By Eric Jackson
The Alps are an impressive range of mountains. The Tirol section of Austria is a rugged, beautiful Alpine mountain area, with quaint villages, glacier fed rivers, like the Oetz, where the Sickline World Extreme Championships are held each year in early October. It is here that the fastest racers in the world test their mettle against both the tough “Wellebruke” section of the Oetz, and against each other for the title of the fastest extreme kayak racer in the world. The race attracts the top slalom racers, including Olympic and World Champions, World Champion freestyle boaters, and renowned creekers. Adidas is the main sponsor of this event, with Otztal tourism, GoPro, and Jackson Kayak as additional sponsors. TV crews for the live broadcast, as well as the TV show are busy filming, interviewing, and producing the show. The race organizer, Mike, is very organized and very strict in his administration of the race, which goes for both the staff and the athletes, making it a very well run event with few if any mistakes and a very fair event that runs exactly on schedule.
The race is a combination of a qualification race that pairs down the field from, this year, 133 men, and 16 women, to 48 men and 5 women. The qualification race starts at the bottom of the class 4 “TNT” rapid and goes over the Champion Killer drop, and then downstream for another 75 seconds of class 2+-3 rapids. The purpose of the qualifier is to pair down to a solid field of qualified boaters who should be relatively safe and proficient for the “finals” on the “Wellerbruke” section which is quite an awesome section of water.
I had my family there for the race, with Nick, Dane, and I expected to race, but Emily decided to race after she arrived. The water levels were lower this year, and the course not quite as difficult due to the lower water and a few shifting rocks. This makes the competition even more intense, however, from a racing point of view, as more paddlers who are fast will make the run with less mistakes and the times are super tight. We began our training with the water levels at 182 on the gauge and got in some good initial training on both the top and bottom courses. Emily was using my 2013 Karma from last year and paddling on the bottom course just about every day. Dane, Nick, and Joel were lapping the top course a ton, and of course, Dane more than anyone. I would guess that Dane did two times more runs on the course each day than anyone else. It is pretty funny to watch, and impressive as well. Reminds me of my old days in slalom, always training longer and doing more than anyone, even while the coaches are saying “you are over training”. Any time you ask Dane how his runs are going, he says, “not very good”, I can’t seem to get this move or that move right, consistently. Of course, he means, perfectly. When you watch him, you see awesome runs and everyone is watching him as one of the people to beat and see how he is doing each move. Nick and Joel were also paddling really well, and then Isaac showed up and started training and was looking super fast as well. Matthieu Dumoulin from France came from Paddle Expo and had already been training here earlier, and knew the lines and ran them flawlessly most times.
Multi-year winner, Sam Sutton always looked strong along with his brother, Jamie, every time they went by and we were on the platform watching. Mike Dawson was fast and strong, just coming from the World Slalom Championships a couple of weeks ago. The Germans have a huge contingent of really fast, experienced racers. Olympic medalists, World Slalom Champions, World Cup Champions, past Sickline winners, and up and coming athletes who have something to prove. Czech Republic and Italy also come with a group of top paddlers who do well each year. This year Pungal from Chile came, a Team JK member, and is incredibly strong and fast. He is 6’2” tall about 220 pounds, and a powerhouse. He is also a TV star in Chile and has a huge billboard in downtown Santiago, with is JK Karma and is a character. There was also a kid from Argentina, Mattias, who I never met, who was incredibly fast and skilled and was awesome to watch.
The race started with the qualifier and each year it gets harder to place well in this race. I had 2 runs at 1:30 each, both paddling as hard as I could, and good lines (not perfect, but good) and I finished in 29th place in that part. Dane finished in 4th with a 1:27 and a 1:28 nailing the Champions’ Killer both times. Emily finished in 2nd place in the qualifier, behind Nouria Newman from France (both paddling the Karma).
The qualifier cut the field down to 5 women and 48 men. The men then were paired off using the international “ladder” system were the fastest goes against the slowest. second fastest against second slowest (in the qualifier) etc.. I was in 29th place and went against the 20th place person first, a Czech slalom racer who was racing his first Sickline. I beat him by .1 seconds to make the semi-final cut. Dane, Nick, Joel, Isaac, Pungal, and I all made the semi-final cut.
The Semi-finals had a twist of fate. Dane and I were paired up against each other! We had to go head to head to make the finals. The good news was that one of us would make it, but the bad news was that two of us not were not likely going to make it, unless one of us were the “lucky Loser” who makes it in. Dane went first and looked super fast in the part I saw. I could just see his time on the scoreboard when he finished and it looked like a 58 second run, but it was so hard to see that I wasn’t 100% sure. I was going to have to be fast to beat him and immediately after I saw his time the green light was lit and I had to go. I did a good ramp and kept my line exactly where I wanted it all through the top section. when I entered the TNT rapid I had just sprinted across the flat and was feeling good still. Each move went as planned and I was sprinting to the Champions’ Killer drop and it was the only thing in between me and the next round, as I was on a good 57 second pace, but the landing on the drop didn’t workout in my favor… I hit the boils straight away and had to scramble to make it through to the slot, losing my speed. I managed to get through without it being catastrophic to my run, but I came across at 59.4, just .9 seconds behind Dane. Dane made the Finals, which was fine with me (yes I wanted to make it, too, of course) as he worked hard for it. Pungal, Nick, and were also eliminated, but Joel, and Isaac made it.
The women did a finals run. Emily rotated to the left off the ramp and had to start pointed upstream and missed the normal slot, having to go right and it set the stage for the rest of her run, which was a 1:12. Nouria had a 1:03 to take the lead in the women’s finals, which was 2 runs and both count. Second runs for the women went much better for Emily, who got a 1:05, the third fastest run of the women’s class, but not enough to medal. She ended up 4th, behind Nouria (first, Toni from New Zealand, Second, and Martina Wegman, third). Jennifer Grimes was 5th.
The men’s “Super Finals” was the last thing to go, Isaac and Joel had good runs, but were not in the “hot seat” for long as each boater kept knocking them out. Dane went and managed to get into the “hot seat” for one run and was knocked into second right away. He was then knocked into third by Jamie Sutton and remained in third for a long time. It was getting near the bottom before Joe Morley had his epic run, putting him in first and then Sam Sutton and Gerd went, who were the top 2 in semi-finals, but failed to repeat their performance in the finals, as Joe Morley took the win, again, for the second year in a row, becoming the second person (Sam also) to win multiple Sickline races. Mike Dawson took second and Jamie Sutton took third. Mike has been second several times now, still never winning this race. Dane ended up in 5th place, a great finish for anyone, but not as good as he was hoping, but he was super happy and enjoyed the entire race experience.
We all reflected on the entire trip, which included paragliding, mountain biking, high ropes course, lots of good training, family time, and filming as well. One more thing on the agenda, the ‘Finals Party” which was a cut loose last time together late night party, with “DJ Chainsaw” providing the mood setting music.
Another year, another Sickline World Championships. Next year, we’ll be back and ready, as winning this event in the men’s class is still on our agenda and it is fun trying even if we didn’t achieve that goal. We had a good showing, however, with Nouria taking the win for the second year in a row in the Karma, and some great performances for Team JK in the men’s class throughout the weekend.
See you stateside and on the river! If you want to see some videos from the race… click here..