O’Hara, Wright take top honors in kayak freestyle | VailDaily.com

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O’Hara, Wright take top honors in kayak freestyle

TMG KFS Claire O'hara 1 DT 6-2-12

VAIL – The top-five men and women advanced to the Teva Mountain Games pro freestyle kayak final Saturday, but it was Stephen Wright and Claire O’Hara who took home the top honor of freestyle champions.

Pushed back due to adverse weather conditions, the women were the first to take to the water underneath the International Bridge in Vail Village. The competition is a three run, best-ride-wins format, and, despite the rainy weather, the ladies lit up the competition straight away.

O’Hara, 30, of Leeds, England, led the women out of preliminarlies and would put down her best ride in the finals on her first run, scoring 664 points – a score that would have put her into finals in the men’s competition. The current women’s world champion freestyle kayaker said, coming form England, the weather was to her advantage.

“I was pretty excited going in, it’s just like home,” O’Hara said. “But I was nervous, too. There is a very high standard of competition among these ladies.”

This was O’Hara’s first Teva Mountain Games appearance and also marks the end of a streak of wins from an undefeated Emily Jackson. Jackson, coincidentally, is now in O’Hara’s home country training on the United States Slalom Kayaking Team in preparation for the Olympic Games this summer.

“I guess we did a swap,” O’Hara said, laughing. “It would have been good to have her here. She’s a great competitor.”

The last time O’Hara and Jackson faced each other was at the 2011 Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Germany where O’Hara edged out Jackson to top the podium.

Second to O’Hara was Haley Mills with 400 points and Kerin Courtney followed Mills with 210 points in third.

On the men’s side, the competition was decided by 50 points, or one trick, crowning Stephen Wright, 34, of Reno, Nev., over 17-year-old Dane Jackson of Tennessee.

Jackson led the men out of prelims but it was Wright’s first ride in the hole that would hold on for the win with a score of 1,190 points. Jackson came back on his second ride scoring 1,150 points, just missing a final trick that washed him out of the freestyle feature.

“I wasn’t confident that score would hold,” Wright said. “Any one of those guys could go out on any single ride and beat it. I’m thankful that it held.”

Wright, although not on his winning run, put together the first five-move combination of tricks in the history of freestyle kayaking, nearly stumping the judges on how to score it. The five-move combo was a series of different tricks linked continuously and without pause.

Coming in third for the men, behind Wright and Jackson, was the 2011 champion, Dustin Urban. He scored 960 points.

The freestyle competition went over well, all things considered, said Wright who only days before spent an afternoon practicing in an impossible feature thanks to record-low water flows.

This year the competition was held at around 200 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water moving over the feature. The previous low was 270 CFS. Last year, in a record-high year, there was about 1,400 CFS coming through the white water park.

After that afternoon, Wright and a few other paddlers suited up in dry suits and rigged two 8-by-5-foot boards on either side of the river. The boards, in conjunction with the bladder system already installed in the Vail White Water Park, channeled 100 percent of the available water into the feature.

“It is amazing that this place went from a feature that called for canceling the event to a feature where guys were hitting 1,000-point rides,” Wright said.

O’Hara was also quick to comment on the drive of the boaters and competition organizers to have the event despite unpropitious water levels.

“I think it was stunning that people were so determined to have the event,” O’Hara said. “The people were amazing, the crowd was amazing and the competition was great.”