BY CHRIS GRAGTMANS
The Whitewater Grand Prix is a unique competition for a lot of reasons.
But the one that stands out most is the clear juxtaposition: On one hand you've got an extremely small, intimate event with no spectators; then you factor the design of an event geared toward its broadcast to the digital world. The energy is a type all its own with a structure more like a free-formed paddling trip than a typically regulated competition—and with all the proceedings captured by the best media pros in the biz. As a competitor in the inaugural 2011 event, a lot of my unforgettable memories stored away swelled back to the surface as I finished the long drive north once again. Last week's practice sessions were a definite indicator that things are getting real in Canada. And as the two-week, multi-stage competition officially begins today, I can't wait to see what this third Grand Prix installment has in store.
Here are a few things to watch out for:
Water Levels. Eastern Canada has had a record snowpack this winter, and the rivers are guaranteed to be bigger than kayakers have ever seen them. The Ottawa River, where the event starts, is already near peak spring-flood levels, but the actual 2014 peak is probably still three weeks off. Farther north in Lac St. Jean (site of the final stages of the 2011 Grand Prix), there are still snowstorms occurring, and the melt has not really kicked in. All of that kinetic energy is waiting, buried under thick layers of snow; when the full brunt of this energy hits, it will be colossal. For the athletes, this translates to apprehension, excitement, innovation, and focus. The opening party on Saturday night was a good indicator of exactly that volatile emotional mixture: total unadulterated stoke.
Schedule. Event Stages 1 and 2 will be the Ottawa River freestyle (Big Trick Contest) and the Rouge River Boatercross, respectively. This weekend, we sat at an in-between level (too high for Mini-bus, too low for Big Bus and Gladiator), but as the water kept pushing its way through the reservoirs upstream, luck would have it that the legendary Gladiator wave reared its head for today's first day of competition.
Roster. This competition is a who's who list of the kayaking industry and a good gauge of the best all-around kayaker in the world. Through big-trick contests, giant slalom, boatercross, time trials, and freestyle showdowns, the Grand Prix rewards consistency and breadth of skill better than any other event in the sport. The invitational roster reflects this: There is no fluff whatsoever (see the full roster HERE). Competitor ages range from 19 to 50, and embedded in that field is an unbelievable amount of experience and accomplishment. A closer look:
Exhibit A) The 19-year-olds. The trio of Galen Volckhausen, Bren Orton, and Kalob Grady are repping it for the young bucks. All are extremely talented and hungry paddlers, and I'm calling Kalob out now as the dark horse for a Top 5 overall finish. Fortunately, these guys are in fact old enough to legally drink Canadian beer, and they've been enjoying that privilege.
B) The Girls. I'm very excited to watch the women's field throw down and battle for the title. Returning champ Lou Urwin has a cheerfully confident style that is tough to beat, but there are lots of girls who will set the bar high. I've been training with Adriene Levknecht all winter, and she is tough as nails and very ready for this event.
C) The Heavies. Ben Marr, Dane Jackson, Nick Troutman, and the Serrasolses brothers are my guesses for the overall title. Dane has won the last two Grand Prix events, and is the favorite here as well. This field is ready to capitalize on any slipup though, and it will be awesome to watch it play out.
As I shut things down for the evening and get ready to compete, I'm just extremely stoked about what the next two weeks will hold. With the group assembled, and the natural playgrounds that are opening up for us with these water levels, the paradigms of our sport have the potential to shift. It should be a wild ride!
Stay tuned CanoeKayak.com for Stage result recaps, and click HERE to follow the official coverage of the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix.
Click HERE to read about last year's historic Ottawa River runoff
And HERE to read about the last 2012 Grand Pix in Chile.