All eyes on Lee Valley

Good morning and welcome to the fabulous sunny Lee Valley Whitewater course for the biggest canoe slalom competition ever in the UK. Today starts 5 days of the most spectacular, exhilarating, tense and thrilling canoe slalom competition. Good luck to all of the paddlers and teams. Congratulations to the huge team behind the scenes for what they have already achieved in bringing this amazing competition to a reality and good luck over the next days. If you are new to canoe slalom sit back either at Lee Valley or at home in front of the TV and prepare to watch this most sensational sport. We hope it encourages you to pick up a paddle, coach or support this wonderful sport. For a preview of today’s competition see yesterday’s post.

Tonight’s post will include commentary on the outcome of today’s K1M and C1 heats and a preview of Monday’s heats in K1W and C2.

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.

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, www.canoeicf.com, www.sportscene.tv or www.gbcanoeing.org.uk 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.