The basics of slalom technique and terminology

Today’s attention shifts to describing the basics of the canoe slalom course and the techniques used to negotiate the course, after having reviewed each of the four Olympic canoe slalom classes in turn this week.

A simplistic illustration of a river with canoe slalom gates (reproduced from ‘go slalom canoeing’ leaflet by Laura Blakeman & Etienne Stott)

The goal for the slalom paddler is to race as fast as possible from the start gate to finish, negotiating up to 25 slalom gates without touching them. The ‘gates’ must be negotiated in numerical order and they can be divided into downstream gates identified with green and white poles and upstream gates identified by red and white gates. I will spend a later post studying the detail of the rules and how they are judged but simply a two second penalty is incurred for touching one or both poles of a gate and 50 seconds is added to the run time for missing or incorrectly negotiating the gate.

In basic terms, the green gates are positioned in the current of the river flowing downstream and the red and white gates are positioned in slack water behind obstructions called eddies. See the sketch alongside, which shows two red and white upstream gates and four downstream gates. The water is flowing from top to bottom. In Olympic competition there should be 18-25 gates in total of which at least 6 must be upstream, identified with red and white poles. The rules have changed recently, previously the gate was always 1.2 metres wide, however now the two poles can be separated apart and so in an upstream breakout only one pole may be suspended 20cm above the water (the other is suspended over the bank).  As mentioned before the C1, and C2 to a slightly lesser extent, are advantaged/ disadvantaged when the red and white upstream is on the left of right depending on whether the paddler is left or right handed. The course designer must ensure the course design is balanced to challenge all competitors equally. The course also needs to be designed so that it is feasible for all four classes of paddler to successfully complete it.  Good course design offers paddlers different options on how to complete in the fastest and cleanest way. Paddlers will be challenged especially on big whitewater like Lee Valley and use a full combination of forward, backward, turning and maybe even rolling!

All four classes compete on the same sequence of gates. There are a core set of slalom gate ‘moves’, which are describe below:

C1 Dan Goddard negotiating red and white upstream gate breakout (photo courtesy of John Gregory)

The breakout is the technique used to negotiate the upstream gate positioned in an eddy. The paddler needs to manoeuvre themselves from the downstream current into the eddy, through the gate and back into the downstream current. Simple! Well not quite. Slalom paddlers will have spent thousands of hours in a kayak practicing this single manoeuvre by the time they reach the Olympics. It is possible to gain or lose significant seconds over your competitors based on how well or tightly this is performed. The ultimate is to paddle hard tight behind the gate, use one turning stroke to turn while negotiating the gate and pull yourself immediately back into the downstream current. In the newer 350cm length kayaks and C1s this has become much more achievable. It does, however, take lots of practice, balance and advanced whitewater skills. I recommend watching the paddlers helmet because the best slalom paddlers are never stationary but maintain a certain amount of boat speed and momentum.

Fiona Pennie on a left hand breakout using a bow rudder stroke (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Sometimes, two upstream gates will be positioned on opposite sides of the river in numerical order and the slalom paddler can use a technique called ferry gliding or surfing to paddle from one side of the current to the other without being washed downstream.

In canoe slalom the stroke used to negotiate the upstream gate is called a bow rudder, accompanied by powerful turning/ sweep strokes. There are defined techniques for doing an upstream in 3 strokes and 5 strokes depending on the position of the upstream red and white gate within the eddy. In essence the goal is to approach the upstream wide in and exit tight to the exit pole, trying to avoid dropping too far below the upstream gate on entering the eddy or spending too much time in the eddy above the gate after exiting as this slows down the paddlers run.

The stagger or offset is a sequence of green and white downstream gates which are spread across the width of the current. This is much tougher than on first appearance. Try it, without touching any of the gates. Tomorrow I will describe Scott Shipley’s interpretation and coaching advice. If the stagger is too tight then the paddler may have to spin their kayak (or canoe) around before paddling through the gate. The good slalom paddler will define their line through the stagger gates so they can maximise their boat speed.

In this simple world, breakouts are always in perfect static eddies and downstream gates are always in the current. Well that would be too easy so the course designers will test paddlers but placing upstream gates so that there may be some current flowing down through them. Equally downstream gates can be placed in the eddy, so this challenges the athlete to keep the kayak or canoe running downstream when it naturally wishes to turn around. Let me explain, when a kayak paddles from the current into an eddy at a 45 degree angle, the water at the front of the kayak is stationary, while the water affecting the back of the kayak is moving downstream. This causes the back of the kayak to overtake the front and therefore the kayak turns round to point upstream. Considerable time can be lost on the breakout gates.

There are some great resources now available to learn the basics of whitewater paddling and slalom techniques. These include, the BCU Canoe Slalom Technique Library videos, Scott Shipley’s great book ‘Every Crushing Stroke’, plus other resources such as the BCU ‘Canoeing Handbook’, ‘Slalom Canoeing’ by Gary Nevin in 1987, Bill Endicott’s legendary books ‘To Win the Worlds’ and the ‘Ultimate Run’, as well as YouTube of course. Although the sport and boat design has evolved the basics of good whitewater paddling technique and the common mistakes have changed relatively little!

Tomorrow’s post will look at the more advanced or refined slalom techniques that you would expect to see amongst the Olympic level competitors on the Lee Valley course.

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