Photos by Regina Nicolardi
Nick Troutman sits in the eddy awaiting a judge’s thumbs up. His current score, 503.33, leaves him in fifth place. After leading the field through semi finals he is now the last kayaker to surf the Garberator Wave for the 2015 ICF Freestyle Kayak World Championship, and the only man standing between Dane Jackson and his second world title.
Troutman is an Ottawa River native, and the lone Canadian in the men’s kayak final. The home crowd, a community who have rallied to make this world championship a success, are going insane for their local paddling hero. The grand stand constructed of metal and wood is rumbling, the audience deafening as Troutman drops in. He hits the wave running, starting with the high scoring air screws that many of the top paddlers use to open their routine, then working his way through the list of aerial maneuvers on the score sheet. As time expires, Troutman loses his paddle. He peels off the wave with his hands lifted into the air for his crowd, awaiting the judges' score to see if he'll earn a spot on the podium.
"I kept thinking, just go slow and stay on the wave," says Troutman of his final ride, which would give him a score of 1170, high enough to capture the bronze, and allowing his brother in law, Dane Jackson, to win a second world championship. Troutman says the entire experience was "a flood of emotions."
"The crowd was a huge factor both good and bad. In one sense I felt a major burden and expectation from all these people, many of whom are close friends and family. On the other hand I felt a huge roar of encouragement and love. I was so proud and honored, that it would almost bring me to tears before each ride." It was an event Troutman, who won the 2009 men’s title, calls, one of the greatest kayak events ever.
These may sound like the usual names battling it out on the freestyle scene, but the difference at the 2015 worlds on the Garberator, was the overall feel of the competition, approaching the likes of a mainstream sporting event. The Garberator provided a high flying feature packed with excitement. Cameras placed on both sides of the river captured the action, while the production team hunkered down in the media tent switching angles fluently. The live feed displayed across monitors on site and streamed over the Internet, accompanied by graphics including point totals and standings. The commentary team of Ken Hoeve, Jez Jezz, Matt Hamilton, and Corey Volt provided entertaining play-by-play of the action, while also taking trips across the river, to ask athletes in front of a packed audience, "How does it feel to be world champion?"
Bringing the competition to viewers around the world was no small task. "To get this streaming live, we are coming across from a church steeple, 11 kilometers over land to a silo at the Whitewater Brewery. Then we go 2.2 kilometers to a 150 foot crane. Then it comes down the crane and we shoot it across the last 30 to 300 yards to get it into the media tent," explains event head organizer Matt McGuire, of the efforts it took to transmit an Internet signal in a place where finding cell reception is difficult. McGuire is also a marketing director for Wilderness Tours, the local outfitter owned by Joe Kowalski, which hosted the event, and backed it with financial and logistical support.
Along with the work going into the production of the World Championships, the athletes also did their part to bring dramatic story lines.
OC-1 held the underdog story as the relatively unknown Canadian Andrew Hill used his homemade carbon canoe to beat out names that included 2013 champion Jordan Poffenberger.
“Last fall when I made the Canadian team I told myself I was going to put in the work needed to medal,” says Hill, the Ottawa regular who only started paddling OC-1 last year, two days prior to Canadian team trials. “After I realized I had won all I could do for a few days was smile,” adds Hill. It was his first world championship.
Seth Chapelle (USA) was the C-1 veteran seeking a medal that eluded him after finishing fourth in three world championships. Now balancing a full time nursing job with paddling, Chapelle wasn’t able to spend a long amount of time training as other competitors had and arrived the Thursday before the competition. "I didn’t have super high expectations coming into this worlds. I just wanted to finish top five and make the finals," says Chapelle. "I was really stoked to come out of it on the podium." He finished with the silver medal.
The junior men’s provided the heroic charge of American Alec Voorhees, who sustained a shoulder injury during his first finals ride, leading to an early flush on his second ride as well. With only one ride left, 18-year-old Voorhees mustered up every ounce of grit he could, putting down a 676.67-point ride, which would secure him a silver medal behind the United Kingdom’s Hugo Anthony.
Junior women further confirmed Sage Donnelly (USA) as one of the paddling’s most brightly rising stars. Her finals ride, a 588.33, was higher scoring than any senior women’s during the course of the entire event. At 15 years old, Donnelly has been waiting just to reach the minimum age to compete in a world championship. "So begins the legacy of Sage Donnelly," says one of Donnelly’s sponsors and owner of Jackson Kayak, Eric Jackson, who was not competing in a freestyle worlds for the first time since he won the inaugural world championship in 1993. He held a different role at this year’s event: That of a team manager, coach, and father, as he witnessed his two children take home three world champion titles.
Emily Jackson, won her second women’s title ahead of Hitomi Takaku of Japan and defending champion Claire O’Hara of the United Kingdom. Along with the kayak bronze, O’Hara also won the women’s squirt title. "My experience at worlds has been nothing but excitement," says Emily Jackson, who appreciated just being a part of competition. After missing out on the 2013 worlds, the women’s champion said it has been eye opening to remember how much fun the event is regardless of placing. "Just to be a part of it, period, is an honor."
The only competitor to compete in four disciplines, Dane Jackson, won gold in both men’s K-1 and men’s C-1, along with a silver in OC-1. Squirt was the only category where Jackson did not make a podium finish – a discipline which one of his mentors, Stephen Wright, would win. He is a back-to-back world champion, and at the age of 22 is already making his case as potentially the best all-around paddler in the history of the sport.
Dane Jackson’s continuing success brings an X-factor to kayaking. That of the familiar superstar who connects with a young general audience. The same way anyone who tunes in for a snowboarding event knows the name Shaun White. When asked about his place as a role model for the sport, Jackson says, "One thing I love to do, or at least try everything in my power to do, is really be someone that kids, or anyone, can look up to when it comes to what they want to do in kayaking, and what they want to accomplish."