Paddlers gear up for U.S. nationals

Maryland whitewater course is path to Olympics

September 24, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

A river runs through America's elite whitewater paddling triumphs, from Olympic-medal performances to countless world championships, from the Summer Games of 1972 to Beijing.

Paddlers from around the country have come to the Potomac River, some relocating to Maryland for years at a time, to join home-grown talent to train and race on the only warm-water slalom course in North America.

At the halfway point before the 2012 Olympics, athletes are gathering at the river this weekend for the U.S. National Championships, where coaches and U.S. team officials will look at the veterans and gauge the progress of the next generation. Canoers and kayakers will practice on the boulder-pocked course next to the Mirant power plant in Dickerson on Saturday and race for titles on Sunday morning.

"This is the history of our sport," says Joe Jacobi, an Olympic gold medalist, pointing at the boiling rapids behind him. "You have the kids here working out with some of the sport's greats."

Jacobi, a Bethesda native, has been both. As a teenager, he trained on the Potomac and in the artificial course along its banks on his way to the top of the podium in 1992 and now heads USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for U.S. racing.

Spectators, who can watch the fast-paced action from grassy picnic areas along the quarter-mile course, will see Scott Parsons prove why he's a two-time Olympian seeking a third spot on the roster, and national junior team members Liam Malakoff, Zack Lokken and Peter Lutter.

The U.S. team has podium potential in London in two years. In men's single canoe, Benn Fraker will build on his 2008 Olympic experience, coached by Maryland natives Davey Hearn, a three-time Olympian and two-time world champion and Cathy Hearn, herself a multi-time world champion. Besides Parsons on the kayak side, there's Olympian Brett Heyl and 2009 national champion Jim Wade.

Earlier this month, U.S. men fininished fifth in the team competition at the 2010 Slalom World Championships in Slovenia. Bethesda's Scott Mann, Parsons and Heyl put together a strong final run against 22 of the best boats.

Paddlers have always been drawn to Maryland and the Potomac, which has long, flat stretches dotted with mild rapids and a hellacious whitewater drop called Mather Gorge near Great Falls.

But rivers are driven by nature, and the ebb and flow produced by weather did not create consistent training conditions.

In 1991, PEPCO, the electric utility that owned the plant at the time, agreed to create a whitewater course in the 40-foot-wide concrete channel that returned warm-water discharge from the generators back to the Potomac. Artificial boulders were lowered into place to create an obstacle course similar to the configuration built for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The results were heartening: Jacobi and doubles partner Scott Strausbaugh blew away the field while teammates Jamie McEwan (a 1972 bronze medalist) and Lecky Haller took fourth. At age 31, Jon Lugbill finished just off the podium in men's canoe.

Paddlers still train in the river, but the artificial course is now the center of the action. There are two other artificial courses in the country — in Western Maryland and in Charlotte, N.C. — but neither one has warm water for year-round training and both allow the public to paddle and take raft rides.

Helping to bring along the next generation is Dana Chladek, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist and coach and race director at the Bethesda Center of Excellence, one of the first major paddling schools in the country. She was drawn to the area by the Potomac in 1987.

"This is a tremendous resource," she says of the course. "It's free. Charlotte charges $20 a day, but Mirant doesn't charge us for the water. The athletes don't have to dodge rafts, and that's huge when you're training."

The athletes are aware of the ties to greatness.

"I'd like to go to the Olympics," says Brynn Benson, 14, who travels from her home near Scranton, Pa., to train with Chladek. "My main goal is to be on a Wheaties box."

Standing next to her and dripping wet after a run, Eliza Malakoff grins.

"It's a really small sport, in our age group there's, at most, 10 girls," she says. "This started as a total hobby and now it's more. I'm 13 and she's 14 and we're racing in U.S. nationals. We are the future of United States whitewater."

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