Sunday, July 5, 2015

Making the US Freestyle team

The 2015 World Freestyle championships are to be held on Garberateur wave on the Ottawa. Team trials for the US team were thus scheduled for the only consistent wave that anyone knew of in anything like the right time of the year: the Glenwood wave. I heard about these decisions sometime in late 2014, and instantly thought to myself that this would be an event to train for. I graduated from CSU in May of 2014 and was going to spend the next year or so just focusing on paddling. I primarily paddle the Fluid Element, which is a surfboat/playboat hybrid, and excels on waves like Glenwood which are a little flat and slow. I would be coming to the event in pretty good physical condition, and would have had a lot of time before the event to work on my freestyle moves. I didn't really think that I could make it, but I knew that my chances were better than they had ever been. My goal wasn't necessarily to make the team, but to paddle at my full potential, and maybe make the top 10.

Team trials had been held at the Glenwood wave several years ago, around 2008. That year, I was in the Nemesis, which is a pretty slow boat, and had a very hard time doing tricks in the main wave. I spent all my practice time over on the far side of the river, messing around in the far stickier but not as good section of the wave. This way, I avoided the crowds, but also didn't really prepare myself for the event. When the competition came, I missed the wave for many of my rides and only got a blunt or two, which put me near the bottom of the pack. I was really stoked to see Jonny Meyers absolutely crush it that year. He went on to place really high at worlds. If I remember right, he took fifth over in Thun.

David Spiegel helping train at Skookumchuck.

In the fall of 2014, I started training. I spent a few weeks at Skookumchuck, dialing in my clean blunt based on some new advice from Adrian Mattern. Skook as it dies out is pretty similar to Glenwood. I had spent a lot of time on Outrageous on the Slave river, which is a big flat wave, and had worked on doing tricks with less wasted time inbetween. I'd had a bit of a breakthrough with boat stability, and was starting to be able to recover from one trick fast enough to throw another on the next pass down the wave. At skook I started trying imaginary competition rides where I would stitch together my most consistent moves. I started to get optimistic.

For the winter months, I moved to Hood River. My plan was to make sure to get into my playboat at least twice a week. There are a couple really nice waves near Portland, and there's always the coast for good playboating. This plan lasted precisely zero weeks. Instead, I spent all my time on the Green Truss and the Little White Salmon. I did manage to get in a little playboating, with a couple trips over to the Washougal and one outing to the Deschutes river. Over Christmas, we headed up and took a few more days at Skookumchuck. Basically, although I paddled plenty, and got in a little playboating, I was not really training. I started to feel like I wouldn't do so well at Team Trials. My housemate David Spiegel was highly optimistic every time we paddled. He kept saying that I was a shoe-in. The encouragement was great, but I honestly didn't think that I had all that good of a chance. Wave boating has progressed in the last few years and I wasn't sure that I'd kept up.

In the early spring, I had an unexpected opportunity to work at World Class Academy, a traveling kayak high school. I was really excited for this chance, although we would finish the quarter very close to when Team Trials were scheduled. I knew that teaching at WCA would mean less training, but I figured that my chances weren't that good anyway, and this was a more important life move. I took the job. We had an awesome quarter, and I had a lot of fun meeting all the kids and traveling around. Unfortunately, we only ended up playboating three days during the whole quarter, and I missed one of those days due to a cracked boat. My training schedule was even more shot. The one really positive benefit of WCA was the rigorous physical training. Quinn Connell was head coach and often led the morning workouts, and that man is a machine. I almost doubled the number of pushups that I could do.

Not-too-uncommon WCA class portrait.  No play waves in sight.

Once back in Colorado, I was dealing with a lot of other things. We were moving out of our house in Fort Collins, I was trying to start to do some very late cardio training for the 26 mile race at Fibark, and I had fallen behind on lots of social media and photography stuff. However, I managed to get to Glenwood a few days early, and fell into a schedule of early paddling in the morning, then dealing with other crap in the afternoon. The most fun was when Natalie and I would get up super early and paddle my mom's downriver boats from her house to the wave, then surf a bit until the crowds showed up. I was feeling good, but knew that a lot of the heavy hitters were lurking nearby and not practicing when I was.

On the day of the event, I was surprised to see how few competitors there were. Since the event was being put on by Peter Benedict and the Carbondale high school CRMS (my own alma mater), instead of being sponsored by the city of Glenwood Springs, the organizers were trying to keep the event as small as possible. People not eligible to actually paddle on the team were discouraged from competing, leaving a select core that was missing a couple really good international paddlers but had some really good US paddlers. I started looking around and mentally trying to rank myself, and although I was excited, I still didn't think that I was going to make it. I would watch people paddle, and everyone had at least one trick that I couldn't do, which made me want to rank myself below them. I recognized this mistake at the time, but still was able to pick out at least 5 competitors that could beat me easily. There were only 5 seats on the team. I wasn't discouraged, since my goal wasn't to make the team but to paddle at my best, but I wasn't thinking that I would make it.
Competitors getting ready in the upper eddy.

Finally, all this preparation, from surfing before dawn in Canada to doing pushups with highschoolers in California, came to its culmination, and the first heat entered the water. First up was Stephen Wright. He opened with a really precise and fast series of helices and flipturns. I had thought that since the flipturn and helix are so similar, you couldn't score both in the same ride. USACK does this with the airscrew and the donkey flip, since both are barrel rolls. One is from hull to hull, and one lands on the sidewall. If you stick a donkey flip and an airscrew to the same side in the same ride, you only count the highest scoring version. I had assumed that under the ICF rules, the helix and flipturn would work the same way, since the flipturn is sort of a helix where you don't finish the rotation. However, watching Stephen's ride, it was clear that I was wrong and that you could score both. I waited until a quick break between rides and verified this with Hojo and Matt, who were running the scoring software. This changed my plan for my ride.

Hojo and Matt, clearly in perfect control of all aspects of the scoring.

I got in my boat and paddled around above the wave, warming up and watching the rides. I looked at a few more of Stephen's rides, and thought to myself, "I can do that". Each of his opening moves was in my list of dependable tricks. Eventually the first heat finished and my heat got ready to compete. I watched more good paddlers, but didn't try to keep track of how I might be doing. I just thought about my own rides. The actual competition is a bit of a blur for me, but I knew that I had a lot of helices and flipturns, and some flashbacks and a couple donkey flips. My big advantage was that the Element is really good at boosting out of the water for helices, so I could consistently get some bonuses on those. I started to get stoked.

Helix one way

Helix the other way

Donkey flip

Once I was done with my prelims rides, I went and sat in the shade with Natalie and my mom. Natalie's morning hadn't gone all that well, with her not being able to fire off her helices quite fast enough. We sat around and took some photos, just relaxing and drinking gatorade. Since I was done paddling for that round, someone from the judges' stand gave me the down low that I was currently sitting in fifth place. I was floored, and the relaxed mood certainly changed a lot. My backband had snapped during my last prelims ride, so I scrambled around trying to find replacement parts before the next round. Jordan Poffenburger had an extra ratchet in his truck, which totally saved me.

Natalie in her rides.

After the final prelims heat finished, they announced the names of the top 10 who were moving on to semifinals. I hopped in my boat and tried very hard to maintain a good mental state. On the one hand, if I was in fifth, I had shown that I had a chance of making it. On the other hand, if I messed up I could lose it all. I tried to just focus on how I had been able to do my tricks every time, and think about how in one sense, I had already finished, because my goal had been to paddle well and I already had. I really tried hard not to think about the high stakes. This round would decide the top five, which also meant that this round decided the team.

I was in the second heat of semifinals, and watched the first heat kill it. Clay Wright put down a really impressive ride and was in first after that heat. I took my rides and did ok, didn't have my absolute best performance. I was happy and released the tension I had accumulated. Either way, I was done. As I climbed out, my mom came over and said that now that she'd heard that I was in sixth, which was the last spot on the team (Dane Jackson was in first but since he was reigning world champ, he goes to worlds automatically and didn't take up one of the team spots. So the five team seats were second to sixth place.) The only person left that could eliminate me was Stephen Wright. He'd had a weirdly bad ride for his first semifinal ride and was slightly behind me. Natalie and Ann were getting all excited but I kept telling them to calm down, because Stephen was one of the best paddlers in the world. I was stoked to have come so close to making the team, but I knew that I was done. We all sat together and watched Stephen's final ride. To everyone's surprise, he again flushed off the wave very early in his ride, only getting his opening moves (which was my entire ride). The base scores of our two rides were very close. We'd both done the same tricks, but we could have different bonuses. There were a tense few moments while we waited for the scores to come in, then when the announcement came, Ann and Natalie erupted and started grabbing my arms and cheering. I had made the team.

Didn't have any photos of Stephen, so here is a Paul Palmer making a funny face.

I have mixed feelings about making the team this way. Obviously I'm excited to be able to paddle at worlds, but Stephen is clearly a better paddler than I am. I kind of feel like I stole his spot on the team. I don't feel bad enough to withdraw from the team or anything, but I do feel like if we turned back time and ran team trials again, Stephen could beat me. However, the UK team had some plans for situations like this, with some complicated system of minimum scores and secondary events, to ensure that their team is the most consistent team possible. There was a little scandal in the kayaking world when Craig Ayres did well at the UK selection event, but didn't make the team because of the other parts of their selection system. When I had heard about this, I had sided with keeping him on the team (although I don't know all the details, of course). I'm glad that here, although I clearly just had one lucky day, I still get to go represent the USA at world championships this fall.

Here are a couple photos from the event.