Photos by Vitek Ludvik
The stacked challenges favored those with traditional training. Specifically, groomed slalom training, which is what made all the difference this weekend at a European downriver sprint race billed as a world championship, and that certainly required the absolute best of each paddler in the field. British slalom ace Joe Morley, 24, and French national slalom team member, Nouria Newman, 21, ended up mking a strong case for slalom kayakers as creek racing’s ultimate competitors, emerging from a field of more than 150 of the world's best whitewater, slalom and freestyle paddlers gathered in Oetz, Austria for the sixth annual Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championship.
None of the race’s top 15 finishers were North American, with Dane Jackson taking the top U.S. honors in 20th.
"Slalom kayakers have such an amazing base of fitness, and they're always racing so they are generally stronger and mentally tougher," says Sam Sutton, three-time Sickline champion. Sutton placed fifth this year. "They are also very precise paddlers so it just takes them very little time to transition from a slalom paddler to a whitewater paddler."
Most of the slalom paddlers at Sickline had just come from mid-September’s ICF Slalom World Championship in the Czech Republic, primed in peak physical shape. The Sickline Race is held on the Ötztaler Ache River’s Wellerbrücke Rapid, a Class V section of whitewater known for handing out some major beatdowns to the careless. This year, the rapids were extra nasty as rain from the previous week had raised the water levels.
No one knew what to expect during the as river levels fluctuated rapidly each day. "During round after round it was becoming more difficult just getting down the run, and paddling Champions Killer [last major hole at the bottom of the course] was becoming a gamble," said Sutton. "It was really impressive to see Joe Morley, who had such a great run."
The 2013 Sickline World Champion hails from Nottingham, England, established in 1936 as the slalom center of the world before artificial courses were built in the 1970s. Morley has spent 12 years on the water and competed in international slalom both in Junior and Under 23. According to Morley, when he's not racing slalom, he is creek racing and freestyle paddling.
Like Morley, Newman also comes from a slalom background, but the French paddler has dominated almost all forms of whitewater competition. In November 2012, Nouria won the Whitewater Grand Prix, killing it in four out the five stages against some of the world's best female whitewater paddlers. She also just took the silver for K-1 Women at the 2013 slalom worlds. Newman beat the second-place competitor at Sickline by almost 30 seconds.
It was hard to imagine anyone but a slalom paddler would win this year's Sickline. Two-thirds of the top 15 male racers had strong slalom backgrounds. "You see these dudes come from the United States and they expect to win the race," says Sutton, "but there are no major slalom racers over there." Sutton recognizes that while the U.S. creates very strong whitewater paddlers, it does not generate high-caliber racers. "When I compete at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colo., I'm only worried about three racers, but at the Sickline I'm worried about 15," says Sutton.
The whitewater-racing season is winding down, and the last notable international extreme race for the year will be on U.S. soil in November. Paddlers worldwide will show up to compete at the Nov. 2 Green Race in North Carolina. The question remains: Can the American whitewater proletariat stand up to the international slalom bourgeoisies? Stay tuned to Canoekayak.com to find out.
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