Friday, August 31, 2012

A rookie paddler – My European Story

Hi there guys,

So back  at the end of June (yes that was a while back but better late than never!) the European Championships were held at the Drau Hole in Lienz, Austria. I spent 10 days out there with fellow Nookie paddler Sam Stephenson and other members of team GB having a great time.  As the European Championships was my first international competition; I learnt loads, made lots of new friends and gained valuable experience. This write up is the story of my week (and a bit).

Day 1 – Thursday

I woke up on Thursday morning with mixed feelings; I was excited about heading off in the evening to Austria but also slightly nervous of my last A Level maths exam that afternoon. Two years’ work rested on the hour and a half just after lunch! Fortunately I can say that it went really well and in no time we were in the car driving down to Faulkstone to catch the train that would begin our European travels.

Day 2 – Friday

Friday was a mix of sleepy car travel, traffic jams and torrential rain as we wound our way through; France, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany before finally reaching our final destination in South West Austria. There was only time to put up our tents before collapsing into bed for some much needed sleep.

Day 3 – Saturday

Waking up to 25 degree heat was a nice change from cold, wet and miserable England. Sam and I also got our first look at the hole that would become our showground in the next few days. The banks of the Drau River create a natural theatre with lots of space for sitting and watching the action on river right and the judges tent ideally positioned on river left.

One tool that I use to get to know a new feature is called “hole mapping”, this I find really useful in helping me dial in moves as quickly as possible. It involves drawing a detailed picture or map of the hole and marking on where moves are being hit, where rocks under the water are and any other useful features that can be used to maximise each 45 second ride. I sat developing my maps for that first morning, watching other paddlers and making adjustments as necessary. One thing that was very evident was the variation in water levels. Due to the hydroelectric dam upstream the water could raise by a foot in a matter of minutes, drastically changing the characteristics of the hole. We were guaranteed high water for the competition and team training so there was a flood of paddlers getting on when levels were on the up. When I felt I had gathered as much information as possible I jumped in my kit and hit the water.

The hole was bouncy but good fun! It’s kind of like the second hole at HPP on steroids for those who know it. In these first few days when paddlers are not restricted in paddling time it is vital that run plans start to form and moves get nailed. Throughout the day I did short 30minute paddling sessions with rest in between to maximise my paddling potential. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I was paddling for the C1 team as a reserve… ready to step into action if any of the other GB C1 paddlers were to get injured or have to drop out. So despite not guaranteed to compete I had to train as if I were, a strategy that turned out be important in the end!

Fellow Nookie Team mate Sam Stephenson practicing.

Day 4 – I’m sure you know the days of the week!

Sunday followed in a similar manor with short sharp training sessions however by this point the whole GB team had arrived so there were a few more familiar faces in the eddy. One thing that I found great about the championships was the meeting of new paddlers. With 20 different nations attending there were lots of new friendships made and experiences to share.

Day 5 – The Opening Ceremony

This was the first official day of the championships so the first port of call in the morning was the registration tent to ensure that our names were down on the start lists. It was also the first day of team training. Each team is given 135 seconds per paddler, with team GB being the biggest we had about 70 minutes of paddling in the day. To shorten queues in the eddy we split into four groups of around 10 paddlers… the time really flies! This format really shows the best paddlers who are able to dial in quickly to new features. It was obvious that GB were going to be successful looking at some of the different moves and combos being thrown by our athletes.

Being the biggest nation out at the championships bought a lot of advantages including a great support network. Top coaches Dennis Newton and Sam Ward went through video individually and we talked about plans for the competition. For those of us who had picked up slight injuries over the training period physiotherapist Catharine was there to patch us back up and get us back on the water.
Evening came and so too did the opening ceremony. Held in a mountain top castle (the Schloss Bruck) it was all very James Bond! The festivities started with performances from a local music group dramatics playing a few old kayaks… suppose Pyranhas do have some use! Speeches from local dignities, officials from the ECA and British World Champion Claire O’Hara welcomed us to Lienz and officially opened the 2012 European Championships! I would now like to say that every “athlete” stayed away from the free beer and went straight to bed but I would be lying. Being my first championships I was focused on the paddling but rumour has it that it was a very good night!

Alan Ward certainly had a good evening as when he got back to the campsite at 1am he crawled into my tent to tell me that he wanted to concentrate on his K1 rides and that I would be taking over the OC1 team spot! As wake up calls go, its probably not a bad one!

Team GB

Day 6 – Team Training

An early start followed for team GB as we were second on the water behind the French team.  I was up especially early to try and improve Alan OC1 and make it fit me! With this being the last chance for practice before the competition everyone was anxious to nail their rides, and for me to work out if I could roll the thing! The standard at the end of the session was definitely up for everyone and I was pleased to find out that I could not only roll the boat (most of the time!) but also score a few tricks. Having done OC1 in the British Championships back in 2010 and swam 6 rides out of 6 I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged!
The rest of the day was a case of getting hold of as many airbags, bits of foam and tape as possible to make some adjustments and to reduce the amount of water that the boat could hold. Regulations say that 40l of water must be able to be in the boat with the paddler inside… the Project 64 that Alan had converted held more like 40 gallons!


Day 7 – The Competition Begins

The OC1 category was first up, this was something that I was very happy with as I could wake up, do my rides and not have the whole day worrying. It also meant that I could enjoy the other prelims of the day including the K1W, K1JM, C1 and K1 Squirt.

I turned up at the feature about an hour before the scheduled start time of heat 2 to prepare. The boats had to be checked and verified that they complied with regulations and I had to get into the right physical and mental state to compete. Sam Ward was there with me to ready myself for my first international competition. I did a really good warm up and then a few yoga relaxation techniques to calm down a little. I kept out the way of the other competitors and crowd so I had no idea how the first heat went. This was a planned part of my preparation as not to distract me from my run plan. I practiced my run on the bank imagining each move and paddle stroke that I planned to do. I felt a great sense of pride pulling on bib 145 as competing for GB had been an aim of mine for about 4 years. This was my time to represent the 62 million people in the UK.
Looking back my rides were a bit of a blur. I remember that I really enjoyed the support of the crowd and generally had a really great fun time! As this was my first real OC1 competition experience I placed no pressure on myself to perform and this really helped as I could just enjoy every moment. The results followed soon after and we were all gathering round the board. I had come 2nd! I was going to be in a European Championship final with a chance of a medal! I will admit to a bit of emotion and even sat here writing this almost 2 months later it still brings a tear to my eye.

I could now relax and enjoy the rest of the day… and what a day it was! Paul King of GB had also made the OC1 final just ahead of me in 1st. Other brilliant performances were from the GB junior men (including fellow Nookie team mate Sam Stephenson) who all progressed in the top 4 spots! Adam Ramadam and Jack Gunter made the C1 semis, as did Ben Aldred and Tom Godard in the squirt. In the women’s category Claire O’Hara progressed through the semi -finals in second place.

OC1 heats

Day 8 – Rest Day, for me at any rate!

Although this may have been a rest day for me, it wasn’t for most of the paddlers at the ECA European Championships. First up were the junior ladies and with British interest in the form of Kim Aldred and Jen Mcgally. Needless to say neither let the side down and progressed into the finals. The biggest category was up next, the K1 men’s event. I was in the judges tent scribing for Shep all day so got to see the standard from the other side of the bank. There were so many big moves being thrown with scores passing the 1000 point barrier. James “Pringle” Bebbington managed to lay down some great rides and secure his place in the quarter finals along with the other members of the GB senior team who were James Weight, Andy Brinkley and Alan Ward. Unfortunately Gav Barker, who has been battling an injury for the past few days did not quite make the cut but still put down some solid rides. Another great day for team GB!

 James Weight during the Men's Semis 

Day 9 – My Final

Day 9 was a whole mix of quarter finals, semis and finals. Up first were the men in the quarter finals. This was a very tough cut from 20 down to 10. Once again the standard was unbelievable high!  British athlete James Weight topped the table with the remaining three Brits all making the semis. The junior men once again pulled out all the stocks in the semis with Bren, James and Sam taking the top three spots. Unfortunately Brandon just missed out but finished a respectable 7th place. GB were not so lucky in the C1 with both Adam and Jack missing the cut but both had a really good run at it. In the men’s squirt semi Tom Goddard managed to hurt his back in the local swimming pool so was unable to compete but Ben Aldred stormed his way into the final. Up next was the women’s semi-final. With Claire being the only Brit left in the competition all hopes were resting on her shoulders and we were hoping that she could pull out another winning performance. Unfortunately this was not to be and Claire missed out on the finals but she still had the squirt final the next day to look forward to. The men were back in action with the last semi of the competition. With 4 athletes still left in statistically we were statistically going to get 2 in the final… and we did! The two James both hit solid rides to take them through. The first final of the competition was the women’s squirt final with British athlete and world champion Claire O’Hara tipped for taking the win… and she did so in style! Claire left the others trailing with a huge 1072 point ride to Eva Filova’s second place 261,670 and Nuria Fontane’s 173,330. Could Ben Aldred of GB also get in the mix for a medal? Yes he could! Ben linked nice ends and got a good mystery move to get GB their second gold of the competition!

Sam with coach Dennis

Up next was my final, the OC1 final. I had spent the day chilling in the pool and cheering on some of the others. I went through the same preparation as previously. I was really excited about the thought of possibly getting a medal so I was really fired up. Once again the experience was a bit of a blur! The main difference with the finals is that each competitor’s score gets read out after each ride so a target is set. In the first rides the scores were similar to the heats but once the second rides started the scores just kept going up and up! Seeing a OC1 boat loop is very impressive and hugely difficult move to do but the top two managed it. With my final ride approaching and after a discussion with Coach Sam I threw caution to the wind, scrapped my run plan and planned to go for the loop. Paddling such a big boat it was always going to be a long shot and it proved to be a little too far and I ended up in the drink… but all was not lost! I was back in the eddy with 20 seconds on the clock. I jumped on my boat hand paddling up the eddy and managed to get back in a kneeling position. With cheers from the crowd I went back in the feature, without any straps, and so nearly threw down a cartwheel. I had no chance of rolling so I now believe I am the owner of the title to be the first person to swim twice in an international freestyle competition! Yeh! In the end I finished in 5th which I was mighty happy with as I turned up not expecting to compete at all. It was a great experience and a memory that I will treasure. 

Ready to enter the feature
After the final

Day 10 – Finals and Closing Ceremony

There were a few sore heads the following morning from the so called “losers party” which was a great night out in Lienz with lots of new friendships being made. For those who had finals however had no such issues as they were sent for an early night and a good sleep.

Once again I was in the judges tent which was a fantastic experience learn from. First up were the junior women. After the previous night’s rain storm the water was murky brown but this did not put off Nuria Fontane from Spain who took first place a whole 110 points ahead of Lisa Hasselwander (GER) in second and Jans Groß (GER) in third. Kim Aldred just missed out on a medal by 3.33 points and finished in fourth with Jen close behind finishing 5th in her first international competition.

The junior men were up next… and what a competition it was. We were guaranteed at least one medal but looking at the heats and semis we were expecting much more. There was a very close fought battle for first place with Bren beating James by 1.66 points in the end. Sam also put down a stormer of a last ride taking him into the bronze medal position! The other athletes from Belgium and Norway had no answer to the supremacy of the Brits!
3 Brits on the podium! 

C1 and womens finals followed the junior men but with no British interest it gave us a chance to take a breath from hollering loudly! Lukas Cervinka of the Czech Republic CZE won the C1 with 461,667 points closely followed by Philipp Hitzigrath of Germany and Aitor Goikotxea of Spain. In the final the hot favourite Marlene Devillez of Fracne took the win followed by Nina Csonkova  of Slovakia and Maria Lindgren of Sweeden.

Last up, the main event, the K1 men’s final. In the judges tent we were expecting high scores but when Quim Fontane dropped into the hole on his first ride we were not prepared for the massive 1170 points! The others tried their very best to beet this score but it was a gap to far as Sebastien Devred of Frace finished in the silver medal position with 926,667 points and James “Pringle” Bebbington of GB finished in third with 895 points.

With all the medals accounted for this is the most successful championships for team GB in freestyle history. The other countries were probably getting quite tired of seeing the Union Jack up the flag pole by the end of the closing ceremony! This final hurrah was a great way to end the week which consisted more speeches from local dignities and ECA officials, live music from a local band and another good night in Lienz. I think the smiles on the faces of everyone in the pictures says it all.

Men's K1

Men's Squirt 

 Junior Men

Women's Squirt 


Josh Wedgwood,
Team Nookie