View from the bridge

I first became aware of the Augsburg slalom course watching the 1972 Olympics on TV, but this was before I’d ever thought of getting in a kayak. A few years later it made a much bigger impression, when I watched a 16 mm film about the 1975 (?) International slalom. By that time, I was an enthusiastic and impressionable teenager, and I decided that one day I’d race on Augsburg too. This dream became a reality in 1983, and in the subsequent years I competed in several events, including the 1985 World Championships.

I visited Augsburg recently for the first time in twenty years, to watch the World Cup slalom and catch up with my old friends Peter and Debbie Eckhardt, whose daughter Kate was racing on the Australian team. Flight problems meant I arrived a day late, missing the C1 event but just in time to see the women’s K1 finals. This meant I saw Jess Fox take her 5th win in the last five world cup races, with a near-perfect run. She won even with a touch on the last gate, an upstream on the ‘restaurant hole’ right at the end of the course. Jess also won C1W by a big margin, and I was reminded of the last time a paddler named Fox blew away the field in Augsburg – Jess’s father Richard, who won the Worlds in 1985.

Me and Pete - the older we get the better we were

It was fascinating to read through the start list and see so many familiar names, the children of paddlers from the 80’s and 90’s; Prigent, Hilgert(ova), Fox, Vidmar, Rohan, Wolfhardt. And many of the same names are still present as coaches. Unusually among Olympic sports, slalom feels like a tribe that transcends both national identity and generations. Whilst national pride is present, there’s a stronger sense of camaraderie amongst paddlers who travel, train and party together as the international ‘caravan’ moves from race to race across Europe and beyond. It’s one of the things I love about the sport, and I wonder why it’s so. Perhaps the relative lack of money encourages co-operation between paddlers, or is it that the essential joy of being on white-water spreads some sort of magic?

I enjoyed hanging out with Pete and walking the course together, trying to remember the moves from the 85 Worlds, when we both raced on the Australian team, Pete in C1 and me in K1. Back then the race started way upstream of where it does now and featured a 40-metre flatwater sprint off the start before dropping through the sluice into the Eiskanal proper. There were at least 8 gates before the course reached the start of today’s race where the canal splits. In 1985 Richard’s winning time in K1 was 210 seconds, some ten seconds in front of local paddler Peter Micheler. I remember mine was something like 232. Compare that to the winning time of 94.86 seconds at this World Cup. There were no heats and finals then, just two runs with the fastest counting. Slalom today is more intense, both because of shorter boats and more technical courses, and because the format leads to a better spectator experience. There are a number of crunch points through the event – the challenge to qualify for the semi-finals (which for up and coming paddlers is a good milestone), the pressure to then make the top ten (hardly a given for anyone), before all or nothing racing for a medal in the final.

Jiri Prskavec on his storming final run

Jiri Prskavec on his storming final run

Sunday’s K1 semi-final showed the depth of the field, with so many boats so close in running times. This made a tight race to qualify for the final, and a line-up of the sport’s big names made it through; Rio Gold medallist Joe Clarke, Slovenia’s Peter Kauzer, France’s Boris Neveu and Germany’s Hannes Aigner among them. It’s always good to have a German boat or two in the final at Augsburg, because the local crowd just love to show their enthusiastic support. Perhaps only the Slovenians with their cow bells do it better. The medals weren’t decided till the final boat down, Czech Jiri Prskavec just failing to catch Kauzer, and both showing their superior pace by finishing first and second despite two second penalties.

I’m planning to go to the Tacen World Cup later this summer, where I’ll supporting the British kayak paddlers Huw Swetnam, Zac Franklin and Ciaran Lee Edwards. Can’t wait to see my training buddies on the start line and watch the World Cup drama unfold again. Bring on the cowbells!

Here’s a link to the World Cup results

And here’s a link to footage from the 1985 World Champs