By Jamie McEwan
“I’m honored and stoked to be out there,” said Pat Keller.
I’d run into Keller, extreme racer and waterfall hucker extraordinaire, standing by the scoreboard at the Olympic Trials. For a moment I found it hard to believe that a paddler with Keller’s skill and experience could be honored and stoked to be on the artificial whitewater of the Charlotte course. But there was no doubting Keller’s sincerity. Keller, who has been wearing a helmet cam on his runs down the course, has been giving off an almost-visible glow of positive energy all day long, both on and off the course.
Pat Keller is one of a group of freestyle and extreme racers, including Jason Beakes and the entire Eric Jackson family, who are treating the Olympic Trials both as a chance to measure themselves against the slalom specialists, and also as an awesome whitewater festival.
It’s all too easy to focus on the exclusive side of the Team Trials, its utilitarian purpose of separating Olympians from hopefuls. And in some years the trials have felt like nothing but a grueling test, very much like feeding athletes through a threshing machine, mechanically separating “wheat” from “chaff.” But this year’s trials have become infused with an inclusive, celebratory spirit that remembers that racing can be fun and stimulating for all involved. The good vibes have been felt even by serious “racer heads” like Jim Wade, who after a serious discussion of his first day results looked around and added, smiling, “I’m really liking the atmosphere out here!”
The presence of a number of Canadian racers, and the manner in which the U.S. and Canadian trials have been combined, have added to that atmosphere. Racers come down in the order of international ranking, irrespective of country. The results on the scoreboard are also posted irrespective of country. This can cause confusion–but it’s a healthy confusion that encourages us to focus on the individual racers.
The most dramatic moment of the day came, in fact, from the Canadians, who wrapped up their trials with a wide open last-run duel in the Men’s Kayak class. And as the sun neared the horizon, it was twenty-year-old Michael Tayler who was hoisted onto his countrymen’s shoulders, making his first-ever National Team—and filling Canada’s only whitewater slot for the London Olympics.
There were other surprises as well. Eric Hurd, the bow half of the Larimer/Hurd team, smoked the Men’s Kayak class by two-and-a-half seconds, an unusual margin in K-1. In the Women’s class, the top two so far (Nee and Queen) stumbled in their second runs, allowing Emily Jackson to be the USA’s highest-placing K1W on that run. The Hepp and McCleskey team had the best C-2 result of the day, though less than two seconds separated first from third. And Casey Eichfeld had the best run in the C-1 class by over three seconds. I asked Benn Fraker, who led the C-1 field yesterday, how he felt about today’s race. He hesitated. “Just two words,” I added. “Is ‘disaster’ two words?” quipped Fraker.
Not one of the top spots is locked down, though some athletes are in a better position than others. In the words of legendary paddler Scarlett O’Hara, “After all … tomorrow is another day.”
Jamie McEwan raced on numerous U.S. Slalom teams between 1971 and 2001, collecting one Olympic medal, one World Championship medal, and one World Cup Championship along the way. Now the veteran competitor and expedition paddler is exploring the unfamiliar role of spectator, sharing his insights as the world's best slalom paddlers compete for the sport's most significant prize.