Words: Ico Schutte & Jessi Stensland | Photos: Various photographers
There were 150 of the world’s best white water, slalom, and freestyle paddlers from no less than 24 different countries who met in the picturesque town of Oetz, to compete for World Championship honours on the legendary Wellerbrücke rapids, a section of the glacier-fed Ötztaler Ache River.
Considered to be one of the most difficult white-water sections on the planet, the Wellerbrücke rapids are solid class 5 white water, technically difficult and dangerous. In fact, so dangerous that public authorities closed this section. Any mistakes paddlers made would have high consequences. The well-known rapids on the course, Champions Killer (the final drop of the 280-metre long race course) and Champions Killer Minus One (the hole above Champions Killer) are both feared and endeared by extreme kayakers, all of whom respect the river as much as they want to conquer it. Three-time champion Sam Sutton (NZL) returned ready to defend his title. “The adidas Sickline World Championship is the pinnacle event for us kayakers. It unifies the greatest of all genres of kayaking in one spectacular event to crown the best of the best.” All eyes were on him over the weekend.
A larger number of female paddlers enlivened the scene on the river. The women paddlers have been vocal about paddling ‘as fast as hell’ to get a chance to race on the top section of rapids with ‘the boys’. As a result, event organisers, active in their support of women paddlers, say that as the skill level and depth of field increases, so too will the number of women allowed to participate.This year, the magic number was five, up from three last year.
All week athletes trained hard on the river. Chaos and carnage were words thrown about as videos were posted of kayakers taking swims and getting worked in holes. Thursday brought about the last chance to perfect their runs in free practice.
“The river has been very high all week,” says Marcio Franco (BRA), “but today,” he said with a smile, “it is friendlier.” The ever-changing water levels made for an exciting practice session for spectators and athletes alike, as the ‘sickline’ - the perfect, smoothest, and fastest line down the river - continued to shift throughout the day. The vibe was electric as athletes worked together continually questioning, conferring, pointing, and confirming their thoughts about the river run.
“It’s never too late,” was a common theme, and new boat models were tested. Marta Noval (POR) nervously, but successfully, launched herself off the 6-metre-high seal launch, the rockslide that starts the race. And those that had to borrow equipment, to meet race safety specifications, made sure everything worked properly. Austrian athlete Paul (Ted) Fieldhouse, owner of White Descents, generously provided competitors with equipment, while also racing himself.
Later in the day, athletes passed through registration to confirm their entry, pass equipment inspection, and pick up race bibs. “Training went well,” the Polish contingent confirmed. “We don’t have rivers like these in Poland. We need to cross countries to find suitable training ground. It’s a huge challenge, but that is why we are here.”
Although the race is a sprint, often taking less than 90 seconds, the day is quite long for competitors. They converge at 9:00 a.m. at the start line for a mandatory pre-run of the course. Everyone is required to successfully complete the qualification course, thus proving to race organisers that their skills are up for the challenge of class V rapids. With nerves running high and the world-class safety team in place, athletes took to the river for one last chance to get their energy focused on balancing their, “Need for speed, with the finesse required to stay on the sickline,” said Nouria Newman (FRA). “The race is demanding even before it starts,” says Fieldhouse. “We stand in the queue carrying the boat on one shoulder, then have only 45 seconds to get in, fit the spray deck, restore blood flow to the arm, and focus the mind before racing down.” “It’s really two rapids [Champions Killer and Champions Killer Minus One]. Screw either of those up and you’re done,” Adriene Levknecht (USA) said candidly.
With the ladies leading the way, the race began. Athletes each took two runs on the course, one in the morning and one after lunch. The two times were then added together to give one total time, which is used to determine quarter-final qualifiers. The top 5 women and top 46 men advanced. With a combination of freestyle, extreme, and slalom paddlers on the course, the competition has become tight, often only hundredths of a second separating the top times. The announcer was sure to mention that just because some of the best kayakers are nailing the line, it doesn’t mean it is an easy course. Spectators were still treated to several thrills and spills, while the safety team looked after the athletes. It was a fast family affair in round one, as the iconic father and son duo of Eric (49) and Dane (20) Jackson (USA) of Jackson Kayaks finished within .01 of each other, while brothers Sam and Jamie Sutton finished first and third overall. Last year’s Queen of the Sickline, Rosalyn Lawrence, posted the fastest women’s finish.
The sun came out for round two and so did the smiles as competitors loosened up, stretched out, and even danced around. Those that had a great morning run attempted to be consistent, while those that had bobbled a bit set out to make up as much time on the section as they could. Nouria Newman (FRA) screamed down the river on her second run to grab the top women’s spot. “Yes, we get to race the fun stuff!” She pointed to the upper section of the Wellerbrücke that the finalists would race. “I love the ramp, the boof, all of it! And my friend made it too,” she said, as she hugged third place finisher Martina Wegman (NED). Toni George (NZL) rounded out the top three.
Sam Sutton once again seemed to fly over the most difficult parts of the course, to finish with the top time. A super performance from Joe Morley (GBR) put him in second spot, a huge leap up from his thirty-sixth place going into last year’s finals. Third place went to Jamie Sutton (NZL) with his best sickline performance ever. The quarter-final qualifiers and safety team then headed upstream for a mandatory pre-run of the upper section of the Wellerbrücke rapids. Once again kayakers had to prove their worthiness by successfully completing this dangerous section.
Deep breaths, sighs, focused eyes. Smiles, jumps, and stretches. The world’s best extreme kayakers each had their own pre-race routine as they overlooked the powerful rush of the Wellerbrücke rapids and prepared for the day’s battle. After his mandatory practice run, David Pierron (FRA) admitted that he was not awake yet. Even after running down a class V rapid? “Yes, that helped,” he laughed, “but only briefly.” “The levels are higher today,” said Dane Jackson (USA). “The river is pushier, making it easier to get off line. The slightest bit off line slows you down and quickly kills your chances of a top run,” he said. The pressure was full on and it showed as athletes made more mistakes in their practice runs. Champions Killer Minus One was beefier, stickier, and wreaking havoc amongst many.
Athletes donned ski coats over dry suits to stay warm in the rain and colder temperatures, as spectators braved the conditions to get a look at the action. “The cold weather is a challenge for the safety crew,” said Neil Taylor, safety director and owner of Swiftwater Rescue. “The crew must stand in one position for a long time, yet react instantly in an emergency,” he added. After the mandatory practice run, the competition began in earnest. The top 48 men went head-to-head in a knockout round. Twenty-four made it through, along with the 2 fastest losers. The top 26 battled it out once more, cutting the field down to 13 plus the two fastest losers, who went through to the super final. “It’s a unique format,” explained Joel Kowalski (CAN) “and with 2 lucky losers per round making it through, it’s fair.” The top 5 ladies had two runs each, and the fastest combined time would be crowned the Sickline Queen.
The higher water levels made for sensational spectating and kept the safety team on their toes. Champions Killer Minus One turned out to be the crux move on the course. Some powered their way through, while others were sucked into the hole and had to fight hard to get out. Camaraderie among competitors was apparent as they cheered each other on. “It’s extreme kayaking, so you are looking out for each others back,” said Newman. “You want to win, of course, but you want your paddling buddies to be well and safe at the end of the race.”
Kiwi Sam Sutton’s two near-perfect runs in the knockout rounds were a surprise to no one. Looks of awe, even grins, from fellow competitors were seen on the sidelines. Only his younger brother, Jamie Sutton, who screamed down the course to set a new course record of 55.73, bested him. Podium contenders Fabian Dörfler (GER), Mike Dawson (NZL), and Paul Böckelmann (GER) were eaten alive by the course and forced to watch the super final from the sidelines. The field was still strong with the world’s best white water, slalom, and river-expedition paddlers hungry to dethrone the seemingly unbeatable three-time World Champion.
After two solid runs down the Wellerbrücke, one of which bettered many of the men on the day, 22-year-old Nouria Newman was crowned the 2013 Sickline Queen. “Sometimes the river is stronger than you or you can’t read it properly and it doesn’t work for you. But sometimes you make it and it’s all good, like today. It was really good fun.” After a quick lunch break, the skies cleared and the top 15 men took to the rising river for the final time. The announcer explained that the Champions Killer Minus One was the one to watch. “The right line is safer, the left more risky, but faster. The best guys will take that. More water means faster lines, but make a mistake and it’ll force you off your line where you don't want to be.”
All athletes want a chance to sit in the ‘hot seat’ - the jacuzzi situated conveniently at the finish line of the course. Post the fastest time and you earn your spot. Daniel Klotzner, 21, from Italy, had a near-perfect run, smashing his previous time with a 56.56, which kept him cozy in the hot seat, while one-by-one the course took its toll on the other competitors. With only two to go, Joe Morley (GBR), slalom specialist, blazed down the raging river to claim the hot seat, with a time of 56.10. All eyes then turned to Sam Sutton, the final racer of the day and clear favorite. Proving that anything can happen, Sam made an uncharacteristic mistake in the Champions Killer costing him vital seconds. His time was only good enough for fifth place on the day, with his younger brother, Jamie, finishing fourth. Egor Voskoboynikov, a river-expedition paddler from Russia, took third.
Known for his success in slalom kayaking, Joe Morley, the two-time U23 Great Britain National Champion, calls this his best achievement. “For three years, 150 guys have gone against Sam [Sutton] and tried to beat him over and over again. The Wellerbrücke rapid itself is hard to get down and to get down it quicker than everyone else is a good feeling. I took a bit of time out of slalom this year to concentrate on white-water paddling and it’s paid off. I had to tell myself that it was possible. I just put a good run down and it’s all come through.”
In true kayaker style, the party atmosphere ensued from hot seat to podium, to the official Champions Party at Jay’s Cantina in downtown Oetz. Festivities lasted long into the night, as athletes, friends, and family celebrated another epic adidas Extreme Kayak World Championship.
For the full results, visit www.adidas-sickline.com
Kayaking the Ötztal Valley
Words: Ico Schutte, Photos: Various photographers
Following all the excitement of the adidas Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championship and the lure of aquamarine-coloured water flowing down snow-capped mountains, I was motivated to get on the river section in Austria's Ötztal Valley.
It offers many different sections from grade II to VI rapids, all of them breathtaking. I was lucky to meet Ted (Paul) Fieldhouse, a local racer and owner of White Descents, a company specialising in setting-up kayaking and winter sports holidays. He also introduced me to Neil Taylor, Safety Director for the adidas Sickline and owner of Swiftwater Rescue. For two days, Ted provided us with brand spanking new equipment and Neil expertly led the way down the rivers.
We started the first day with an easy 20 km section of the Inn River. This section is mostly grade 11 with some grade III rapids in-between. It was a picturesque paddle with high mountains providing the backdrop. This section is perfect for the beginner or not-so-serious kayaker. Neil provided tips and instruction to the beginners in the group while keeping the trip fun and relaxed. The take out of this section is in the town of Silz; right on White Descents' doorstep and where Ted was waiting with freshly brewed coffee for all.
After a quick lunch, it was time for us to take on the more demanding rapids of the Ötztaler Ache River. We ran the lower Ötz section, which starts just below the Wellerbrücke rapids used for the adidas Sickline. The section comprises mostly grade III, with a touch of grade IV. During the hour it took us to complete this section, I simply couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Halfway down, we had to do a short portage around a man-made weir and mimicking the racers, we utilised a rockslide re-entry into the river. Satisfied, we got off the river as the sun began to sink below the mountains. With high fives all round, we agreed to meet the next day in the town of Sölden for a paddle on the upper section of the Ötz River.
As Jessi Stensland and I arrived early for our paddle, we unpacked the mountain bikes and went for a short ride in the valley. The well-marked routes and challenging single tracks made for a perfect start to the day. With over 5,000 trails in the Tyrol area, the valley also caters to mountain bikers and hikers alike!
Refreshed and ready for the next challenge, Neil and I got in the great boats supplied by White Descents and set off down river. It was only around 4 km, but higher in difficulty, mostly grade IV, as we had to negotiate more rocks and holes in this steeper section. Once again, with expert advice from Neil, we had a safe and exciting trip. Leaving the valley with these great memories, I am sure to return for more!
A big thank you to Neil and Ted because without you this trip would not have been possible.
For more information on kayaking in the Ötztal Valley, visit www.whitedescents.com and www.swiftwaterrescue.at