Outlet’s white waters draw kayakers

Loujane Johns
An Olympic hopeful navigates along the Keuka Outlet during competition on Saturday

Whitewater racing is not a well known sport in our area nor is it in many other areas of the country.  But it is the fastest growing sport in the United States, according to Chris Wiegand USA Canoe /Kayak Team Development Coach from Colorado.

Wiegand, who is originally from Rochester, has experienced courses all over the world.  So it was a true complement to the area when he called the Keuka Lake Outlet one of the few courses in the country to offer challenges to all levels of competition.  He said it is an ideal course.

On Saturday, June 27 paddlers from all over the country competed in the USA Canoe and Kayak Whitewater Slalom Age Group National Championship.

Art Miller of Rochester has been promoting paddlesports in the greater Rochester area for several years.  “We have run a lot of northeast races, but this is the biggest one we have had,” he said.

Entrants came from Colorado, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Wisconsin and other states.

Calling themselves “slalom gypsies,’ Ben Peters, 16, of Wisconsin and Simon Ranagan, 15, of Washington, D.C. both said competing in the Olympics is their goal. 

Peters, a member of the Junior National Team, started the sport at 11 and Ranagan at 10.

David Malakoff from Virginia follows his son Liam all over the country, watching events.  Liam spends two to three hours a day training on the Potomac River year around.

The course is 500 meters long with 21 gates.  Competitors paddle through the gates, while trying  not to make contact with the gates, which adds points to their time.  They learn to duck and maneuver to accomplish this.

Wiegand says no two runs are the same.  The course constantly changes with the moving water.  At a Friday trial run, several people tied a rope around a large log which had floated downstream and lodged in a bad spot.  They formed a chain and had a tug-of-war with the impeding object.

“The sport teaches creative thinking. The athlete is forced to make quick decisions.  There is no one way to do it right,” said Wiegand.  David Malakoff added that it has taught his son independence and confidence.

In the United States, the sport is small, both the coach and father said.  France has one of the biggest followings with over 100 clubs. 

In a recent competition in Britain there were over 500 entrants.The formal membership in this country is only about 216.  Colorado, New York and Maryland are considered the hubs.

A former neuro-physiologist, Wiegand calls the sport safe.  He says the typical injury is to the shoulder.  Head injuries are rare, he added. The competitors know how to avoid danger.  Paddling is considered a “non-impact sport” and is a great form of cardio-physio exercise.

Although many of this weekend’s participants were young, Weigand considers paddling a lifetime sport. 

Ages ranged from 10 to 60.  “The kids get to trail right along with the elite athletes.”

Wiegand, who was the National Youth Sport Coach of the Year in 2005 and received a similaraward from the US Olympic Committee, has taken the sport all over the world.

 In January he took some young people to Australia.  Eight kids will be going to Switzerland in two weeks.

In 2007 he founded the World Paddle Sport Foundation along with Kalayoon Asraf of Iran to provide opportunities in paddle sport to all people. 

The two founders have worked in Kenya, China and Iran, introducing  the sport to strengthen harmony and peace.

Wiegand encourages people to focus on the local, but think global. “There is water everywhere in the world.”  He sees it as a means of promoting the sport and goodwill.

Colorful kayaks belong on the Keuka Outlet's waters, say these competitors.