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.

C2 – Canadian Doubles

C2 is the focus of today’s post. C2 is spectacular to watch as these big boats with two paddlers squeeze their way through narrow slalom gates on big whitewater. So far this week we have examined K1M, K1W and C1 respectively.  Today is C2 (pronounced see-two), meaning for the Olympics two male athletes kneeling in a two man closed cockpit canoe each with a single bladed paddle. Again let’s look at the equipment, pros and cons and some top paddlers past and present to look out for.

A peek inside Baillie & Stott’s C2 (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The C2 combines great paddle reach, pivot turns combined with impressive forward power. Like the C1, the C2 paddlers kneels on pre-formed padded foam blocks inside the cockpit, sitting back on their heels supported by the foam block with straps across the knees to secure themselves. The International Canoe Federation again has specifications for the C2, which must be 410cm long, 75cm wide and weigh not less than 15kg. It is important for the C2 crew to spend considerable time in their boat on whitewater so they have good communication and coordination between them. This is essential to successfully roll a C2!

One C2 paddler will paddle on the left and one on the right and the two cockpits are not always directly in line but can be slightly offset towards the left or right of the boat. Two Great Britain C2 crews have gained selection for the London Olympics; David Florence & Richard Hounslow and Tim Baillie & Etienne Stott. David kneels in the front paddling on the right as he does in his C1 with Richard kneeling in the back paddling on the left. Tim similarly paddles in the front on the right with Etienne paddling in the back on the left. The front man in the C2 can also paddle on the cross bow meaning at that moment both paddlers have their paddler in the water on the same side. Watch out to see if a C2 crew ever switch their hands simultaneously. This is relatively rare but a few paddlers have experimented with it.

Triple Olympian & World Champion Peter & Pavol Hochschorner from Slovakia at the Cardiff World Cup race (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

International C2 at World’s and Olympics has been dominated by a select group of nations; France, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia (& former Czechoslovakia). Pavol and Peter Hochschorner from Bratislava in Slovakia have already become legendary within C2. They are the only athletes to have won four consecutive World Championship titles. They have won the World Cup series 10 times since 1999 and the European Championships 6 times.  If they were to win gold at London2012 they would make history again as the only athletes to win four successive gold medals at the Olympic Games. I encourage you to read the article in the 2012 Planet Canoe on the ICF website.

The GB World Championship individual C2 medallists are:

David Florence & Richard Hounslow (Bronze 2010 Tacen)

GB Team C2 medallists are:

Eric Jamieson, Robin Williams, Michael Smith, Andrew Smith, Robert Joce & Robert Owen (Bronze 1983 Meran), Tim Baillie, Etienne Stott, David Florence, Richard Hounslow, Dan Goddard & Colin Radmore (Bronze 2009 La Seu d’Urgell) and David Florence, Richard Hounslow, Tim Baillie, Etienne Stott, Rhys Davies & Matthew Lister (Bronze 2011 Bratislava)

There has never yet been a GB Olympic C2 medal, although Smith & Bowman came fourth in Sydney in 2000, missing out on a medal by less than half a second.

I have departed from the review of the previous classes to include reference to the European Canoe Slalom Championships. Why? Because this year, Great Britain has achieved something for the very first time in the history of the sport, a gold medal in C2, with a Team C2 Gold in Augsburg at the European Championships.

David Florence & Richard Hounslow – Cardiff World Cup C2 gold medallists focussed on the gate at GB Selection (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Well done to David, Richard, Tim, Etienne and Adam Burgess and Greg Pitt for achieving this GB first. It followed a C2 Team silver in Nottingham in 2009 and a C2 Team bronze in Bratislava the following year, with Tim, Etienne, David, Richard, Dan Goddard and Colin Radmore. GB C2 is reaching new heights. Added to this David & Richard then won the first ever individual C2 Gold at a World Cup race with their win last month in Cardiff. Impeccable timing guys!

We currently have two C2 boats ranked in the ICF World Ranking top 10. Amazing! I hope you have tickets for August 2nd at Lee Valley.

Tim Baillie & Etienne Stott ICF World Ranked No. 6 C2 crew at Cardiff World Cup (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Tomorrow’s post will describe the terms used in canoe slalom and techniques used.

C1 – Canadian Single

C1 is the focus of today’s post. C1 is thrilling to watch and an excellent way of analysing canoe slalom. On Monday and Tuesday we examined K1M and K1W respectively. Today is C1 (pronounced see-one), meaning for the Olympics a male athlete kneeling in a closed cockpit canoe with a single bladed paddle. Again let’s look at the equipment, pros and cons and some top paddlers past and present to look out for.

Inside the cockpit of a C1 (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The C1 paddler kneels on pre-formed padded foam blocks inside the cockpit. They then sit back on their heels supported by the foam block and tighten straps across the knees. This prevents them sliding forwards as well as ensuring that, like in a kayak, the C1 becomes an extension of their body. The extra height above the water gives the belief that the C1 is less stable than a kayak. The International Canoe Federation again has specifications for the C1, which must be 350cm long, 65cm wide and weigh not less than 10kg. The paddler again wears a slightly more rounded spraydeck round their chest & waist which prevents water getting inside the boat. If the C1 capsizes and the paddler is unable to roll up they pull a loop on the spraydeck and easily fall out of the boat upside down.

The C1 gives the paddler much greater height above the boat, this means they have much greater reach with the paddle and can use their whole body to create big strokes. They can also reach further through the gate or into a breakout. Because they are kneeling in the boat, all their body weight falls through the centreline of the boat and so it will spin much faster than a kayak. With the extra body weight and longer paddle above the boat the C1 paddler can also pivot turn in spectacular fashion, sinking the entire back of the boat under the water with one powerful stroke. This is really stunning to watch in high level competition. Forward paddling is tougher and requires more practice to execute well than in a kayak. C1 is so technically demanding that the key is to start young and spend lots of time on whitewater. Sydney Olympic gold medallist, Tony Estanguet started at the age of 5.

A C1 paddler either paddles naturally on the left (lefty) or on the right of the boat (righty). When they then paddle on the opposite side of the boat they are said to be on the cross-bow. For the C1 paddling in slalom it means that for a lefty C1 it is easier to do a breakout of the left hand side of the boat than the right. In competition there should be a minimum of six upstream (red and white) gates and so the course designer must ensure that a lefty or righty C1 have the same challenge and opportunity. If all breakouts were on the left, the course would favour a lefty C1 and their run time would be expected to be quicker than a righty C1 who has to do all the breakouts on a cross-bow. I remember seeing lefty Michal Martikan do a cross-bow surf out of a breakout at World’s that other C1 paddlers did not think was possible on a cross-bow!

On modern, shorter, bigger whitewater courses like Lee Valley the slalom gate sequences are tighter with less opportunity to forward speed and so we see C1 run times very close to those of the K1s. In very tight courses the C1 could be quicker, because although they have less forward speed they can turn through breakouts and spins much faster than a kayak. Watching C1 has helped many K1 paddlers and made medal winning C2 crews out of former C1 paddlers.

David Florence heading into a right hand upstream on Lee Valley course (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The first strong nations were France, Czechoslovakia, East & West Germany and Switzerland. C1 was then dominated through from 1979 to 1989 by the iconic Jon Lugbill and Davey Hearn from the US before 16 year old Michal Martikan from Liptovsky Mikulas in Slovakia won his first bronze medal at the Nottingham World’s in 1995! Michal & France’s Tony Estanguet started competing as juniors in 1994 and have then dominated both World Championships and Olympics from 2000 until now. The key question is how long this domination will last? Historically, the UK has been a kayak dominated nation in terms of medal performance at the World & Olympic level with the exceptions below.

I understand that Michal paddles with a C1 with much greater ‘rocker’ than is usual, meaning the curvature of the hull, this means that the boat has much greater manoeuvrability at the expense of forward speed and stability. C1 paddlers tell me few others are comfortable in a boat like Michal.

Double Olympic Champion lefty C1 Michal Martikan Slovakia (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Martyn Hedges (Bushy) was highly respected. In 1980 he won all the Europa Cup races. He died tragically two months before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. See last Sunday’s post which is a tribute to Bushy. Gareth Marriott then went on to gain Great Britain’s first ever Olympic canoe slalom medal with a silver in Barcelona. Gareth had superb reach and flair although a certain inconsistency, either utterly outstanding like the pre-Olympic gold in 1991 or blew out completely.

The GB World Championship individual C1 medallists are:

Martyn Hedges (Bronze Augsburg 1985) & Gareth Marriott (Bronze 1997 Tres Coroas)

GB Team C1 medallists are:

Martyn Hedges, Peter Keane & Jeremy Taylor (Bronze 1983 Meran), Mark Delaney, Bill Horsman & Gareth Marriott (Bronze 1991 Tacen & Silver 1993 Mezzana) & David Florence, Stu McIntosh & Dan Goddard (Bronze 2006 Prague).

GB Olympic C1 medallist are:

Gareth Marriott (Silver 1992 Barcelona) & David Florence (Silver 2008 Beijing).

GBR David Florence righty C1 on his cross bow during selection at Lee Valley (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Righty C1 paddler David Florence will represent Great Britain at the London2012 Olympics at Lee Valley later this month. David is the current ICF World ranked number 1 C1 paddler so will be last off in the C1 heat. He is unique among GB paddlers at a World level in competing in the same event in C1 and C2.

As part of the International Canoe Federation drive to greater gender equality C1W was introduced in 2009 as a World Championship demonstration sport and became a medal event the following year in Tacen. We look forward to C1W developing further and its hopeful inclusion in future Olympic Games. The top C1W to watch are currently Jana Dukatova (SVK), Leanne Guinea (AUS), Rosalyn Lawrence (AUS), Jessica Fox (AUS), Katerina Hoskova (CZE), Cen Nanqin (CHN), Katarina Macova ( SVK) and British number 1 C1W paddler, Mallory Franklin.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the C2.

K1W – Kayak Women’s Single

Ladies kayak deserve their own day and post rather than rolling into one K1 post. Yesterday took a first look at the four different classes with K1M. Today – is K1W (pronounced kay-one-women), meaning a female athlete paddling a single one seater closed cockpit kayak. Again let’s look at the equipment, pros and cons and some top paddlers past and present to look out for.

Great Britain’s K1W Fiona Pennie at the Cardiff World Cup race (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Ladies (women’s) kayak are worthy of true recognition as they paddle the same 350cm kayaks as the K1M, on the same whitewater and through the same set of slalom gates. If you want to see the best use of whitewater watch the K1W. They have narrower shoulders and less muscle mass and shorter levers. Their paddles (blades as we call them) are invariably about 10cm shorter. Ladies thus rely less on brute strength and more on good technique and using the water to help them negotiate the gates. There have been a few exceptions Margit Messelhauser (1985 Augsburg World Champion) was incredibly strong and Liz Sharman had great speed and a longer paddle. Liz was the only slalom paddler I can recall to compete in the Olympics in sprint canoeing (Seoul 1988)! In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, Jimmy Jayes described that K1W were doing an average 70 strokes per minute in the gates and up to 80 strokes per minute at the start and finish, so less than the men, partly because they also tend to hang on to the stronger for a longer time. I recall going with Alan Edge, Rachel Crosbee (nee Fox), Karen Like (nee Davies), Lynn Simpson and Maria Francis to meet Professor Craig Sharpe at Northwick Park (BOMC) for the first ever physiology testing in canoe slalom. I remember that Karen had the least strength, lowest endurance, and least speed of the four, however, it should be noted she won the Bala Mill Prem the next weekend and has a K1W team bronze medal from the 1985 Worlds in Augsburg. That is not to say that women are not as physically fit as the men. At this level the K1W are also out for early morning whitewater training before a rest and a second session in the afternoon like the men.

There is a significant move by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) and national federation to gender equality. The number of female athletes in canoeing, including canoe slalom is increasing as well as in leadership roles within technical committees. As we will discuss tomorrow, a ladies category was introduced in C1 in 2009. This has not yet become an Olympic category and the C2 event is still a men’s class, but one expects that this will change in time too.

One to watch. Australia’s Jessica Fox at Cardiff World Cup race. What would Bill Endicott make of this? (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett).

Great Britain has also shown consistency in K1W at the Worlds since 1979.

The GB World Championship individual K1W medallists are:

Liz Sharman (Silver 1979 Jonquiere, Gold 1983 Merano & Gold 1987 Bourg St Maurice), Jane Roderick (Silver 1983 Merano), Lynn Simpson (Gold 1995 Nottingham), Fiona Pennie (Silver 2006 Prague) and Lizzie Neave (Bronze 2009 La Seu d’Urgell).

GB Team K1W medallists are:

Liz Sharman, Jane Roderick & Susan Small (Silver 1981 Bala), Liz Sharman, Jane Roderick & Susan Garriock (Silver 1983 Merano), Liz Sharman, Gail Allen & Karen Davies (Bronze 1985 Augsburg), Maria Francis, Rachel Crosbee & Lyn Simpson (Bronze 1993 Mezzana), Lynn Simpson, Rachel Crosbee & Heather Corrie (Silver 1995 Nottingham & Bronze 1997 Tres Coroas), Heather Corrie, Rachel  Crosbee & Amy Casson (Bronze 1999 La Seu d’Urgell), Helen Reeves, Laura Blakeman & Heather Corrie (Bronze 2002 Bourg St Maurice & bronze 2003 Augsburg), Heather Corrie, Kimberley Walsh & Laura Blakeman (Silver 2005 Penrith), Fiona Pennie, Laura Blakeman & Lizzie Neave (Bronze 2007 Foz do Iguacu) and Lizzie Neave, Louise Donnington & Laura Blakeman (Gold 2009 La Seu d’Urgell).

GB Olympic K1W medallist is:

Helen Reeves (Bronze 2004 Athens).

Lizzie Neave on the Cardiff Whitewater course at World Cup 1 (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

As you can see from the above Lizzie Neave already has one World Champions K1W team bronze and an individual bronze medal. As mentioned before, Lizzie became British K1M champion in 2005 as a junior showing us her true future potential. See my previous posts for my Punters Guide to Olympic Form and analysis of the paddlers from other nations to watch. Stepanka Hilgertova (Czech Republic) is a double Olympic champion and Corinna Kuhnle (Austria) is only the second K1W paddler to win two successive World Championships. Tomorrow’s post will look at the C1.


K1M – Kayak Men’s Single

As promised I will spend the next four days looking at the four different classes. Then on Friday I will post on the basic terms of canoe slalom competition and the slalom techniques (basic and more advanced). If you are new to Canoe Slalom you will know what to look out for and sound as though you have been doing it for years. If you have paddled for ages, well done and keep practising!

Today – is K1M (pronounced kay-one-men), meaning a male athlete paddling a single one seater closed cockpit kayak. Let’s look at the equipment, pros and cons and some top paddlers past and present to look out for.

Richard Hounslow K1M on his way to win selection at Lee Valley in April (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The kayak paddler is sitting in a seat with the legs stretched out in front of them against moulded knee braces, foam padding and footrests. The footrests are potentially the most important fixture of the boat. It is not really possible to paddle down a whitewater course such as Lee Valley without footrests and it would be almost impossible to negotiate the slalom gates. The kayak paddler is effectively wearing the boat rather than simply sitting in it and so transferring the power of the paddling to propel the kayak or change its direction.

The rules of canoe slalom define the specification of the boats, in kayak this means the kayak must be 350cm long, 60cm wide and weigh not less than 9kg. The kayak length has reduced from 4 metres to 350cm and this has caused the sport to evolve.  The single kayak is the fastest in a straight line however in slalom the boat rarely runs straight for more than a few strokes. Also the shorter boats, shorter and bigger whitewater courses means that the run times are getting much tighter between K1M, C1 and C2. I will explain more over the coming days. With modern carbon construction it is quite feasible to manufacture the kayak less than 9kg. The boat is made up to the 9kg minimum weight by adding extra under the seat. This causes the boat to spin faster than it would do than if the weight were evenly distributed along its length. The kayaks will be weighed at the end of each run at the Olympic Games, to ensure that emptied of water they meet the required minimum weight.

In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, Jimmy Jayes described that K1M were doing an average 80 strokes per minute in the gates and up to 130 strokes per minute at the start and finish. Men generally have wider shoulders and slightly taller upper bodies and this means they have a greater muscle mass and longer levers than female paddlers. At times the men can rely on strength rather than superior technique.

Olympic K1M Silver Medallist Campbell Walsh at the Cardiff World Cup race (photo courtesy of Michael Barrett)

The kayak paddles have a blade on each end, which you may see from the pictures are offset between 40-90 degrees either clockwise or anticlockwise. So paddlers are either left of right handed. Some paddlers use a cranked or Double Torque shaft which is not straight and is believed to reduce the strain on the wrist and allow greater pull. The paddles are all made of carbon which is stiff and transfers the power and helps pull the boat towards the blade.The paddler wears a spraydeck which at this level are all made of neoprene. They are worn by the paddler around their chest/waist and seal around the cockpit of the kayak. They stop water getting in to the boat. The paddlers legs and the inside of the boat remain dry and this also keeps the boat running fast as it is not carrying the extra weight of any water.

Great Britain has shown a great depth over the 60 years in K1M at the World and Olympics. The GB World Championship individual medallists are:

Paul Farrant (Gold 1959 Geneva), David Mitchell (Silver 1967 Lipno), Albert Kerr (Gold 1977 Spittal), Richard Fox (Bronze 1979 Jonquiere, Gold 1981 Bala, Gold 1983 Merano, Gold 1985 Augsburg, Gold 1989 Savage River & Gold 1993 Mezzana), Shaun Pearce (Gold 1991 Tacen), Melvyn Jones (Bronze 1993 Mezzana), Paul Ratcliffe (Bronze 1997 Tres Coroas & Bronze 1999 La Seu D’Urgell) and Campbell Walsh (Bronze 2006 Prague & Foz do Iguacu).

GB Team K1M medallists are:

Geoffrey Dinsdale, Dave Mitchell & Martin Rohleder (Bronze 1963 Spittal), Ken Langford, Ray Calverley & John MacLeod (Silver 1969 Bourg St Maurice), Richard Fox, Albert Kerr & Alan Edge (Gold 1979 Jonquiere), Richard Fox, Albert Kerr & Nicky Wain (Gold 1981 Bala), Richard Fox, Paul McConkey & Jim Dolan (Gold 1983 Merano), Richard Fox, Melvyn Jones & Russ Smith (Gold 1987 Bourg St Maurice), Richard Fox, Melvyn Jones & Shaun Pearce (Gold 1993 Mezzana), Andy Raspin, Shaun Pearce & Ian Raspin (Bronze 1995 Nottingham), Paul Ratcliffe, Ian Raspin & Shaun Pearce (Gold 1997 Tres Coroas), Campbell Walsh, Huw Swetnam & Richard Hounslow (Silver 2009 La Seu D’Urgell).

GB Olympic K1M medallists are:

Paul Ratcliffe (Silver 2000 Sydney) and Campbell Walsh (Silver 2004 Athens).

See my previous posts for my Punters Guide to Olympic Form and analysis of the paddlers from other nations to watch. Tomorrow’s post will look at the K1W.

A tribute to Bushy & other trail blazers

It would not be right to talk about the London Olympic canoe slalom without paying tribute to Martyn Hedges. I am sure there are many canoe slalom paddlers who have never heard of Martyn Hedges but may very well have paddled in a Bushsport deck, never making the connection between the brand name and the legacy of the GB World Championship bronze medallist.

Britain’s outstanding C1 paddler, Martyn Hedges, known to us all as Bushy (photo courtesy of Tony Tickle, CKUK July 2002)

To quote from the Canoe Kayak UK article I wrote in July 2002; “Two months before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Great Britain’s most outstanding C1 paddler Martyn Hedges was tragically killed in a car accident en route to Nottingham. A minute’s silence was held at the Olympic canoe venue at La Seu D’Urgell in tribute to Martyn and the energy, enthusiasm and flair that he inspired in so many young paddlers” Martyn was one of slalom canoeing’s true trail blazers and London 2012 marks 20 years since his death at the age of 35. He was National C1 champion an awe inspiring 13 times! Martyn’s coach, Jim Sibley said; “Most paddlers throughout the world believed Martyn had the special qualities needed to be World Champion; indeed in 1980 he won all the Europa Cup races.”

Barcelona was the first re-appearance of Canoe Slalom as an Olympic event since the singe inclusion in Munich on the Augsburg course in 1972. Competition in C1 within the UK was tough, particularly between Martyn, Gareth Marriott, Mark Delaney and Bill Horsman. Olympic selection in the snow in Seu in April 1992 was nail biting! Gareth had won the pre-Olympics at Seu in 1991 and went on to win Great Britain’s first Olympic medal in Canoe Slalom with a silver medal in 1992. Interestingly, Mark is now coach to David Florence & Richard Hounslow!

Back in the 1992 Olympic days nations could select three boats per class, not just one. The British team decided not to fill his place for the Barcelona Games. Gareth Marriott said; “The decision not to replace Bushy in the Olympic Team was THE most powerful tribute available. He was the sort of guy you couldn’t replace. Bill [Horsman], his potential replacement, didn’t want a place that belonged to Bushy, he wanted his own place in the team.” The gold medallists from Barcelona were Italian, Pierepaolo Ferrazzi, (now coach to Daniele Molmenti), Germany’s K1W, Lisa Micheler-Jones, Czech, Lukas Pollert in C1 and in USA’s Strausbaugh & Jacobi in C2.

There have been other trail blazers within canoe slalom. The names of Great Britain’s K1M Richard Fox, USA’s C1 Jon Lugbill & Davey Hearn immediately spring to mind.  It would be reasonable to cite Michal Martikan and Pavol & Peter Hochschoners as the current trail blazers from Slovakia which has developed as one of the best nations in canoe slalom.

World Championships have been held every two years since 1949, apart from in an Olympic year and with the exception in Maryland, USA due to 9-11. Paul Farrant won Great Britain’s first canoe slalom gold medal in K1M in 1959. Folding kayaks were used from 1949 to 1964, think of that on the Lee Valley course. Anyone care to try? The LOCOG Canoe Manager of London2012, John MacLeod was a member of the 1972 Great Britain Olympic squad in Augsburg. The sport has evolved. Once upon a time there were green and red gates, 5 second penalties for a gate touch continued up until the Athens Olympics in 2004, when the penalty changed to 2 seconds, partly to reflect the much shorter TV influenced run times. The course length has shortened from 3 minutes back in the 1980’s, to 2 minutes in Barcelona to around 95 seconds in 2012. In a move to greater equality, Women’s C1 was debuted in 2009 and became a medal event in 2010 at the Tacen, Worlds. Yesterday, I referred to the Team event. Although this is not an Olympic event, it is a common feature of national and World Championships. Three paddlers in the same class make a team (club or nation) and paddle together down the course. The clock starts when the first competitor starts and stops when the third competitor crosses the finish line. Penalties are accumulated from the three paddlers. It is an amazing spectacle to watch, especially in C2, requiring excellent team work and timing to keep tight enough together without hindering each others passage. It’s also fun!

Tomorrow’s post will start examining the four classes, giving insight into the equipment, techniques and paddlers.

2012 Olympic Games ICF Canoe Slalom Qualification

Overall, and as one might expect the qualification for nations for the Olympics is a little complex. In simple terms there were two qualification events, where nations often referred to as federations could qualify places for boats, in respective classes. The actual qualification, selection and nomination of the athletes to fill the places came much more recently. The nations qualified boat places through the 2011 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships and the Continental Olympic Qualification event. Still with me?

30 nations qualified one or more classes for the London Olympic canoe slalom. Technically, it was actually 29 nations and Togo gained a K1Men Tripartite Commission place.

Only 10 nations have qualified one boat in each class (K1M, K1W, C1 and C2), meaning they have 4 boats and five athletes, as the C2 includes two paddlers. In fact, Great Britain is the only nation to gain a 5th boat under a new rule for the Olympic Games introduced for London 2012, because the selected pair in the men’s C2 were also both selected in the individual classes and men’s C1 and men’s K1. This means GB is entitled to send a second men’s C2 boat to the Games.

On July 29th-30th the Lee Valley Whitewater centre will be welcoming 85 world class elite paddlers in 73 boats to compete for the four medal events. Based on our current assessment (unconfirmed), we anticipate the participating paddlers will include 5 Olympic gold medallist in canoe slalom from (1996-2008), 11 Olympic medallists, four current World Champions (K1M, K1W and C2) and the current ICF World ranked number 1 athletes at the end of June 2012 after World Cup 3. The standard will be exceedingly tough. Pavol and Peter Hochschorner are looking for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold in C2 and two paddlers won gold back in Atlanta in 1996 and have incredible race experience at this level.

Since canoe slalom returned to the Olympics in 1992 after a 20 year break the qualification system has changed substantially so that each nation now only has the ability to send one boat per class. So in each nation the stakes have gone up for that one Olympic qualification spot and we find ourselves in a position where defending Olympic or reigning World Champions may fail to qualify and so miss out on competing in London in just over 3 weeks.

Future posts in the coming weeks will explore the four respective classes in detail and the individual paddlers.

The basics – why watch canoe slalom?

Welcome to five days of exhilarating explosive competition that test athletes (paddlers), supreme skill, strength and mental toughness down 300 metres of extreme whitewater. The paddlers race against the clock down the course through up to 25 gates going downstream through green and white gates and upstream through red and white gates. Modelled a little on ski slalom but here the competitors incur a 2 second penalty should they touch a pole suspended over the whitewater from above and a huge 50 second penalty should they incorrectly negotiate a gate.

The Olympic competition is made up of heats where the competitor has two runs down the course and the fastest and cleanest of the two runs is counted. They have no practice, so need to rely on their experience, skill and coaches to learn and ‘visualise’ the course and the exact strokes they will need to use to negotiate the whitewater and the gates! A reduced number of boats qualify for a single semi-final run on day two and a smaller number again for a single run final.

There are four classes of ‘boat’ as we crudely call them. OK, yes technically they are canoes and kayaks. Let me explain. There are two kayak classes: K1M – which is K one men, meaning a man sitting in a closed cockpit kayak with a double bladed paddle; K1W – which is K one women, meaning a female athlete sitting in a closed cockpit kayak with a double ended paddle; C1 – which is C one, meaning currently a man kneeling in a single canoe with a single bladed paddle; C2 – which is C two, meaning two men kneeling in a double canoe each with a single bladed paddle on opposite sides of the boat. I encourage anyone to go to YouTube,, or where you will find great videos to explain it visually much better.

From my experience these paddlers have been in the top end of the sport for about 13 years or more, at a team level for more than 10; making them on average about 26 years old. Olympics medallists have usually competed at a previous Olympics and have likely medalled at a previous World Championship or World Cup level. Many were successful junior athletes before they progressed into seniors at 18 years of age. There have been a few exceptions. So in essence these athletes have spent their entire teenage and young adult years to reach this level, much more than just simply since Beijing in 2008. I understand that Stepanka Hilgertova from the Czech Republic may have qualified for London 2012. If so this is utterly incredible. I remember watching her compete in Barcelona 20 years ago. She would be the only canoe slalom paddler to compete in Barcelona in 1992 and London in 2012. Outstanding. I will confirm.

For many successive Olympics since its return to the Games in 1992, Canoe Slalom has consistently been amongst the highest TV viewing figures. It is truly spectacular to watch on TV and the big white water and drops on the Lee Valley Whitewater centre make it the best Olympic level canoe slalom course in the world, according to the paddlers themselves.

Coming up tomorrow the listing analysis of which nations have qualified how many places for the forthcoming Olympic canoe slalom and the 82 individual athletes that have provisionally been nominated and qualified for the Olympics. London2012 tell me today that these are not official until the middle of July.  They are competing for four gold medals, one in each of the four classes: K1M; K1W; C1 and C2.

A subsequent post will provide you a little more background on the origins of canoe slalom, the Olympic canoe slalom history, GB medallists and more.