. In the Final Six, EJ put together a 146, the highest score to that point, while Wright scored 145. Kincaid advanced with a 136. Andrew Holcomb (133), Jimmy Blakeney (119), and Bryan Kirk (110) didn’t advance.
EJ’s son, 12-year-old Dane Jackson, competed in the men’s field and recorded a total score of 99 (66-33), good enough for 11th place. When he gains a pubescent growth spurt, look out. His days of failing to qualify will be over. Not that he’s in any hurry. Clearly at home on the river, the young man amused himself by throwing sticks in the flow and riding his mountain bike among the crowd. Who needs a kayak to have fun?
Faux recorded a 72 to claim the top seed in the women’s Final Six, followed by Jackson (61), and Kelly (56). Ruth Gordon (47), Kristen Podolak (29), and Tanya Shuman (25) failed to qualify for the Round of Three.
High Times: It’s no surprise to amateur weather geeks that the Truckee River was flowing through downtown at a rate of 2.5 times higher than normal. The nearby Sierra Nevada Range, whose snowmelt feeds the Truckee and Wingfield Whitewater Park, accumulated about 165 percent of its normal annual snowpack this winter and spring, resulting in water far higher than last year.
Tao Watch: Can anybody beat Tao Berman? In Saturday’s Boatercross qualifying round, Berman recorded the day’s lowest time of 37.1. EJ was hot on his heels with a 37.7. Kincaid and Josh Bechtel took third and fourth, respectively.
The Dick Vitales of Reno: The public address announcers working the event were former pro boaters Dan Gavere and Ken “Hobie” Hoeve. The pair was on the microphone from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day of the festival and never showed signs of losing their verbal gusto. Gavere and Hobie kept the audience–which consisted mostly of Reno locals unfamiliar with kayaking–informed of the boaters moves and strategies, while sprinkling in numerous funny comments about the on-goings around town (“Oh look, this guy brought his horse. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.” Or, “I found a restaurant at 2 a.m. that had a burger called the Awful Awful. After all the free drinks I had last night, it kept me from feeling awful awful this morning.”)
More Notes: Jud Keiser of Spokane, Washington, was able to do what no other kayaker was–top EJ. Not in score, but in age. At 45, Keiser was the oldest in the rodeo.
Faux’s high score of 74 in the opening round was higher than five of the 12 boaters in the men’s field.
With cloudless 85-degree weather gracing the desert city, thousands of spectators attended the three-day event, many of whom found good seats on the riverside rocks and didn’t leave, suggesting that the festival was gaining a solid foothold in Reno’s event calendar.
Although he was unable to advance to the Final Six, Corey Volt attempted the only two macho moves (basically a downriver loop) of the day on both of his upriver entry moves. Perhaps he read EJ’s informative technique article that ran in Whitewater, <->Canoe & Kayak‘s annual whitewater magazine.
Between rounds, Blakeney impressed the crowd, and Gavere, with a mystery move. Gavere, one of the highest regarded pro boaters of the last 15 years, asked over the PA system, “Hey, who taught you that?” Blakeney smiled and pointed to Gavere.
Move over Michael Vick. Three of the Final Six competitors in the men’s field–Blakeney, Holcomb, and Kirk–attended Virginia Tech.
Very Improbable Paddler: I had the good fortune to be invited as a VIP competitor in the Grubb Ellis Charity Raft Race. So after wolfing down a delicious French toast breakfast, I went down to the park to hitch a ride to the put-in two miles upriver. The VIP treatment is new to me. When my teammates first saw me, they had a look on their faces that all but said, “Oh. We were at least expecting someone like Larry the Cable Guy or Nipsy Russell.” People in Reno, after all, are used to seeing big-time VIPs. Speaking of which, there are numerous advertisements downtown for “Australia’s Hottest All-Male Review.” Reno, apparently, is real big with the ladies.