Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day -or- U.S. Slalom Team Trials

Pivot turns, precision, finesse and fast lines have always drawn me to the sport of slalom kayaking. I’ve dreamt of training and racing for years, but I’ve never been able to figure out how. The more I tried, the more I ran into dead ends. Finding a boat with modern dimensions and within a recent college graduate’s budget seemed out of reach. Getting some sort of coaching, other than by my brother, or finding a slalom community, other than my brother, was proving impossible in California. Expanding my slalom racing experience to more than just the American River Festival (to my dismay the Tobin race and the Cherry Creek race are not slalom races) meant that I needed to find where other Americans were practicing this sport.

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Where do I even start? The whitewater world and the slalom world are so separate that even though I was thoroughly apart of the whitewater community, I knew no one that had answers of where to train slalom, who to train with, and how the hell to get a boat… Until I found myself play boating on the Zambezi. It was there that I met a dirty Brit named Fergus Coffey who had all of my answers. Ferg is the slalom coach for junior boys, and the Head of the Paddle Sports department at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He told me to come out and he would find me a place to stay, give me some work doing kayak instruction, and I could paddle with the jr. boys and get coaching. What are the odds! Sometimes answers come in places I’d least expect. 

A boat fell into my hands in similar fashion. A couple of months before we headed to the Zambezi, my boyfriend, Sam, our friend, Evan, and I were driving back to California from a Fall season of video boating on the Gauley. We stopped at the Nantahala River for a quick play boating session, when I looked over to the shore and saw a slalom kayaker getting ready to paddle. My heart just about skipped a beat. So I sprinted over, jumped out of my boat and ran to his car. “Hi, sir!” I must have said, overly excited. I explained to him that I really wanted to get into slalom but I didn’t have a boat and had no clue how to get one. Well, talk about being at the right place at the right time, or ask and you shall receive. I had just met Allen Mayers, the distributor of Nelo slalom kayaks for the U.S. He told me that if I was serious, he knew of a gal who was selling her boat, and she was just about my size. She special ordered the boat and it came in the wrong color, so she didn’t want it. It also had a superficial crack on the cockpit, so I was able to buy it for half price. Still not quite recent college graduate’s budget, but I was willing to eat PB&J’s for as long as I needed to in order to make it work.

With a boat, the possibility of a community to train with, and a place to stay, I headed East to North Carolina. The National Whitewater Center has two man made channels that are filled by six huge water pumps. The pumps turn on, fill up the top pond, and then slowly begin to rush down the competition channel and the wilderness channel, meeting back up at the bottom pond. The wilderness channel is somewhat meandering with gentle eddy lines and some good surf holes. The competition channel is about a football field long, with continuous class III and IV features. Artificial courses have an unpredictable surge and power that most real rivers don’t have. The surge, mixed with boils, powerful eddy lines, and the push of the water are just some of the factors that make paddling the channel well difficult. The excessive amounts of concrete, spectators, the US team, and limited paddling time make paddling the channel really intimidating. 

I got to the Center and initially felt like a fish out of water. the courses that were set were frustrating, I had trouble just paddling the whitewater without flipping or breaking my boat, none the less worrying about a gate. How could kayaking feel so foreign? I had envisioned myself going out and totally slaying, being the mystery girl from California that was insanely fast and beautiful to watch on the water, and I got massively slayed. By 15 year olds… by 11 year olds… by the concrete and the eddy lines and the plastic bollards and the stage parents. But I came out East. I gave it my all. I got coaching, got stronger and more proficient in a slalom boat, and didn’t flip at Big Drop at Olympic trials. I did slay, and I need to remind myself that I can’t compare myself to the athletes that have dedicated their whole lives to this sport, because I’ve just begun. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Anna can’t make the US Team after training for 3 weeks.

Author Anna Wagner grew up in Northern California, works as a whitewater photographer and generally just kicks butt at living life to the fullest.

All words and images copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2016. All rights reserved.