ICF FREESTYLE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS 2017 – SAN JUAN ARGENTINA
A month in the sun, perhaps returning as a world medalist, was the perfect ending to 2017 I had been dreaming about for many months; but as our flight out of a cold UK made a hasty retreat to Heathrow with engine problems to be met by fire trucks just getting to Argentina for the World Championships would be success enough.
24 hours later we are off again and a mere 14 hours across the Atlantic we make it to Santiago, Chile. Why Chile you might wonder, isn’t the competition in Argentina? Well yes but the closest international flights are to Buenos Aires, a brief 12 hour drive to the competition venue, or Santiago which is a lot closer but separated by the Andes mountains and a potentially painful border crossing.
Whilst some of the the GB team elected for more flights, Dad thought driving over the Andes might just be on his bucket list so with a rented pick up truck we set off with Nicky and Giles on board for some moral support on the journey ahead. As it turns out Nicky can spot cyclists and llamas at huge distances and was a great co-pilot except when distracted by trains.
The notorious border crossing proved relatively uneventful if somewhat bureaucratic with the same documents seemingly checked 3 or 4 times by different people each armed with a different stamp.
Bureaucracy behind us the drive down from the peaks of the Andes crossing truly was beautiful and after a few hours we thought we had pretty much arrived except our satnav decided to give us the full show with an 85 km detour totally off the beaten and tarmac track that it thought we might enjoy. Luckily for the satnav this detour proved to be an absolute highlight as we meandered up and down dirt tracks, canyons and mountain passes through the foothills of the Andes spotting herds of Llamas (or maybe Alpacas?), crashed cars and huge views.
Finally about 12 hours after landing we arrive in San Juan in the dark with just enough time drop off weary travel companions, say hello to Claire’ O and check into our hotel, well after a quick scout of the feature obviously!
Next day sets the tone for the next month with blue skies, mid thirties sunshine and an almost perfect freestyle feature 5 minutes from our basecamp. Whilst we have arrived almost three weeks before the competition starts, the feature is buzzing with international paddlers and kayaking royalty including numerous reigning world champions so it is a little difficult not to be intimidated. With a friendly crowd I quickly settle in and I know almost immediately it is really going to suit the British paddlers, especially those who train at Nottingham’s HPP inlet gate. That said the feature does have a few quirks including one shallow spot that seems keen to take a bite out of any carbon boats plugging in the wrong spot and a small flushy area that can catch you out if not careful. Luckily Dad has supplies of his much loved T Rex tape that keeps my Rockstar and a few other boats in one piece and I work on not flushing as much as possible. I recently changed to longer Ophion paddles and the bigger blades and extra leverage definitely helped recover from many a near flush.
Training begins with a few days of really over doing it learning the feature and having massive fun followed by a day or two of active rest exploring the desert moonscape and catching up with the rest of the GB team as they arrive with tales of missing boats and lost luggage all thankfully resolved as training becomes more formal and the feature gets ever busier. With well over a hundred competitors the line up queues become excessive with often 20 plus paddlers waiting for a ride meaning one two hour session gives me 4 rides on the feature in the heat of the day.
By now my LVPC paddle buddy Ben C1 Pamplin has arrived with full support crew of dad Chris and “Auntie Jan” so to avoid the queues we go nocturnal, paddling between 10pm and midnight and the occasional very early start putting extra strain on our coaching team of Den, Jacko and Bruce who seemed to be working 24 hours a day with little rest making sure everyone got the help they need.
With a few days to go before the competition starts the venue suddenly takes shape with grandstands, coaching areas, media areas and judges platform appearing overnight along with team tents turning the San Juan kayak club into a small village by the river. Shortly afterwards formal team training begins with each nation having a specific time slot on the feature run with military precision by team manager Tim giving each athlete 5 or 6 forty five second runs in competition simulation. This might not sound much time and it isn’t but by now, for me at least, the intensive training is done and it is time to save energy and be fresh and ready to go massive in competition.
Before that though we have the traditional opening ceremony with athlete parade, speeches, Tango (dancing not fizz), acrobats and fireworks followed by a party outside the beautiful San Juan Theatre and civic centre but a reasonably early night is necessary with the competition beginning for me the next day.
With saving energy in mind it seems weird I decide at the last minute to enter the squirt boat competition. I was entered but intended to withdraw as it had proved impossible to get my squirt boat to Argentina with British Airways due to its length but in an extremely generous move Clay Wright offered me the use of his boat. So day one was all squirt boat and despite struggling with the size of Clay’s boat compared to my own Murky Waters Slip and lack of preparation I managed to place 7th in prelims and progressed to the semi’s. In the semi’s I missed out on my mystery moves and didn’t progress any further but it was a great day capped by Claire and Clay going on to both take Gold in their finals and Clay really freaking out the crowd with a huge 20 second plus mystery move. Congratulations to British paddlers Alex and David for taking silver and bronze and fellow ASP athlete Anna Bruno for taking the bronze in the ladies.
Getting serious now the following day brings float boat prelims. Whilst I was confident of making the necessary top 10 to reach semi’s I really wanted to see how Sage, reigning world champ and Jackson Kayak teammate and I would finally compare after months of speculation and comparison. Would I be in the same league as the experienced champion or would I have a massive mountain to climb? Well I came in second, perhaps as expected, but I did score the highest individual run so I slept well that night.
A couple of days later it became even more serious with the field due to be cut to five for the following finals. In brief I bagged second again but this time my best score was just over 70 points behind Sage so not a lot in it , one basic trick perhaps, but I was still disappointed as I still hadn’t managed to put my full run together.
In a flash it was finals day and the realisation that months of training, weeks of coaching with Dennis Newton of Sweetwater coaching and the ASP plus huge support from Aaron and Rhona at Squarerock would all come down to three 45 second runs to decide the World Champion. I knew in my heart I could do it but I also knew I still hadn’t been able to get my full ride in the previous rounds.
As usual I just decided to go for it, have fun and see what happens but with Lowri Davies on the live commentary it was really great to have a friendly voice in my head just before my runs.
With Claire and Den on the coaching platform and support crew in the stands I was fourth to go with just Sage behind me and by my turn I had 240 to beat. My first run was a pretty solid 480, enough for first place with Sage hitting 377 in her first ride. My second ride was better still at 553 with a huge loop, two McNasties and a space Godzilla but annoyingly a silly flush at 30 seconds cost me my second Godzilla and my back loop but i was happy to remain on top after two rides.
My third and final ride didn’t improve and I had about five minutes agony waiting whilst Sage took her final ride and the judges deliberated on the score. I knew Sage’s ride had a lot of tricks but I also knew ICF judges demand perfection when it comes to landing angles so I thought it was going to be very close.
In disbelief I finally saw the scores on the huge screen on the far bank and I could hear but not fully believe Den and Claire telling me I was World Champion plus Lowri telling everyone else over the speakers. As I write this I’m actually still slightly in disbelieve and have to pinch myself now and then but I’m pretty sure now it is for real!
The rest of the day and night passed in a blur with media interviews, more finals, award ceremonies and a final party. The GB Team had massive success with first place overall in the medals table with double Gold for Claire O’Hara, Silver for Squarerock teammate Alex Walters and Bronze for ASP teammate Harry Price plus a memorable massive ride from the ASP’s Rob Crowe in semi’s taking him through to the finals in second spot against the very best in the world.
A massive congratulations to Quim, Claire, Dane and Tom and to everyone else who competed.
So that was it, one month, 15,000 miles, one gold medal and World Champion title, amazing memories and meeting many of my heroes. Thanks to everyone mentioned and many many more beside who have helped, supported and encouraged me over the last few years.