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'12 Things ... you might not know about Canoe/Kayak

By Paul D. Bowker | April 13, 2012, 4 p.m. (ET)

Scott Parsons

As the days rapidly count down to the London 2012 Olympic Games, TeamUSA.org takes a closer look at some of the sports that will be contested there. In this week’s edition, we explore 12 Things you might not know about canoe and kayak.

Key Events
• U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Whitewater Slalom, April 12–14, U.S. National Whitewater Center, Charlotte, N.C.
• U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Flatwater Sprint, April 20–21, Oklahoma City, Okla.

TRIALS PRESSURE: Although the United States has qualified a full allotment of boats for the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Olympic Trials and World Cup competition will decide which one paddler, or two in the case of a doubles entry, will win the Olympic nomination. A second-place finish means an athlete is an alternate. “It’s somewhat disheartening because we have a very, very strong team,” said Eric Hurd, who is attempting to make his first Olympic team. “What it comes down to, we’re only allowed to bring one of our guys per class. … We have a strong team, where two or three of the athletes in each of the categories could go and place just as well. But it comes down to one athlete. It is pretty taxing coming in.” Other contenders for the Olympic team in slalom include Carolina Queen, a sophomore at Davidson (N.C.) College who won the U.S. Olympic slot in K-1 at the world championships; Benn Fraker, a 2008 Olympian; Casey Eichfeld, a 2008 Olympian, and Scott Mann, a two-time Olympic alternate.

THE MEDALS: There will be four medal events in slalom at the London 2012 Olympic Games: men’s single (C-1) and doubles (C-2), women’s K-1, men’s K-1. A total of 82 athletes will qualify, but in a change from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, athletes may compete in more than one event. The competition is packed into five days, beginning July 29, with heat races in men’s C-1 and men’s K-1. The sprint competition begins Aug. 6, and will feature 12 medal events at 200, 500 and 1,000 meters. The 200-meter races are a first for the Olympic Games.

THE TRIALS: The U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C., will be host to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Whitewater Slalom on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Trials are the third of four selection events for accumulating pints toward Olympic nomination. The top three finishers in men’s C-1 and C-2, and women’s and men’s K-1 will represent the United States at the World Cup in Cardiff, Wales, beginning June 8. Two runs in each event will be held all three days. Of a possible six runs over that time, the best four runs will be used for ranking purposes. And if watching the U.S. Olympic hopefuls isn’t enough, the Canadian Olympic Trials will also be held Thursday and Friday at the National Whitewater Center.

COMING UP, CANOE SPRINT: Just one week after the U.S. Olympic Trials conclude in Charlotte, the Olympic Trials for canoe flatwater sprint will be held April 20-21 in Oklahoma City, Okla. Competition will be held at the 200-, 500- and 1000-meter distances.

GOING FOR THREE: Scott Parsons, whose 15th-place finish at the 2011 Slalom World Championships clinched an Olympic slot in men’s singles kayak (K-1) for the United States, is hoping to clinch his third consecutive Olympic berth for himself at the Olympic Trials. He placed sixth at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and was also on the Olympic team in 2008. “The men’s kayak class is very strong,” Parsons said, “so I am expecting some very close racing. It should be a lot of fun.”

DOUBLE FEATURE: Eric Hurd, who teams with Jeff Larimer in men’s doubles canoe (C-2), began his love for the sport of kayaking and canoeing at a young age. As a child, he discovered an 8-mm movie in the basement of his family’s Georgia home, which showed his father, Mike Hurd, paddling with his training partners. “I just kind of got hooked from there,” Eric Hurd said. “I asked him if I could go out and try it some. We went out to the lake a day or two later. After that, it was pretty much history.” Eric began racing competitively in 1997 at age 9, and was 12 years old when he became the youngest paddler in U.S. history to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Mike Hurd, an All-America basketball player in high school, trained with Mike Larimer, Jeff’s dad, on the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta. Larimer missed out on winning an Olympic spot in 1992, but was a coach at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.

THE GATES: In canoe slalom, up to 25 gates are suspended over the course, hanging from a cable set perpendicular to the river. The bottom of the gate is just three to six inches above the water surface. If a paddler touches the gate, a time penalty is issued. The trick is avoid the gates while negotiating powerful rapids. “There’s a hundred different lines to take to do the same set of moves, and it’s down to inches and seconds,” Hurd said. “The closer you can get to that gate without hitting it is pretty much the game plan. We are centimeters away from the gate at times, taking the tightest and shortest line to make the move because that’s where you can make up the seconds, make up the time.” Red gates are negotiated upstream, while the green gates are negotiated downstream.

STARTING ON A SKI SLOPE: When canoe slalom entered the international world of athletics in 1932 in Switzerland, its races were held on flatwater. The sport traces its origins to slalom skiing, which also uses a series of gates in which athletes must around them. It wasn’t until later that powerful rapids, or whitewater, was introduced to the sport. Canoe slalom made its Olympic debut at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, 56 years after canoe sprint made its Olympic debut. Canoe sprint is now a discipline of its own at The Olympics, offering 12 medal events in singles, doubles and four-man at three distances for both men and women in London.

THE VENUES: The Lee Valley White Water Centre, located in Hertforshire, 30 kilometers north of London’s Olympic Park, will be host to the canoe slalom competition. The facility was completed in December 2010 and was opened to the public in spring 2011. A 10,000-square-meter lake feeds a system of pumps that moves 15 cubic meters of water per second to the 300-meter course. The pumps are what create the white-water effect. The Olympic test event for the facility was in August, when 175 athletes from 30 nations competed. The canoe sprint competition will be held at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre on Dorney Lake, which is located near Windsor Castle, 25 miles west of London. It will also be the venue for rowing in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

CONDITIONING: Most of the practice time for paddlers comes in the water, obviously. The water practice is not only in the spring, summer and fall, but also in the winter. However, they do have dry-land training too. They run. They lift, especially to build those upper body muscles. A typical day might even include a basketball game following a lifting session.

THE EQUIPMENT: Here is where the kayaks and canoes become very specialized. Boats are set up specifically for an athlete’s size and weight. A boat may cost $3,000, each paddle up to $500. And they are very difficult to replace in the midst of a competition, should something bad happen. “Everything is pretty personalized,” Hurd said. “We can’t just go out to a sporting good store and pick up a new basketball. All of our stuff is special order.” The clothing used by paddlers is very tight fitting, so as to help performance. Most paddle barefoot instead of wearing shoes to keep the weight even lighter, not that shoes would even fit into the front of a custom-built boat.

WEATHER: Because canoe slalom is run during the Summer Games, snow or ice or very cold conditions aren’t usually a factor that paddlers have to deal with. Rain is OK because it’s a wet sport anyway. But there is the wind. “Wind comes into effect pretty highly in our sport because of the gates that are suspended above the water that we have to navigate,” Hurd said. “Once the wind picks up a little bit, those gates also move and that causes a problem because our runs are fine-tuned down to the inch. … Windy competition days are always very stressful because that just throws in another factor that we have to guess on.”

SOURCES: USA Canoe and Kayak, International Olympic Committee, london2012.com.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Scott Parsons

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