By Chris Gragtmans
Whitewater Grand Prix 2014 ended in an epic and appropriate way on the Basse Cachee River, a Quebec City classic. In true Grand Prix fashion, the most intense was saved for last, and competitors, safety, and organizers were on edge all the way until the final athlete cleared the finish line (click HERE for full Stage Six results). The river was raging the evening before the event, flowing at a level that was barely runnable, and definitely not suitable for competition. Fortunately, flows dropped in just in time and the final, sixth stage Giant Slalom was on. As in past years, the Grand Prix as a whole was a truly incredible demonstration of what is possible in a kayak. Having that many top athletes traveling together and pushing each other yields nothing short of progression. Here are a few of the highlights from the second half of the event:
The women's title: Hotly contested throughout with so many different individual stage winners making for an extremely tight points race. Dutch athlete Martina Wegman managed to use her racing experience to edge out the other women for the win.
Safety: The safety throughout the event, but especially on the last day, was incredible. I watched several different heroic rescues with critical bag tosses and creative techniques. In one case, Jake Greenbaum nailed Ian Vogel in the head as he swam out of a weir hole. Ian missed the first bag, but Jake chambered and fired another one and dragged him to shore (I was just downstream in my kayak waiting for his helmet to pop up, and dreading paddling the Class V downstream with him on my stern). In another case, Marcos Gallegos popped up below the big drop with a broken paddle. As he dropped backwards into the weir hole, one of the Quebec Connection guys hit him with a bag, and Marcos planed upstream to safety. My hat is off to all the safety guys.
Equipment failure: I mentioned the broken paddle above, and equipment failure was a regular theme of this event. The primary culprit was sprayskirts. I've always sung the importance of using bombproof skirts (my personal preference is the IR Royale), and this turned out to be a valid consideration in this huge water. There were over 7 skirt implosions throughout the Grand Prix, often in very bad places. Skirts and paddles are lifesaving equipment—choose them wisely!
Dark horse: Joel Kowalski earns that award in my eyes. He was Mr. Consistent throughout the event, and his efforts turned into probably the best result of his career, third place overall in the Grand Prix. It was really cool to see him put things together out there.
Bridge Rapid session: We went back to the Bridge Rapid on the Mistassini River (the epic, huge exploding rapid from the 2011 Grand Prix). Although the water was lower, many paddlers still routed the meat of this big rapid, and Kalob Grady opened up a rad new option: surfing the wave at the top! (Check out the video below.) Blowing off this wave in the wrong place would undoubtedly result in the beatdown of your life, but Kalob and Dane went for surf after surf on that epic wave.
Here’s Gragtmans’ breakdown of each of the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix‘s six stages. (Gragtmans finished in 14th place overall of 28 scoring competitors on the mens’s side.)
STAGE 1. Gladiator. Lots of creativity out there. Dane, Nick, Tino, and Devyn were the only ones linking combo tricks. It was fun just trying to leverage our strengths to throw down the single best trick we could muster. The judging was done through a very interesting "peer judging" format.
STAGE 2. Boatercross. Marcos Gallegos was dominant in this event, but Tino Specht, Evan Garcia, Joel Kowalski, Bryan Kirk, and Rush Sturges were also consistently strong. The rapid is one of the all-time most fun rapids I've ever run. An absolute classic. There was a lot of chaos and a bit of controversy at the finish line, which was a tricky move off of a hole and quick charge into an eddy. Martina Wegman showed her strength and fluidity and took the title for the women.
STAGE 3. Creek Race Time Trials. On first view, this course looked very manky, but proved to be a Grand Prix-worthy race course. The right side of this rapid was unrunnable, so the drop immediately above was axed from the racecourse (a good decision). Paddlers got three runs, and the top two were combined. On such a short anaerobic course, it was absolutely critical to paddle hard across the flatwater and nail the moves in the rapids. The single most important factor was how paddlers skipped out of the 25-foot waterfall. Dane Jackson dominated, followed by yours truly and Tino Specht. The women had strong performances with Martina Wegman dominating, and Adriene Levknecht also throwing down a blistering fast performance.
STAGE 4. Black Mass. This was the first competition ever on this huge wave. It is fast as hell and very unpredictable to surf—or even catch. This stage delivered disappointment to some and the biggest tricks of their lives to others. It was very fortunate that this wave came in, and once again the flow gods smiled on this competition. Hannah Kertesz threw a big trick to log her first win on the international competition scene. Rush was very consistent here, Dane continued with his massive airscrew style, and Joel threw one of the coolest looking pan-ams I've ever seen.
STAGE 5. Top Wave. Although this ‘freestyle showdown’ event wasn't quite as exciting or unpredictable, it provided great variety for the series, and allowed the technicians with less huge wave experience to strut their stuff. Nick Troutman clinched another stage victory, and Devyn Scott and Bryan Kirk both showed their incredible style and fluidity. For the ladies, Adriene Levknecht busted out a crazy back pan-am and other big tricks to take her first WWGP stage win.
STAGE 6. Giant Slalom. This was another very short course, with features big enough to only allow for a few gates within the desired line (and only one upstream gate). The decider on this course was the big drop near the bottom, and the weir hole just below it. I could count the clean lines off of this big drop on one hand (most people subbed out big-time), and the weir was downstream ready to eat disoriented paddlers. On my first run of the drop, it literally almost pulled me out of my boat! This was the day with the most carnage, but the safety guys were on it. Dane Jackson ended up taking this stage win with Rush Sturges 0.1 seconds behind, and Evan Garcia close after that.