GoPro Mountain Games in Vail: Water flows high Thursday at Steep Creek | VailDaily.com

GoPro Mountain Games in Vail: Water flows high Thursday at Steep Creek

Lauren Glendenning
lglendenning@vaildaily.com

RED CLIFF — Any competition that requires dozens of emergency rescue personnel on the scene is bound to be exciting because danger is always exciting, especially for athletes competing in high adrenaline sports.

A ¼-mile course of whitewater on Homestake Creek awaits the kayakers brave enough to descend these rapids during optimal runoff. At Thursday's Steep Creek Championship, the first event of the 2013 GoPro Mountain Games, the athletes called the water some of the highest and fastest they've ever raced in this event.

The Steep Creek Championship is far from amateur hour, though. The paddlers competing in the event are some of the best, most accomplished and daring kayakers in the world.

But even these men and women need practice runs on Homestake Creek. If they missed a practice run, then they weren't allowed on the water for the race.

"If you don't possess Class V skills, you can end up bloody," said Clay Wright, a whitewater event professional and organizer of the event.

It's no wonder that such a challenging course produces repeat winners. Thursday's women's champion Martina Wegman, of the Netherlands, and men's champion Mike Dawson, of New Zealand, both won the titles in 2012.

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Having a Steep Creek title under your belt doesn't mean much, though.

"Every run is different," said Dawson, who also won this event in 2009 and tied for the win in 2011. "I just play it by ear, I cross my fingers and take a deep breath."

While it doesn't sound like much of a strategy, it seems to be working for Dawson. He managed to pick up back-to-back wins in very different conditions.

"Last year, we had record low (waters) — way lower than this, maybe a quarter of the flow — and this year it's a bit more full-on," Dawson said. "What makes it so unique is that you have every type of whitewater you can imagine — the (rocky), technical stuff at the top, you have the flat pool and you have the big, clean drops at the bottom, so you're getting everything you need. You can make a mistake anywhere, just depending on what kind of style paddler you are."

The hundreds of spectators who looked on from the river bank saw all kinds of mistakes from the competitors. One section of the course, known as Bird Bath, captured a few paddlers, and another section known as Little Sunshine also created some disqualifications.

The format this year was different than any other year. Rather than running the creek twice and taking the combined score, the competitors this year had to compete a third time — if they made it that far.

After the first two runs, the top five men and top three women got wet again for one last run — except in this run, there's no room for error.

"We're getting the most consistent paddlers into the finals and then seeing who's the fastest when the pressure's on," Wright said. "That's the only race that counts."

Timing is done through an electric eye, meaning results are accurate and they're often close. Wright said there have been results that left top placing finishers tied to the hundredth of a second.

"So know that every single stroke counts, every single rock counts, every single wave counts," Wright told the athletes before their first runs. "If you think you're having a bad run, get on it and try to make it better."

Those who did have bad runs had rescuers ready to help them. Mike Mather, a whitewater expert who was in charge of safety for the event, told the kayakers before the event to take an active role in their own rescues. The stakes were serious, and everyone knew it.

"With safety (crews) out here, the rocks are just as hard and the water is just as fast, whether we're here or not, so you've got to run it like we're not here," Mather said.

The safety crews had to lend a paddle or a rope a few times Thursday, but the athletes mostly worked it out themselves.

While some had to work out some problems in the water, others charged through and made it look easy. Wegman, the women's champion, was one of those athletes.

"My final run wasn't my best run. I'm real surprised (of the win), actually," she said.

Wegman said of the high water that it's obviously quicker, but through some of the rockier sections, there's little time to react.

"You almost don't have time to react," she said. "You just have to react on the moment."

Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at lglendenning@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2983.

GoPro Mountain Games schedule

Friday

World Cup bouldering, women’s qualifying, 9 a.m.

Dog jumping, 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m.

World Cup bouldering, men’s qualifying, 2 p.m.

Slopestyle biking finals, 6 p.m.

Saturday

Vail Pass Half Marathon, 8 a.m.

Down-river sprint, 8 a.m.

Stand-up paddle sprint, 9:30 a.m.

Mountain biking, 10 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.

Kayak freestyle, 4:15 p.m.

World Cup bouldering, 5 p.m.

Sunday

Spring runoff 10K, 8 a.m.

Fly fishing finals, 8 a.m.

Vail pass time trial, 9:30 a.m.

Slackline World Championship, 12:30 p.m.

Raft cross finals, 2 p.m.

Stand-up paddle finals, 3 p.m.

Dog jumping finals, 3: 30 p.m.

8-ball finals, 4 p.m.