Is Slalom Racing the Paddling Path For Your Kid?
I had absolutely no interest in competition when I got into kayaking. I had paddled tandem canoes since I was 14 and, to me, a kayak was like being handed a hot sports car to drive after a lifetime spent behind the wheel of a three ton truck. I was hooked, but I still viewed kayaking as a playful way of exploring new territory and running rivers where our 17’ tripper would struggle. However, the emergence of my two sons on the paddling scene changed all that, and shifted the way I looked at kayaking forever.
About the time my boys, then 9 and 11, were acquiring some basic paddling skills with our local club, Slalom and Wildwater kayaking were accepted as medal sports in the Alberta Summer Games. Two years later, my oldest son raced for his zone and returned home, not only with a couple of medals, but a firm determination to be a whitewater racer. What did he discover at that competition that grabbed his attention like no amount of river paddling with his dad had ever accomplished?
First of all, I believe that the most important attraction of the racing scene was there were a whole bunch of other kids out there doing the same thing my son was. Suddenly, he had a new group of friends with a shared interest in kayaking, and when he attended an Alberta Whitewater Association Junior Whitewater Camp later that summer, not only did his whitewater skills take a quantum leap, but he forged the nucleus of a web of friends, acquaintances, and contacts from all around the province that has grown steadily to nation wide, and then world wide stature. And have you ever wondered what a group of young racers do when their training sessions are finished? They go and play, what else! Ripping up waves, hole riding, throwing ends…one and then more. Spins, blunts and just plain river running fill the time in between intensive training sessions, time filled with laughter and good natured jibes and encouragement. Let’s face it, no matter how much we as parents encourage our children, there is nothing like finding other kids doing the same thing to spur a kid on to bigger and better things.
But the peer aspect of racing is only part of the picture. All through their teen years my sons have been influenced by, and become friends with, a succession of high performance paddlers, each who have raised the bar in a way that I could never have done in a lifetime of recreational weekend warrioring. Roy Sharplin, Canadian C1 Champion and Barcelona Olympian, is an excellent example of the kind of positive influence that my sons have encountered on the racing scene. On a regular basis Roy brought his deep pocketed technical skills to the river and handed them out freely. Whether on the race course or shredding a wave or hole, Roy passed on many of the subtleties of paddle use and boat control. He was a seemingly bottomless reservoir of tips on using the water to maximum advantage to get where you want to go efficiently and effectively. And for my youngest son, Roy has had a huge impact on both his paddling skills and outlook as he strives to reach National Team status. These kind of mentors just don’t appear out of nowhere on the river. They are usually connected with an organization or club that fosters an active Junior whitewater racing program. These people have been out there, done it, and are now giving back to the sport in ways that can not only be measured in hundreds of seconds or medals, but also in the growth of mind and spirit.
And where has all this racing stuff taken them? In short; everywhere!!! Throughout their home province, training, racing and playing on a wide variety of cold mountain streams. Across Canada, from the boulder strewn Chilliwack to the rush of the Gull at Mindon and the bed rock rapids at Jonquiere, and finally, to Europe to train and race on the world stage at famous names like Augsburg, Bratislava, and Lofer. What more could a teenage paddler ask for…except that I understand that the Australian girls would make heading that way well worth the effort.
So what about me, the old dad with the yen to have recreational time on the water with my family? I haven’t been disappointed …ever. My boys have got me to the river about ten times as much as I would have if they hadn’t entered the racing scene. And while they have torn up the race course, I’ve been out on the water too, paddling with other paddling parents, instructing new young paddlers and, when the training was done, trying to keep up with the two of them as they pressed me to my limits. I’ve watched my family gain technical skill and confidence in a basically safe paddling environment, watched over by competent and skilful coaches. I have traveled to all corners of Canada, paddled more rivers than I would ever have dreamed had I not been following my boys to different National Championship sites. And my wife and I have also met an endless stream of wonderful people from all over the country; people whose children have discovered the multiple benefits of the whitewater racing scene and dragged their parents along for the ride. What more could a rec paddling parent ask for? It’s something to think about if your children are just getting into the sport.
**Written by Laurie Curson. Father and mentor to Brendan and Connor Curson. Brendan Curson is currently the Program Director for the Saskatoon Whitewater Kayak Club as well as a technical slalom coach with the Canadian National Slalom Team while Connor Curson still trains and competes full time as a member of the National Development Team.**