[Read more from Wild Water and Foreign Lands, chronicling Potoczak's journey to compete this summer at the 2015 ICF Wildwater Sprint World Championships with PART IV: ‘Cause for Celebration’, PART III: ‘Smooth is Fast’, PART II: ‘From Sea to Summit’, and PART I: ‘Vienna Bound’]
THE ROAD CONTINUES TO NORTH CAROLINA
For the rising young talent of wildwater, the downriver-racing road did not end at Vienna. The world’s finest junior and U-23 racers traveled across the pond to compete on western North Carolina’s renowned Nantahala River. The Junior & U-23 ICF Wildwater Canoe World Championships, hosted at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, took take place August 2-7. The event featured a four-kilometer classic race and a 450-meter sprint course, along with the crowd-favorite team races in each of these events. In total, nearly 15 nations and 140 athletes made camp in the Smoky Mountains, enjoying one of the country’s most paddled rivers.
During the sprint, racers started by charging into the run’s most difficult rapid, Nantahala Falls, immediately testing their technical skills in the unforgiving, composite race boats. The remainder of the course then pushed the fitness of each racer, as they hammered through the shallows toward the finish at Founder’s Bridge.
The event encouraged youth development in this lesser-known racing offshoot of kayaking, showcasing the abilities of these young athletes. While many racers used the event as a stepping stone toward competing on the senior level, plenty of the athletes present had already made that leap -- and even gone a step beyond. For instance, Italian paddler, Costanza Bonaccorsi (pictured below), was crowned women’s K-1 champion at Vienna. She had also won the previous year, a 21-year-old, back-to-back world champion out for another gold on the Nantahala.
The men’s U-23 kayak field featured Slovenian competitor Vid Debeljak, who captured bronze at the Verbund Wasserarena. He was accompanied by fellow Vienna finalists Robert McIntyre of Australia, and Richard Hala of the Czech Republic - all three finishing at Worlds within a second and a half of one another.
The Nantahala has long been known as a training ground for competitive paddling disciplines, including wildwater. "This is where I learned the sport and took the beatings that came with it," race organizer (and seasoned international race veteran) Chris Hipgrave wrote leading up to an event where got to share his home river with wildwater athletes from all over the world.
After two years of effort organizing the races, Hipgrave says it is bittersweet to see the event come and go, though he rates it as incredibly successful. "I am pumped to send away nearly 150 athletes from all corners of the world, as fans of the NOC and the Nantahala River. That is super cool. They were all genuinely happy with the venue and the river.”
Hipgrave also notes the amazing caliber of competition, believing that it will draw attention and participation to the discipline in the U.S.
While international teams such as the Czech Republic, France, and Italy dominated, emerging U.S. athletes had a key opportunity to absorb what it takes to accomplish world-class results, while also developing personal relationships with competitors from all across the globe that share a common dedication.
"The U.S. team is very much a developing team," Hipgrave says. "They got to see the sport done at its highest level. Every kid I talked to was tremendously motivated following the event."