The Lee Valley canoe slalom legacy

Wow, what a legacy! Note to self – buy all of the newspapers!

Today’s last post is dedicated to the service of those who have invested the last few years of their lives to pull off the greatest canoe slalom show on earth. There really has been two Team GB’s: one dedicated to performance excellence with the athletes and one dedicated to those that have delivered the highest level competition venues. There have been challenges and disappointments along the way but this should not detract from what has been achieved. You should now all be incredibly proud.

The Times cover Friday August 3 2012 TheTimes.co.uk

There have been 800 people behind the scenes at the venue on race days. A core team of 11 led by Canoe Manager, John MacLeod (1972 Canoe Slalom Olympian) have worked full-time for several years to bring this competition together. I want to recognise and acknowledge what they have achieved. They are: Elaine Skilton (Canoe Services Manager), Colin Woodgate (Canoe Slalom Technical Operations Manager), Kelly Rainey (Slalom Admin Services Group Leader), Tamsin Phipps (Canoe International Federation Group Leader), Natalie Sandmann (Slalom Athlete and Team Services Group Leader, Debbie Littlehales (Slalom Sports Information Group Leader), Dave Royle (Slalom Field of Play Group Leader), Julien Gaspard (Slalom Sports Equipment Group Leader), Jacky Brookes (Slalom Technical Officials Group Leader) and Paskell Blackwell(Slalom Field of Play Safety Group Leader). The Venue General Manager of the Lee Valley Whitewater Centre is Paul Valkovics (see canoeicf.com). We were delighted to welcome two Royal Air Force Squadrons to provide security for the games; Royal Air Force Regiment Queen Colour Squadron (63) Northholt and 2 Squadron Honnington Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, as well as all the emergency services inside and beyond the immediate venue. There are so many others including Lee Valley, British Canoe Union CEO Paul Owen, GBCanoeing and their headline sponsor Tesco.

The Daily Telegraph Friday August 3, 2012 pages 4-5

The immediate post Olympics is a key decision point for athletes and teams. For the athletes, whether to commit to another four year cycle. For the Gold medallist, Molmenti, Estanguet, Fer and Ballie/Stott whether to now bow out on a high or commit to the next four year cycle. London2012 has been Hilgertova’s 6th Olympics and Oblinger’s 5th. Some of the paddlers will retire and move to be part of coaching staff in either their own National Federation or for oversees athletes. From a British perspective also the decision whether to permanently relocate the canoe slalom to Lee Valley or return to the base in Nottingham. There is currently no canoe slalom club at Lee Valley and several athletes and coaches see this as a next logical step to build a legacy from Lee Valley.

The ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships are confirmed at Lee Valley for 2015. Given the enormous UK interest generated in the sport can we argue for a 5-10,000 seater stadium for 2015. Recalling the 1995 World’s in Nottingham it was primarily attended by athletes, coaches, managers, officials, friends and family plus only a few hundred members of the public who may have
found themselves stumbling upon the race. It did have BBC and Eurosport TV coverage and this helped inspire a new generation of paddlers. This year is not yet over in the International Canoe Slalom calendar with two World Cup races remaining. The 2013 World Championships will be super exciting. They are back at the Prague Troja artificial canoe slalom course.

It was incredible to see the old guard in the stands or alongside the course, previous Olympic medallists such as Gareth Marriott, Lisa Micheler-Jones, Scott Shipley, Thomas Schmidt, Pierepaolo Ferrazzi, Paul Ratcliffe, Helen Reeves and Campbell Walsh as well as other Olympian’s; Nick Smith, Mark Delaney, Melvyn Jones, Ian Raspin, Rachel Crosbee, Chris Arrowsmith, Paul Brain and Miriam Jerusalmi-Fox and coaches Hugh Mantle, Ken Langford and Alan Edge.  At the same time there were Great Britain junior and U23 team paddlers cheering on their role models and thousands of club slalom paddlers and recreational canoeists. Our hope is that London2012 really will inspire a next generation of Olympians. Lee Valley was voted by LOCOG based on a spectator exit poll as the best Olympic venue. Helen Reeves was also voted as one of the best TV commentators. Kev McHugh, Andy Maddock and Randy Ferguson brought the venue alive with some high energy live commentary. We encourage everyone to come back for the ICF World Canoe Slalom Championships in 2015 again here at Lee Valley.

Before rounding off, a most overwhelming congratulations to all 83 paddlers, our 15 London2012 Olympic medallists and to Performance Director, John Anderson MBE on behalf of GB Canoeing staff. A vision has been realized!  We have a World Class venue in London & South East of England, Olympic Gold in canoe slalom, Olympic C2 medals and a media spotlight on this most amazing sport.

This is THE picture of the whole Olympic canoe slalom event. It captures everything we have dreamed of and what has been achieved. Congratulations. L-R Nick Smith, Etienne Stott, Mark Delaney, Richard Hounslow, David Florence & Tim Baillie. Photo courtesy of Antony Edmonds AE Photos http://www.aephotos.co.uk

It has been an absolute privilege to bring you this daily blog over the last month, which has generated almost 5,000 direct views. It has provided an encyclopaedia of canoe slalom for London2012. I would like to acknowledge a bunch of people who have helped me along the way in no particular order, they are: Michael Barnett (MB23 Photography), Antony Edmonds (AE Photos), Rob van Bommel (Sportscene), Tony Tickle (although not up to the expected standard!) and Craig Morris for permission to use photographs and Nick Smith, Chris Arrowsmith, Gareth Marriott, Elaine Skilton, Anne Hounslow, Jimmy Jayes, Russ Smith, Colin Woodgate and others for some facts, figures and opinions. Finally for the links and newsfeeds on www.canoeslalom.co.uk, www.LondonOlympic2012.comwww.thesportfeed.com, www.canoeslalomworld.com, Ollie Williams BBC Sport and TalkSport. Much appreciated guys.

Tell everyone you know in the UK to buy a newspaper today. I hope you pick up a paddle. Visit www.bcu.org.uk. For now, au revoir.

John

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 www.slalomtechnique.co.uk 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.