Wednesday 7 August 2013

2013 Junior and Under-23 World Sprint Canoe Championships

This past weekend the International Canoe Federation (ICF) held their first combined Junior and Under-23 World Championships for Sprint Canoe-Kayak in Welland, Ontario. With this event just down the road on our local course I had an opportunity to take in a lot of it. It was quite liberating to have no official capacity and enjoy the event solely as a spectator. Here are some of the impressions I’m left with.

Well done, Welland!

Welland is a small town situated midway between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, not far from the Niagara River. It’s the largest town on the Welland Canal that joins the two lakes for shipping. Sometime in the early 1970’s the government spent a ton of money making the canal straighter and bypassing Welland’s town center. This left the community with about 12 km of unused waterway. One section was filled in, and that represents the south end of what is now the new Welland International Flatwater Center.

We’ve used the course for years and it’s been slowly upgraded and hosted a National Championships, however despite its calm, deep and clean water it couldn’t be said that it met international standards until this year. A $10 million upgrade has seen all the latest ICF requirements for a championship venue added, including start gates, wave breakers between the return and racing lanes, finish tower, viewing stands, athletes center with training facilities including a paddling flume, and start towers at 200m, 500m and 1000m. It is world class in every regard.

Having the facility is one thing, but having the expertise to run a major championship is another entirely. Welland pulled it off. They called the event Canoe Niagara and assembled the best staff of experts and volunteers imaginable, including former National Team member Richard Dalton who oversaw the operation from a technical perspective. The result was a wonderfully successful championship, lauded by both the ICF officials and the athletes and coaches from around the world. By all accounts, Welland nailed it. Of particular note was the quality of the volunteer team assembled. Everyone I encountered was knowledgeable and had a smile on their face. I’ve heard that some of the visiting coaches said that the volunteers in Welland were even friendlier than those in Dartmouth, NS during the 2009 ICF World Championships. That’s really saying something. I mean how do you find friendlier Canadians than Nova Scotians, particularly when it concerns paddling?

Well done, Welland! You did an amazing job and the result is that the world is already looking forward to coming back. In the meantime, you’ve created what is the best imaginable training center for our sport. Thank you!

The performance of the athletes I helped coach

Jeremy Stott is a talented 17-year-old canoe paddler who raced in the Junior Men’s C2 1000m with Evan Bezemer from Mississauga. He’s also the son of Kevin Stott, who I raced C2 with as a junior and travelled the world with as a member of the National Team in the 1980s and for dragon boat in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Jeremy is a big talent. He’s been fortunate to work with a number of very good coaches including Scott and Adam Oldershaw and Kyle Jeffrey and he’s taken something from all of us. His technique has developed over the last year to the point where it is excellent. He’s developed his fitness a lot as well, although as you’d expect for a junior paddler it’s all still a work in progress. I’m hoping he’s dreaming of the Olympics one day, and despite the fact that there is a ton of work left to do he is well on his way.

Jeremy and Evan finished 7th in the final. They had a solid race and I like the fact that they went for it early, travelling through most of the first half in contention for 3rd before fading slightly in the third 250m. They certainly left everything on the course and won’t be wondering if there were things they could have done better or differently in their race.

The reality of junior racing at the international level is that there are athletes at all stages of physical development on the water. Both Jeremy and Evan, though remarkably fit for their age, haven’t matured physically to the degree that some of the paddlers they were racing have. While Jeremy and Evan were racing with teenage bodies, some of the crews like the Hungarians and the Russians were racing with much closer to adult bodies. It makes a difference.

Jeremy seemed pretty pleased with their performance, which pleases me. They did all they could and through the heat and final had two of the best races they’ve ever had. What more can you ask for? I’m glad they have the maturity to recognize personal best performances for what they are and be satisfied with them. At the same time, I’m hoping that the experience has left him wanting more. I remember when I came 7th at my first Junior Worlds in 1979 feeling like I’d raced my best but having this gnawing sense that it wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be at the front of the race. It was an important moment in my career as from that moment forward I knew I had to step everything up. That played a big part in fueling my development over the next 5 years and led to two golds at the Junior Worlds in 1981 and ultimately the Olympics in 1984.

Taylor Potts and Maria Halavrezos have had a great year and just getting to the U-23 Worlds meant they had to displace a two-time world champion in C2. It has been loads fun working with them. Their work ethic and readiness to learn has been exceptional. They’ve improved dramatically in a technical sense and that has seen their race performances improve markedly.

In Welland they did a personal best time in the Women’s U-23 C2 500m final and had, in their own words, an amazing first 300m in which they challenged the Hungarians for the lead. They probably paid the price a little for that in the last 200m, and although they didn’t die, they couldn’t stay with the Hungarians who slowly pulled away to win handily. Taylor and Maria ended up bronze medalists behind the Russians who pulled ahead of them in the last 50m to win silver.

Like Jeremy and Evan, Taylor and Maria had a best ever performance and I am thrilled to see them come home with medals. Hopefully the taste they’ve had of the podium here is going to motivate them to do the work required to get there again in the future. It won’t be easy as the women’s canoe events are becoming increasingly competitive.

Hungarian dominance

It’s amazing that a small country of 10 million people can consistently outperform so many larger nations in this sport. I’m not sure if canoe-kayak is the national sport of Hungary, but it ought to be. Their performances at world championships and Olympic games year after year have been remarkable. This championship was no different and made it very clear that there is a new generation of Hungarian superstars in the making, ready to launch onto the Olympic stage in 2016. They finished with an incredible 8 gold, 4 silver and 5 bronze, and it wasn’t just the fact that they won eight races that was amazing, but their total dominance in many of those victories that was most impressive.

Off the top of my head, performances in Junior Men’s C2 1000m, Junior Men’s K2 1000m, Junior Men’s K4 1000m and U-23 Women’s C2 500m were commanding performances with open water margins of victory. I’d like to stress as well that they weren’t winning these races because they were significantly bigger and stronger than the field. On the contrary, these athletes were lean and fit and won with excellent paddling rather than strength and size. The distance these crews were travelling every stroke was unbelievable compared to even the other crews on the podium. Their technical ability was awesome. Whoever is coaching these crews in Hungary is developing athletes that will be awfully hard to beat as seniors because the superior technical foundation that they have will carry them a long way in the future.

The resurgence of Canadian women’s kayak

When I was doing the TV commentary in London last summer I got in a bit of trouble with some people back home for suggesting that the women’s kayak program wasn’t good enough. We hadn’t qualified any crews from the 2011 worlds and weren’t able to qualify any in second chance qualifications during the spring of 2012. We ended up with Emilie Fournel racing K1 200m and 500m in London after she qualified late in the game through what amounted to the back door. At the time I chose my words very carefully and I stand by them today. For a country with a rich tradition in women’s kayak, the results of 2011 and 2012 can hardly be considered satisfactory. I didn’t attempt to speculate where the problem with the women’s discipline lay, I just stated the obvious. Despite the best efforts of the athletes racing, the results weren’t good enough.

I’m happy and excited to say that in 2013 it appears that a new generation of women kayakers is ready to reassert Canada as one of the top nations in the world. The Canadian women kayakers led the way in Welland. Michelle Russell double medalled with a stunning wire-to-wire show of dominance in the U-23 Women’s K1 200m, followed a few hours later with a bronze in the K1 500m. Maddie Schmidt won a bronze in the Junior Women’s K1 200m and finished 6th in the K1 500m. In K2 events, the junior women finished 7th and the U-23 women finished 9th. When you consider that there is a group of comparably fast Canadian girls that didn’t qualify as they sit right between the juniors and the U-23s in terms of age, suddenly the Canadian women’s kayak program looks pretty good moving forward. To be sure, there is an incredible amount of work to do heading towards 2015 and qualification for 2016 in Rio. But at least it appears there is new life and energy in the program that can push the senior girls and give us the capacity to build crews that can contend at the senior level in the future. Well done to these athletes and their coaches!

Some awesome canoe races

As a canoe paddler I have to comment on the canoe events in particular. I think the three most impressive performances to me were in the Junior Men’s C1 1000m, Junior Men’s C2 1000m, and U-23 C1 200m. The level of paddling and the winning times were both exceptional.

In the Junior C1 1000m, Sergei Yemelyanov of Kazakhstan was awesome, crushing the field and going 3:55 in a light side tailwind. The fact that he did it at 50 strokes/minute was truly impressive. He moved his boat an incredible distance every stroke.

In the Junior C2 1000m, the Hungarian crew of Jonaton Hajdu and Kristof Khaut won comfortably and paddled beautifully. This was just over an hour after Khaut won silver behind Yemelyanov in C1 1000m. Hajdu would go on the next day to win gold in the Junior C1 200m.

In the U-23 C1 200m, Andrey Kraytor of Russia turned in a commanding performance, winning by almost a second over Jason McCoombs of Canada. When you consider that the bronze medalist, Alfonso Benavides of Spain was 4th last year in London, the performances of both Kraytor and Jason look even better. I’m thrilled for Jason who raced in London last year and did very well for a 19-year-old Olympic rookie, however missed the final. This result should be a big boost for him moving forward, and he has a chance to race again very soon – at the World Championships in Duisburg, Germany in a few weeks.

Women’s canoe!

Even before the competition started you could tell this was going to be a big week for women’s canoe as the ICF participated in a “Summit” on women’s canoe hosted by Canoe-Kayak Canada.

For those that don’t follow canoeing closely, women do not race canoe at the Olympics. Both men and women race kayak, but only men race canoe. In fact, only since 2009 have women been racing at the world championships, and then only in two events compared to nine for the men.

Canada has seen women racing domestically the longest of any nation, with events for women at our national championships since the early 90s. More recently ICF member nations from around the world have started to embrace women’s canoe and some very good paddlers are being developed in other countries. The problem is that since women’s canoe events are not Olympic, most nations (including Canada), do not fund women canoe athletes nor devote much in the way of coaching resources to their women’s canoe programs. As such, development in women’s canoe events in not occurring at the rate it could be.

One might ask, “Why not just add women’s canoe events to the Olympics?” The answer is that it isn’t that simple. The International Olympic Committee has made it very clear that while they want gender equity in all Olympic sports, they will not permit Olympic sports to either add events or increase their quota of athletes. This means that to add women’s canoe something currently in the Olympic canoe-kayak program must be dropped, and it is difficult for a variety of reasons to find consensus among ICF member nations on how to approach that. In my opinion it is essential that the ICF come up with a plan soon for 2020 on how to address the issues of gender equity and women’s canoe, or the entire sport’s Olympic future may be at risk.

Despite that fact that women’s canoe is currently in Olympic limbo, the performances in Welland were outstanding and have taken these events to an entirely new level. Particularly impressive to me were the Junior Women’s C1 200m which was won by Daryna Kastsuchenka of Belarus. Her performance was outstanding and her technical proficiency the best I have seen from any woman in the world to this point. Right behind her was Angie Avegno of Ecuador. To me this is significant because Ecuador is what I’d call a developing nation in our sport. The fact that they have a medalist already in women’s canoe is fantastic as it shows that these developing nations can quickly make an impact in women’s events. Hopefully more developing nations will follow with fast women canoe paddlers.

In the U-23 Women’s C1 200m, Canada’s perennial world champion Laurence Vincent-Lapointe was given all she could handle by Irina Andreeva of Russia. From the perspective of the growth of the sport, this is great news as Laurence has been able to win pretty easily the last few years.

Of course I have already commented on the Hungarian crew which won the U-23 Women’s C2 500m. Their technical ability was as impressive as that of the Belarus girl’s in the Junior C1. As women from around the world take their performances to increasingly higher levels it becomes harder and harder to deny these athletes a place at the Olympic games. I think the women canoe athletes opened some eyes in Welland, and coupled with the growing interest from around the world in women’s canoe that was demonstrated at the Women’s Canoe Summit, I am hopeful that the ICF will do the right thing and come up with a plan now for including women in the Olympics for 2020.

It was a great four days of racing and, as always, a privilege to see athletes of this level perform live. It reaffirms to me what a beautiful sport, and what an extremely difficult sport, canoe-kayak is. It was awesome for Canadian canoeing to have these championships in our own backyard. All the kids from our club were there to watch and the impact on them cannot be overestimated. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long for the next international event at Welland.