I paddled my first slalom session at the new Lea Valley Whitewater Centre last weekend. It was only my second time on the course, and a slalom K1 was a bit more challenging than paddling my creek boat during the assessment session the weekend before.After I’d been paddling for about an hour, Dave Florence got on the water.Dave paddles C1 and C2, and won the silver medal in C1 at the Beijing Olympics. I know him from my days as a sport psychologist working with the British slalom team, and he was generous enough to let me tag along during his training session.He was going to do six runs down the main course, made up of eight upstream gates, broken down into two half courses with four gates in each.I managed just three runs, trailing distantly in his wake before I stopped. This is not a course where you can coast, and after 90 minutes of paddling my arms had nothing left.I figured if I kept going I was either going to take a swim or get run over by a raft – neither a good look.

It was great to see Dave fly down the course, nailing the upstream gates with a single stroke and treating the stoppers with disdain. I remembered a training session I did 30 years ago with US C1 paddler Jon Lugbill when he first visited Australia.I was training for the 1981 Australian Championships in Nymboida, northern New South Wales where I hoped to qualify for the Australian team to race at the Bala World Championships.It was a hot day, and a couple of us were working hard on a flatwater gate session. Over 40 – 50 seconds there wasn’t much between me in a kayak and Jon in a C1.I remember saying to Jon “isn’t it a bit boring for you here because there’s no-one to beat?” referring to the fact that none of the local C1 paddlers could come close to the reigning world champion.Jon just smiled and said “but you’re beating me”.He wasn’t concerned about what sort of boat someone was paddling, he just wanted to be the fastest guy on the water.I mentioned this session to Dave, and he asked whether I saw Jon race at the 89 Worlds. This was the race where Lugbill put down what is considered to be the best slalom run of all time.I was there, and remember him making a tough course on the Savage River look as easy as one of those flat-water sequences from 8 years before.

I drove home from Lea Valley feeling a deep ache throughout my back, shoulders and arms.Almost as deep as the feeling of satisfaction that came from realising I’d trained with the world’s best slalom paddlers, 30 years apart. A nice perspective to reflect on….