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2001 Freestyle World Championships

&

2001 Augsburg and Prague Slalom World Cup Races

by Robin Bell

© 2001, Robin Bell

Fifteen playboaters made up the Australian Freestyle Team and ventured to a little town in the Spanish Pyrenees, named Sort. All were selected over two qualification competitions, the first at Brady's Lake while the second took place at Penrith.

There was a big jump in standard from previous years due to accessing good white water for the first time. Most team members took advantage of this, living, training and working in Penrith.

The team made their way to Sort roughly mid June trying to get a few days of practice before the event. Typical of freestyle physique, there was already some nightly festivities happening. Sort is a small town in the north of Spain and was quickly overun by playboaters. The days were filled with playboating, watching playboating and talking about playboating next to the hotel pool. It was interesting watching the big names paddle, socialising with them and checking out the new boats on the scene.

The competition kicked off on the 24th June, starting with the C1s. This was Australia's strongest class with Brock Flowers claiming fifth position the year before in the Pre World Championships. The C1 international standard had increased dramatically over the last few years with the Americans leading the way. There were three qualification rounds which narrowed the field into five for the final. Kynan Maley from Perth ended up ninth and showed huge potential. When it came down to the knock out final, it was a rodeo showdown between three boats with the U.S. and two with Australia, Brock Flowers and Robin Bell. Brock came unstuck and left first, placing for two years running fifth in the world. Robin slowly started to go through the Americans, but there was one too many of them and he finished second

The three Australian ladies Ali Parker, Cath Kent and Gorgia LePlastrier paddled well and finished in the top thirty, showing vast improvement from the last Worlds, and are keener than ever to get back out there. The big surprise came from Gary Finlay who finished an incredible second in qualification in open boating. This instantly promoted him to hero status (not to mention his drinking ability which was already highly regarded). After qualifying so well, Gary placed too much pressure on himself and folded in the semi-final just scraping into the top ten. Good effort Gazza!

Five Aussie blokes competed for the men's kayak title, showing some brilliance and inspiring the crowd. They toyed with the big moves but lacked the consistency of the pack. Two out of five made the first cut which was top forty. Chris James ended up 41st and was very unlucky not to make it through. Rob Parker and Arron Hemmelea finished next to each other in the early thirties.

The presentations were humorous with Gary showing true form, getting carried barely conscious and placed at the bottom of the podium. Due to the mass of medals the U.S. won, a junior grabbed the microphone and sang the Star Strangled Banner. An Aussie tried to match this attention seeking behaviour, loosing control of himself in the crowd and giving himself a sticky trouser leg. We all departed the next morning with good memories and a few sore heads from Sort.

2001 Augsburg and Prague Slalom World Cups

2001 World Cup Canoe Slalom season has six world cups. The first three were in France, Italy and Slovenia during May, followed by Augsburg in Germany last weekend in July and Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, seven days later. The final World Cup is in Wausau, USA first week in September.

The circuit is based in the European summer and it is hard for Australians to access all of these events. A small squad made it to the first three world cups. Kynan Maley, Louise Natoli, John Wilkie and Lochie Milne took turns in making the finals. These performances were watched via the internet in Australia by myself and the rest of the team while we studied for exams.

I had finished my uni for the year and the Freestyle World Championships in Spain, so I was ready for the slalom season to begin. I arrived in Augsburg a few days before the team after training in Bourg St. Maurice in the French Alps for two weeks. Bourg is my favourite slalom site with masses of white water and good training conditions as well as snow boarding, para-ponting, mountain bike riding and an awesome view of endless snow capped peaks. My spirits were high leading into my first few world cup race of the season.

It was good meeting up with my coach, Mike Druce, for the world cups. We had not seen each other for two months and it was getting a bit difficult asking about technique via email. Robby Magoo was there doing a great job managing the team and taking care of the C2. Richard Fox did his head coach duties and Myriam Fox was the third coach for the ladies.

Augsburg was my first international race since the Olympics ten months ago and I was a bit nervous not knowing how fast everyone was going, not to mention the new boat designs which are always better and faster. It's funny what you think of on the start line.

I had two solid runs and qualified in fifth position. I did not feel as though I had the speed of the top boats leaving that day but later that night Mike showed me a few more tricks looking on the computer. John Wilkie qualified in men's kayak posting some fast times.

Finals came on Sunday afternoon. John raced first and was disappointed with himself, leaving very frustrated. I was feeling relaxed just concentrating on my own run. Mike walked through the course with me so I knew exactly where I wanted to be on the race course. I had a good run and was winning, to my surprise, after first runs. Not by much but enough.

Stay cool, chill. Just do the 'same and you will have your first world cup medal. These were my thoughts on the start line. Its amazing how quiet and lonely it gets on the start line when you are the last boat going, a strange feeling for me. I had a good run, slower slightly and ended up second, beaten by a quarter of a second. Felt great getting my first world cup medal, but that quarter of a second will haunt me for a while.

I was sandwiched between two Slovaks on the podium, the silver and bronze medallists from the Olympics.

I stayed in Augsburg for an extra couple of days, by accident, really. Our car needed some work done to it after a slight incident with a curb.

I was sharing a Renault Megane with Rob Parker. Nice cars really, this is coming from a twenty year old Volvo which makes it all relative, I suppose. We picked up Eadaion, an Irish paddler, along the way. Sshe is famous for her IBM advert and still receives star status from it. We also had Femke, a German travelling, with us just for the Prague leg. We broke the first rule of travelling. This is not speeding, by the way, I have come to believe that there is no speed limit in Europe. We ate MacDonald's. This is my only rule really, I hate MacDonalds and yet I was sucked in for a brief moment of Big Mac bliss only to find yet again ten minutes later feeling very very seedy, cursing myself for lowering my guard.

After taking a record time in getting to Prague we managed to get another record for being the longest lost in Prague. We eventually found our way following the Zoo signs. Not sure why, but it seems that all Zoo signs in European cities lead to canoe slalom courses. When we arrived the coaches were kind enough to have sorted every thing out for us, good work guys. Not sure where I would be without the coaching and management team, I think I would still be in London actually.

Prague is great. With seven slalom courses within one hour, great nightlife and great medieval vistas for viewing pleasure, its great! I met a New Zealand friend there. He forgot to go home last year and now resides in Prague. So I bought him a sheep doll with real sheep's skin so he does not get lonely. Now I have heard he got homesick and has gone home for a visit.

The race started on Saturday with the C1 and ladies up first. I had perfect lines on the first run but forgot to paddle, so I was a bit down the list. The good news was no need for a cool down. Feeling fresh for second runs I went a bit harder qualifying in the top five. My goal usually in qualifications is somewhere around fifth place. This gives you some breathing room and some energy for the next day.

John Wilkie fired down his first run and ended up in fourth. The coaches were impressed. This is not a simple task, impressing the coaches. With more world championship gold medals between them it's sometimes a loosing battle. John then whipped it up on the top section and was looking like winning the qualification but an unfortunate touch turned nasty, the pole hooked around his head giving him a fifty second penalty and no chance of a final berth. John has showed great speed but has yet to put two runs together in the finals. Some people call this paddling maturity, I call it growing pains.

Mike walked the course with me on Sunday morning, changing a few lines from qualification. There was quite a large crowd, we are not talking the Olympic opening ceremony crowd but enough to make viewing the course difficult. The rest of the team arrived just before my first run and sounded a little hoarse. Relaxed and thinking about a story from last night's festivities I started my first run. I clipped a gate with my helmet but otherwise was very fast. I got quite a shock when the score board said I was in ninth. I double checked it with Mike then a wave of fatigue came over me with this result. It's amazing how much extra energy you have when you are doing well.

We went back and looked at the splits and video and I was not concentrating much. I walked around socialising for a while then jumped in my boat for the second run. Mike and Rich gave me a pep talk and I went for the warm up. I kicked myself a few times and then decided I wanted to do a good run. On the start line I was thinking, I am in the same position as I was in after first run at the Olympics so let's try not to stuff it up like the Olympics.

I had a good run, running close to the poles doing some matrix move in the staggers. Mike gave me the thumbs up when I crossed the line, which is always a good sign. I jumped out to watch the remaining eight boats race down the course. A few Olympic medallists cross the line and a couple more big names. My name is still at the top of the score board. By now I am starting to get a little excited, jumping up and down. Then there are only two Polish paddlers to come down and I realise the prospect of getting another world cup medal. The first one hits a gate right in front of me and I start jumping around some more. He finishes a quarter of a second behind me. The last boat is on the water and creams the course no matter how many times I ask him to hit a gate. He wins by just over a second. But second is so very sweet.

The Czechs throw a very large party with enough action for a life time. The Renault takes its time meandering through Czech, Germany and Suisse on our way back to Bourg for the Pre-World Championships.

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