A white-water excursion on the Youghiogheny River last week was morethan just a vacation thrill for 17-year-old Becky Brown.
The thought of running that southwestern Pennsylvania River scares many a thrill-seeker, but Brown is right at home amid the rushing, swirling white water. A top-caliber junior kayaker, Brown challenged the churningrapids of the Youghiogheny in a weeklong training camp.
A member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team's junior squad for two years, Brown has trained on even bigger white water than the Youghiogheny offers. While in Europe for the Junior World Championships last year, she trained for three weeks on some of the most challenging rapids in France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
Already a three-year veteran of white-water slalom racing, Brown said she wasn't competitive with the world's best young kayakers. Still, she learned a lot of valuable lessons in Europe.
"In France, I got to work on very fast-moving water. I learned you've got to take control. If you don't take control, you're going to end up way downstream. I know, because at first, I kept getting washed downstream," said Brown, who lives with her mother, Barbara, a former nationally ranked down-river racer, just outside of Jarrettsville.
Now that she can handle the big water, Brown is working on fine-tuning the techniques that will help her sail smoothly through the more than 20 gates she must navigate on a white-water slalom course.
While racing against the clock, she mustpass through each gate without touching it. If she does, penalty seconds are added to her score. Gate markers are suspended above the river, forcing a kayaker to move back and forth to slip though them in sequence. They are also color-coded so a racer knows to go upstream through the red ones and downstream through the green ones.
"The smallest error can really mess you up," Brown said. "At the team trials (this spring) I got all the gates with one touch. I said, 'Yes, I've arrived.' I was only three seconds behind the first boat. If I hadn'thad that one touch, I would have won."
Brown still moved up a step on the three-girl junior national team. Last year she finished third but this year moved up to second. She hopes to finish first at the Junior National Canoe and Kayak Championships on July 10-11 on the Nantahala River in the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
Last week's training camp on the Youghiogheny and another this week on the Nantahala will help Brown with some of the techniques she feels she's lacking.
"You want to try to make the gates in as few strokes as possible. You want to whip in and go up and out. You want to be moving steadily through. I have this problem of stopping in the gate."
The main advantage of the training camps, as well as a three-week racing trip to Quebec and Ontario later this summer, is the coaching she will receive. Even though she has competed regularly on the East Coast for three years, Brown hasn't spent much time with her coach, Fritz Haller. The Glencoe native and two-time world champion is the national development coach for the U.S. team based in Wausau, Wis.
Although Brown works with Haller in the summer, she has been tied to home during the school year. Until she graduated from Hereford High School in Baltimore County (where she lived part-time with her father), Brown worked out on Gunpowder River and made as many trips as possible to Bethesda, where a Potomac River feeder canal has an artificial white-water slalom course.
This fall, she willattend George Washington University, which is close to the feeder canal. That will give her plenty of practice time and some coaching, because many top kayakers use the course.
"Coaching is vital, especially with technique," Brown said. I'll be practicing something I think is right and get it into my head, and it'll be wrong."
Haller, who was working with kayakers in Colorado last week, has said that Brown has plenty of potential but needs more experience.
Brown has discovered that all that is really holding her back is money. She must pay all of her own expenses, so she has had to skip some competitionsand training camps.
Last summer, the European trip cost more than$2,000, so she had to pass up the U.S. Olympic Festival in Minneapolis. Brown, who is always looking for sponsors, couldn't afford the weeks of training in Colorado leading up to the festival.
Still, sheis encouraged by her improvement and is shooting ultimately for a spot on the 1996 Olympic team to compete in Atlanta. She is trying to strike a balance between remaining confident and being realistic.
"You always think, 'I'm going to make it.' You encourage yourself and you want to make it, but you know your ranking. What you do is compare yourself to yourself: 'How did I do this time? Was it better than last time?' Right now, I'm getting better, but I still have a long wayto go."