VAIL, Colorado, June 1--It was a nearly flawless day in this stunning portion of the Rocky Mountains, but the low flow of Homestake Creek--site of the Teva Mountain Games creek race--was anything but perfect. But whitewater kayakers, being the hardy bunch they are, still managed to paddle the creek with a combination of skill and guts and just a touch of helmet-splatting carnage.
Pat Keller of Asheville, North Carolina, further strengthened his position among the world’s elite kayakers with an impressive two-heat victory over the rest of the men’s field. In the women’s competition, Tanya Faux of Australia also proved her stature with her second victory of the Games (she won Wednesday’s PaddleCross competition as well). Both champions pocketed $1,000 in prize money for their performances.
The competition was tight in both the men’s and women’s races, but more so in the men’s. After the first heat, Keller led the field with a time of 1:50.9, just hundredths of a second faster than Eric Jackson (1:51.1), who won PaddleCross Wednesday.
“I tell you what,” Keller said after his first run, “I’d rather be in first than second. But no matter what, I’ll be charging.”
Indeed he did. With a flow about one-third less than what many boaters would have preferred, manky was the operative word as the boaters picked their lines carefully. Keller, however, had a little help from an intangible source of energy--Metalica. With earpieces firmly planted in his ears, Keller turned up the volume and blasted The Ecstasy of Gold en route to an overall time of 3:40.1.
“It’s an awesome song, man,” he said after receiving his fat paycheck.
Inspiring as it may be, a large sum of technique was required to overcome the chunky, bouldery condition of the river.
“The key was who styles his lines the most,” he added. “If you hit one rock, it’ll take a lot of time. On my first run, I landed on a rock and I was also slow to exit at Leap of Faith.”
He took that information into his second run and pulled away from the field. Coming into the event, Keller knew he had to look out primarily for four others: Eric Jackson (“because he trains all winter”), Tao Berman (“he’s always up there at the top”), Tommy Hilleke (“he wants it as bad as anybody”), and Brad Ludden (“he won at Fish Creek earlier this week, and Vail is his home”).
While Keller maintained the pole position throughout the race, Faux had to make up huge ground after the first run. Nikki Kelly turned in a time of 2:01.0 on her first run, which was actually faster than 26 of the 43 men’s racers. Faux’s time was 2:09.1. She recovered with a time of 1:59.9 on her second run to finish with a total time of 4:08. Kelly finished at 4:10 and was visibly confused at her low time. She was also disqualified on a controversial call in the PaddleCross race.
Faux’s victory didn’t come without overcoming the psychological blow of bashing her knuckles on one of Homestake’s numerous exposed boulders. Knuckles are one thing, but imagine if that was her face. These boaters are tough, but still human.
“I really liked the course because you had to overcome fear and it was like a lot of runs in Australia. It put you in a very aware state. It put you in a zone very quickly. You had to concentrate right to the finish line. It was a matter of having a balance of speed and precision.”
It was a good thing that there were plenty of volunteer boaters on safety on both sides of Homestake. Coursing through the run’s trickiest boulder garden’s Corey Volt bashed his head into the cheese-grader-like texture of a menacing rock. With a look of terror on his face, Volt managed a timely brace stroke to save himself from what would have been a very untimely flip.
The unofficial Grace Under Pressure award would go to Stephen Wright, who got turned around backwards as he went off a tricky drop. Wright, one of playboating’s more talented rodeo stars, maintained his composure and quickly righted himself, but not before losing crucial seconds off his time.
He could, however, have lost more than seconds, as Geoff Calhoun experienced. Calhoun was briefly pinned on his second run.
DeLaVergne Tribute: After the race, the music and post-race banter came to a halt when public-address announcer Dan Gavere asked the audience for a moment of silence in honor of Daniel DeLaVergne, the popular kayaker who died tragically in early March. The rushing sound of the river was all that could be heard. It was a stirring moment.
The Unknown Boater: After the men’s first run, the usual suspects rounded out the top four: Keller, Jackson, Berman, and Hilleke. However, Todd Anderson, a young boater from Hood River, Oregon, stood in fifth place (1:53.1) and within striking distance of the podium. A victory would have been one of the most unpredictable upsets in the entire Games. Alas, Anderson wound up in a respectable sixth place.
How tough was the course? Imagine Steve Fisher not finishing in the top 10, and Berman, who styled impressive lines for much of his second run, but hit a snag and had to roll near the end. He finished fifth.
Air Play: After the creek race, the kayakers headed to Gore Creek, which runs through Vail Village, for the Big Trick Competition. Jared Seiler and Ruth Gordon triumphed in the respective men’s and women’s competitions, winning $500 each. Stephen Wright and Todd Baker finished second and third in the men’s, while Valerie Beltrand and Jessie Stone were second and third in the women’s.
The feature the boaters played on, however, didn’t quite have the retention they’d hoped for, making it tough to stay on, let alone throw down on.
Homestake Extreme Kayak Race Results
Men’s Top 10
1 – Pat Keller
2 – Eric Jackson
3 – Brad Ludden
4 – Tommy Hilleke
5 – Tao Berman
6 – Todd Anderson
7 – Bryan Kirk
8 – Qilliam Jones
9 – Dustin Urban
10 – Jared Seiler
1 – Nikki Kelly
2 – Tanya Faux
3 – Valerie Bertrand
4 – Robin Betz
5 – Christie Glissmeyer
6 – Eleanor Perry
7 – Andria Baldovin