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Racing Wildwater in Europe

by Peter Lutter
2009 USA Wildwater Junior Team Member

August 14, 2009 -- Bethesda, MD

Last month in Switzerland, after I finished 19th in a 21 minute classic race at the Junior World Wildwater Championships, behind all 4 French paddlers, my dad came up to me with a big grin on his face. Trying to console me because he knew I had been trying to finish better, he asked, “How many competitors show up for the French National Championships?” The answer, courtesy of a French official, was that several hundred paddlers competed at the cadet level (14 and under). But this competition was not even an open race! The cadet paddlers had first to qualify in a regional race that they could enter only after doing well in a local race! I guess we knew we were not in Maryland anymore, where kayaking is popular but wildwater racers are so rare I have paddled just once with two other junior boys on a river.

Later, after my stronger finish in the sprint, my dad, who loves France from having lived there when he was my age, came to me again after my sprint race and exclaimed excitedly, “Pete, you beat two French guys!” I laughed and said, “Nope, I beat three.” Of course I did get beat by three Germans. And all of us got beat very badly by a Slovenian who took first by over three and a half seconds (or almost 1.4 percent!).

Paddling at the Junior World Championships this year was a great experience for a lot of reasons. It really showed me the payoff from all the hours of training since I paddled at the Junior Worlds in Charlotte in 2007. Finding regular wildwater paddling partners on the Potomac is hard, so I joined the Washington Canoe Club, and trained flatwater four mornings a week before school since the first day of school last year. Flatwater paddlers care about boat speed, since picking the right line means simply going straight. So my technique and fitness improved a lot. Lifting weights when the river was frozen helped a lot too, except when the barbells in the club were so cold that they stuck to my fingers. I trained slalom too, which helped with acceleration, boat control, and confidence in whitewater. But the best part of the flatwater training was the competition with other paddlers under the supervision of a coach, Darek Oberski, who knows the sport well and who cares about paddlers.

The generosity and camaraderie among paddlers from various countries was wonderful. It was great fun to paddle in Europe with other athletes from across the US. But even more fun was competing again against some top Europeans whom I have known since 2007. Sharing meals and experiences with paddlers, coaches and parents from Ireland, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, and Great Britain, left me with friends in places I hope to visit in the future.

While I have enjoyed some great opportunities to train and race in Italy and Switzerland, the European paddling community is so generous my boat has traveled to even more European countries. Before I first saw it at the EU Junior Championship last year, it had passed through four sets of hands, moving from the Czech Republic, where we had bought it without inspecting it, to Italy. Near strangers passed the boat along, never asking for compensation. I found it in a parking lot, right where it was supposed to be, the day after I arrived, due largely to the efforts of Maurizio Tognacci, who had choreographed its travel arrangements. This year my boat also traveled from Buochs, Switzerland, where a local Swiss coach had stored it all winter, to Italy on top of the car of a different Swiss coach, who refused my offer of gas money or dinner. I am very thankful that my boat traveled through Europe unscathed, especially after I witnessed one of the Italian Kayak Federation’s trailers become detached from the van towing it and hit another vehicle. The accident destroyed all the boats including a race boat bound for world championships. After the last race in Buochs last month, I asked a Spanish coach if he would be willing to take the boat to Spain, and store it until the following summer. He said he would gladly take my boat to Spain and that it would be waiting for me or any other American paddler for Senior World Championships and graciously declined an offer of gas money.

Drama is one of the big differences in racing in the US and in Europe. Plenty of spectators as well as family members come to cheer their hometown heroes, especially when they do well against the traditional top countries. Their excitement also comes from the use of instantaneous, automatic timing, with results shown on a giant screen by the river. Immediately after finishing he could see his place, his time and the times of the other current top ten finishers. During the sprint there was additional excitement, because competitors were seeded based on their individual performance during the classic race. Thus paddlers were in a sense expected to be (temporarily) in first place at the time of their personal finish. And if their lead was big, spectators quite properly expected them to stay in first for a while. Paddlers from around the world watched in delight or horror, as their names slowly moved back or stayed in position.

Once I got home after the race some people asked, “How did you manage to perform so well?” I would reply with three reasons: flatwater, parents, and Andrew McEwan. I have already talked about flatwater training. The role of parents is pretty self-explanatory: They help with rides to the river at 6 am, and traveling to races here and in Europe. Andrew McEwan, last but not least, was not only a great coach, but also provided constant motivation. I was always looking to beat him in local and regional races, something that proved harder then I originally thought. Andrew also proved to me that an American wildwater paddler can compete on the highest international level. I would like to give some special thanks to the Bethesda Center of Excellence and USA Wildwater for their generous help with expenses. I wish the Junior National team the best of luck for 2011 and I encourage them to train their hardest and try to beat some French paddlers!