By Joe Potoczak
Three disciplines. One day. This is the Whitewater Triple Crown, an event that has been occurring annually on the Farmington River since 2009 in the village of Tariffville, Conn., which gives this section of the river its namesake: The Tariffville Gorge, or as local boaters like to call it, "T-Ville."
The event-combining idea of the Triple Crown spawned from the mind of legendary canoeist Jamie McEwan. The point: to bring in paddlers from the disciplines of freestyle, slalom, and wildwater to duke it out in the triathlon of whitewater, and have whoever is left standing on top declared the best of them all. “It just seemed natural to me,” McEwan said. “I think that people have enjoyed the opportunity to mix it up in different events, and especially for the slalom and freestyle communities to meet and greet and compete.”
It’s a format that is intense, exhausting, but extremely fun. Points are awarded after each category based on finish times with each discipline worth the same point value. Competitors can play to their strong suit, but they must finish well in every discipline for a shot at the crown. If that doesn’t sound tiring enough, we’re only talking about Saturday’s preliminary round. Once the Day One results are in, the top 10 men and five women do it all again for the Sunday finals.
"What keeps me coming back every year is the diversity of the event," said competitor Austin Huck, who’s been attending the Triple Crown for three years now. "You can have a bad wildwater run, but after slalom or freestyle be right back in it." Huck has been kayaking since age 9, including slalom racing on the international level as a member of the US team. He is part of what event head organizer Andy Kuhlberg calls, "a returning core of competitors."
This weekend’s event saw around 30 people vie for the title of Whitewater Triple Crown Champion—and the $1000 first place prize that accompanies it. Many are that ‘returning core,’ competing anywhere from the second to sixth time. For others this is their first Triple Crown, and unknown to them they have just been adopted into a family, one that includes many local paddlers, Olympians, U.S. Wildwater Team members, and freestyle world champs. They all come back to this sleepy village on the Farmington year after year. From fellow boaters, to the volunteers, and the crowd of local citizens gathered along the river bank, a supportive community is evident in all aspects surrounding the contest.
One of these locals is Frank Haviland, a member of the Tariffville Village Association, and the liaison between the paddling community and the town of Simsbury, which Tariffville neighbors. After a long history of slalom events in the gorge, Frank noticed that they seemed to disappear. Looking to keep this part of the town’s heritage alive, Haviland started searching for races to host. "We want to sell the village as a destination for recreation," says Haviland. Eventually he crossed paths with McEwan, who needed a venue for his triple-crown concept.
The $1000 purse for the top male and female paddlers isn’t the only money up for grabs. Second place receives $500 and third $250 (along with $500 going to the top finishing C-1). With prize money totaling $4000, thanks to a generous and extensive list of local sponsors, you would think there would be a no-mercy, dog-eat-dog mentality between participants.Rather, the Triple Crown has what first time competitor Hailey Thompson calls, "a positive atmosphere of talented paddlers."
That inclusive, boundary-stretching vibe has much to do with most racers lacking experience in all disciplines. It takes the edge off, adds some humor, and has paddlers lending one another a hand. You witness freestyle kayakers trying out ever-tippy wildwater boats for the first time. Competitors swap composite slalom kayaks with their opposition between race runs, exchanging tips about the gates. And in the staging eddy above the play feature, freestyle champions provide veteran slalom paddlers pointers on hitting kick-flips and other maneuvers they’ve never heard of.
"Everyone is supportive no matter what their ability level is," Kuhlberg said. He and a large group of volunteers, which includes members from the New England Slalom Series (NESS), work tirelessly to make these games happen, and create something that draws both local racers and pros alike. Kuhlberg simply enjoys watching some of the world’s best boaters compete with locals on their home river. "We are all out here generating great enthusiasm for the sport," says Kuhlberg enthusiastically, "and that’s why I keep doing it."
This year high water spiced up the wildwater race with some larger obstacles including a river-wide pourover near the finish line. The river level also changed the format of the freestyle competition from using a single wave to an entire rapid. Paddlers found the best feature, Babylon, located in the center of the river, though lacking eddy service. Flushing off this wave early caused many low scoring rides that took paddlers out of contention. Event slalom chairman, Gary Grosclaude, set a course that challenged even experienced racers. Near the end of the course, Gate 15 to 16 offered the biggest test: While passing through Gate 15, racers rode the razor’s edge of a large hole known as Klingon, needing an aggressive ferry to make the next gate.
At the end of the grueling weekend when every racers used that last ounce of energy to carry their boats out of the gorge and to their cars, congratulations were made along with words of parting, and plans for next year.
SUNDAY FINAL RESULTS
1. Eric Jackson
2. Danny Stock
3. Nick Troutman
4. Jordan Poffenberger
5. Joe Potoczak
6. Devin McEwan
7. Keith Warner
8. David Silk
1. Emily Jackson
2. Jessie Stone
3. Hailey Thompson
4. Courtney Kerin
5. Katelyn Green