On holiday earlier this month I returned to my old slalom-training course at the Broken Bridge on Tasmania’s Derwent River. I joined in a session run by Peter Eckhardt and Dave Borojevic, long-time paddling friends who are doing a fantastic job coaching a new generation of enthusiastic and talented young slalom paddlers. Several of them will be competing at the Junior World Champs in Wausau later this year, and I’m looking forward to showing them around Lea Valley when they come to London to prepare for the 2015 senior worlds.
I was staying with Pete and his family, so I found myself in an impromptu boot-camp as I tried to keep up with the juniors’ training and testing programme for a couple of days. This was both hugely enjoyable and somewhat humbling. I discovered that although my general aerobic fitness is pretty good, my results on the flatwater-testing (a 60 metre anaerobic power test and a 300 metre endurance test, comprising laps over a 20 metre course) put me on a par with 14-year-old Kate Eckhardt. I’m not sure whether this was good news for me or for her. I was a bit hung-over and didn’t go near the gym testing, which involved maximal efforts over two minutes for bench press, bench pulls and chin-ups. I wanted to be able to move without pain for the rest of my trip! The squad completes this routine three times a year and benchmarks their progress against results from top French juniors.
Thinking back to when I was 15 or 16 and starting out in slalom I’m struck by the contrasts. In the late 70’s Australian slalom was primitive to say the least. Kayaks were generally outdated designs home-made from pirated molds, a wooly jumper and a nylon rain-jacket kept us warm, and paddles were made from a length of aluminium tubing with fiberglass blades. And in Tasmania we were even less exposed to anyone with any real experience, knowledge or coaching ability. Our first exposure to world-class paddlers and slalom technique came in December 1978 when Albert Kerr and Norbert Sattler visited for a month. They were like aliens from another planet. I look back now and only wish there was someone who could have helped us learn how to learn from them. I could see that these guys were good, but without a skilled coach I wasn’t able to analyse their technique and apply much to my own paddling. Physical training was rudimentary then too, as we tried to apply principles from other sports without a real grasp of physiology and training methods.
The Tasmanian youngsters now all paddle good quality, contemporary boats. Their gear is up to date and they use carbon fibre blades. They frequently travel to Penrith, so they’re exposed to the world’s best paddlers who spend a chunk of the northern winter training and racing down-under. Slalom technique is no longer a mystery, and they base their learning on well-established fundamentals. Most importantly, coaches like Pete and Dave are drawing on their own 35 plus years of experience to guide them. For the ones who are motivated, there’s a clear pathway they can follow for as far as their talent will take them.
I was talking about this with Richard Flanagan, another old friend (spot the connection with my hangover). Flan and I grew up in a world of first descents down remote rivers in leaking fiberglass boats. No one had been paddling for more than six or seven years let alone thirty-five. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but our ignorance just added to the adventure. Flan feels that although the standard is so much higher now, the magic has gone from the sport. I agree with him that we were incredibly fortunate to learn about kayaking when we did. But I disagree with him about the magic being lost. There are still new rivers out there to be discovered and new limits to push. And the youngsters at the Broken Bridge still have a lifetime ahead of them in which to apply what they learn from pursuing excellence and chasing their dreams.