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!