PHOTOS BY REGINA NICOLARDI
Looking out the window of a plane bound for Milan, I turn to Regina to say, "This is really happening."
I’ve spent plenty of time gazing out windows, day-dreaming as boys do of far-off lands and unattainable glory. But this time it wasn’t a whimsical fantasy, rather, the settling of reality. It seems life catapults you in an instant, though in actuality the journey here has been quite long. Ten months prior I stood on the shore of the Lehigh - a river I’ve called home since finding kayaking 12 years ago - having just finished my runs for the wildwater U.S. team trials, asked if I would like to race in Vienna at the 2015 Wildwater World Championships. "Of course,” I responded without comprehending they were actually inviting me to take a slot, not just be an alternate, if I just said yes. “It would be an incredible opportunity."
Wildwater is a tough discipline. The composite race boats stretch the length of a touring kayak, are difficult to turn, unstable, and fragile. The first time you jump in one it feels like your first time in a kayak all over again - maybe worse. But the design that produces a tough learning curve also bares the fruit of unmatched speed. The long, slender hull flies over whitewater. Its nose tapers to a dagger point, piercing through waves that stall others. There are no points to accumulate or gates to negotiate. The objective is pure speed from A to B, windmilling your paddle and driving your torso, projecting the boat on a due course downriver. The group racing wildwater in the U.S. is small but dedicated, and encouragement is their greatest attribute. The same athletes you compete against offer you coaching and equipment and want to see you succeed. This support has placed me on the world championship stage as a representative of my country, an opportunity many athletes across all sports never realize. Time to pack.
Before I know it, 10 months with dawn training sessions and late-night trip planning have passed, and we find ourselves standing in the airport terminal trying to decipher the colorful signs in an unfamiliar language. Walking up to the car rental kiosk, Regina hands over her information. The man sees her very Italian name, and starts conversing in a foreign tongue. Regina smiled and laughed. "Oh, sorry," the clerk says, interrupting himself to continue in English.
Without any hesitation we take the keys to a sporty red Fiat, which will undoubtedly make a great boating vehicle for our stops along the way, and set off to find our way through unknown lands. Final destination: Vienna, Austria. Parked at the garage exit, we look at the Italian road signs in front of us, not being much help and glance each way down the street, and taking a guess at which direction will be our road to worlds.
-- Check back for Joe Potoczak’s correspondence from paddling and competing across Europe this summer.
-- Check out our story on downriver racing’s devoted core.
-- See more of Nicolardi’s photos touring Lake Huron’s empty north shore in the Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands.