Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Day 6 - Finals Day

This was it, 10 years on from watching the freestyle finals live in Canada* wishing that I could be out there throwing down, here I was in Argentina about to go into my 4th Freestyle Kayak World Championships finals and amazingly I was going into it in 1st place.

*World Championships Bus Eater 2007 - I finished 11th

Yesterday was already a bit of a blur a long day starting with women's quarters finals, then involving the massive boat fix, flowing straight into semi finals and then a night training session. I should have been shattered but having just had a pretty decent sleep in I was for the first time since the massive squirt boating day beginning to feel re-engerised again. Not fully but way closer.

Jez had been up early, disappearing off to help organise all the extra side events, as well as meetings with the media teams, event organisers and ICF. I however just laid in bed and chilled. It was great. A leisurely chilled start to a finals, a stark contrast to previous events such as NOC and Plattling where competing in two disciplines. Finals day had consisted of a 9am squirt boatings finals followed by a 4or5pm Freestyle finals. With literally just enough time to recover in between events but also a hugely long day full of excitement, nerves and full on rides. So today felt pretty luxury.

We had a lot of British athletes still in the game today with Ottilie, Alex and Harry all making it through into the juniors finals and me, Islay and Rob all making the seniors cut. I've been lucky to paddle with, coach and compete against all these guys and it was really cool seeing how much progress they had made in their paddling and also seeing them achieve such great rides this week. Ottie was up first and I had asked Den to chat to her last night to find out if she would like me there in her coaches corner for the finals and she did.

So feeling good especially with the fact it was a 1.30pm start I jumped in the car to go and coach and cheer her and all the other junior women on.

Junior Women's finals

Sage Donnelly leading the charge for several years now

The standard of junior women's freestyle has dramatically increased in recent years and two of the leading forces in the sport were going head to head in this event. USA's Sage Donnelly still only 17, already with one World Championship win under her belt and by far one of the most talented and key girls, influential in taking the sport to a whole other level was leading in 1st place. Close on her heels in only her first World Championships but with so much talent and drive, at only 15 years of age and new to the international circuit was Ottie from the UK. Then from Spain and America 3 more young athletes super talented and throwing down tricks that would have in previous years seen them easily take win. Today was an exciting day for the sport. Barriers had been well and truly smashed down by the junior girls and a new generation of advanced junior women's freestyle had begun.

Ottie throwing some huge air tricks

The event kicked off and the girls threw down sequences of Mc Nastys, Loops, cartwheels and Space Godzillas. Then Ottile and Sage took their turns adding splits, huge cleans onto their air loops and even going for big back loops. This time it was Ottie who took the lead in the first round but it was close. Second round in and Ottie nailed an awesome ride. Huge bonuses on some of her big tricks. It was so exciting to see. Sage still had the highest score of the event from prelims so we knew the battle was on but finals day is different. The pressures are different. Yes you get 3 rides only 1 counts but you need to really be perfect and nail all your tricks. Whether it was the challenge of defending a world title whilst still only 17 years old, whether it was not feeling 100% being tired, sick or nerves. Sage just wasn't quite on form and didn't quite pull together her big ride. But Ottie was on form she was so calm and collected and just went out their and laid the best rides she could. She absolutely flew and made sure every trick she landed was perfect. No questions of doubt for the judges. Boom Boom Boom. Points, Points, Points. Me and Den realised early on in the finals this was going to be Ottie's day. She was just in the perfect place. Mentally and physically. It was so exciting to be part of. Too see her nail her rides at such a big event.

Sage (Silver), Ottilie (Gold) and Olivia (Bronze)
Flags raised high what a back drop
The news came in.. the 2017 World Freestyle Kayak Champion was .... Ottilie Robinson Shaw. The crowd went crazy and Ottie's new life as a World Champion had begun.

Junior Men's finals

Straight after the junior women's they rolled into the junior men's. I knew my energy levels were fragile but it was all to exciting to walk away from so I grabbed a good spot on the stands and watched the spectacular freestyle display commence. Again it was a mix of America and Europe paddlers in the pack. Super talented Kenny Kellogg (team USA), joined by Valentine and junior phenomenon Tom Dolle from France and super talented young athletes Harry Price and Alex Walters from the UK. Kenny and Valentina went first and laid down some solid powerful rides. But then the sport just went to another level as Harry, Alex and Tom went mental and each laid down rides well over 1000 points. Harry set the bar high first with a massive 1200+ point rides just missing scoring a couple of his tricks. Alex then raised the bar again hugely with a one ride score of almost 1500 points. An insane fast explosive display of trick after trick after trick. Almost no pauses between anything just back to back big tricks. Then the World Championships were well and truly won. In ride 5 of the finals and Tom's first ride of the day he mixed power, speed, ability and height to score an absolutely huge 1718 point run!!! Yep that's one ride, 1718 points from a junior athlete. Absolutely amazing. The ride was text book a perfect lesson in freestyle kayaking.

Tom stoked with his rides
The rest of the finals was amazing to watch but that was it the first round rides set the podium. Straight off the mark Alex and Harry from Great Britain taking the silver and bronze medals and the Super Star Tom Dolle stealing the show to become World Champion. All of them making their mark in their World Championship debut. Its easy to say that the senior men will have a lot to watch out for with these junior athletes in the years to come.

Alex (Silver), Tom (Gold), Harry (Bronze)

C1 finals

I feel like i've neglected C1 a little bit in this event so i'm super sorry for not watching and cheering you all on. But after the excitement of the juniors I had to peace out for a little bit.

I do know though that Dane Jackson battled hard against a stacked field to take home his 3rd consecutive C1 World Championships title. Not only that he smashed the previous world record high score. With Seb (France) coming in second and Lucas (CZE) coming in with the bronze.

Dane set a new record winning 3 consecutive world championships

Seb (Silver), Dane (Gold), Lucas (Bronze)

Time out  

As the C1 finals began I started to sneak away from the action to get some time out. Women's finals started at 9.30pm which meant I had 6hrs to chill, relax, stretch, prepare and eat. As I left the park someone caught me I can't remember who (but I would like to say thanks) to let me know that there was a massive storm forecast for the evening and to be ready just in case the finals times were changed. I remember them saying it probably wouldn't happen but there was a chance so just be prepared and keep an eye out. The weather was nice there was a lot of clouds in the sky but I wasn't too concerned and doubted anything would change especially because of the difficulty of such a major schedule change. Spectators, judges, athletes, audience, tv crews, satellite live stream links all set for the 9.30pm start any changes would be super difficult to implement. But it was good to know.

Just as I was about to jump in the car I saw Islay and Rob and gave them the heads up. Islay was staying in town (about 30 minutes drive away) so I offered for her to come by and hang out at mine if she needed to but she was all set to head back to the city and chill and eat.

Chilling at the Lake surrounded by storm clouds

So I set off home, grabbed a bite to eat, set my alarm clock and passed out. Yep for the first time on a finals day I fell fast asleep for about an hour and a half. When I woke it was still early so I layed around stretching and watched some training footage. A highlights reel of my best tricks I had prepared during training week. As I watched I realised how flat I had been during prelims and the 1/4 and semi finals runs doing my safe routine and right there, laid in bed several hours before finals I decided that I was just going to go for it. I wasn't going to open with a safe ride. I was going to go all or nothing with my fun, new routine of the big tricks that I love. It wasn't a completely out there idea I had been training for this run. But it was my big run which I would normally not do until after I nailed a base run but not today. I was ready. I wanted it. I felt amazing. Fully energized, ready to go. I had my plan. I felt great. It was 6.30pm. 3hrs to finals and things were beginning to get exciting. I was beginning to feel the buzz.

I heard Clay and Jessie chatting next door so popped in to say hi. I knew I needed to eat something but nothing we had in took my fancy. As I stood chatting to Jessie and Clay it dawned on me the food I wanted was chips (french fries) and the closest place for them was Mc Donalds in town. At that point then I knew my pre comp plan. Pack up, drive to town, have chips, drive to the venue, get ready, go boat. I told Clay and he was in. So we started collecting up gear ready for the night at the event. Kayak, paddles, helmet, cag deck, shoes, bib, team uniform, drinks, snacks, music, head phones the list went on. Just as I was packing the last few items my phone beeped. I picked it up and read the message.

'They have moved the ladies forward to 8pm as there is a severe weather warning men's follow straight after.'

It was 7.12pm!!! I was ready totally ready. In fact this was perfect. No chips, no problem it was time to go compete. But... oh no. Islay was in town and that was a 30 min+ drive away at least. So I got on my phone and phoned Isaly. No answer. I phoned Gav. 'Did you get the message?' 'No'. 'Ok, don't panic but the finals have been moved forward to 8pm grab Islay and her gear and head straight in.' 'She's not here! Shes at the shops!' 'Oh s**t. Ok don't panic just go find her. Keep her calm, its not a problem. They can't really start without us, but... just get there asap.' 5 minutes later.... 'Ive got her we are on our way.'

Ok sweet. I sent a quick face book message out to everyone at home knowing everyone was scheduled and ready for a 9.30pm start. This was a huge call to bring forwards finals, the storm forecast must be pretty significant. I found Clay, my heart pumping, this was exciting. So I told him there's a big storm coming so finals have been brought forward and now start at 8. No times for chips its time to go boat.'

'Wow, ok'. I remember him asking 'ok are you ready?'. Do you have everything, do you a ride planned? 'Yes, Lunar, back loop, mcnasty, mcnasty and then the rest...'

Clay stopped and looked at me and said 'your opening with a lunar.' 'Yes I said with a massive smile.' I was totally ready and feeling great. 'Awesome!' Clay said with a huge smile and we jumped in the car and set of to the river ready to compete.

We arrived within 10 minutes and there was people running around everywhere sorting things out. Admist the chaos I could see Den. Stood with a massive smile, ready to get down to business. We dropped my gear at the start and checked it all out and then I put on some music and peaced out. I told Den Isaly was on her way and he set about chatting to the other coaches. Then 5 minutes later. I realised... has anyone spoke to Rob? 'We sent a text and facebook message! the team managers said. That was not good enough he was living in a tiny middle of nowhere Argentina village with no service or internet. I also knew Rob had a pretty solid pre run routine that he liked to do so it was important he got the message as early as possible. So the team coaches and manager set about finding a plan to go get Rob and once again music on, I just chilled out.

As I was prepping Jez came down from the announcers booth and gave me a big hug and kissed me good luck. Then disappeared again.

I stayed in dry clothes just wandering and pacing about to make sure that Isaly wasn't going to be the last one in and everyone else already be dressed. Everyone else had got the message and was here read. It was about 7.45pm. Then I look up and see Islay running down towards us with Gav. Big smile and big hug. With Islay here it was finals time.

The sun was still out but it wasn't too hot. Sitting in first place going into finals I would be last to go. So I chilled as long as I could then it was time to change into my kayak gear. The final signal that the event was about to kick off. I felt energized, excited, ready.

The girls all went but I didn't watch I just chilled out with Den and got myself warmed up just enough. I remember not even thinking much about the ride. I knew what I needed to do. I just needed to go out there and thrown down. I needed to be super strong, powerful and explosive and make the tricks work just like I had seen the young ones do in the morning.

Finals Time Ride 1

Den gave me a big smile. The head judge gave me a thumbs up and it was time to go. I paddled into the eddy for the live stream camera shot and then dropped down through the feature into the bottom eddy. I looked around and took in the moment. This beautiful place, the stands, the cameras, the lights the audience and then I focused.

Thumbs up from Head Judge Josh Wedgewood

I looked at the feature, looked at the judges stand and then powerful and hard I laid two of three solid paddle strokes as I set off towards the hole. No thinking, no looking, just doing. I dropped in and used my trigger ques to nail the tricks, bang bang bang. Lunar, Back loop, Mcnasty, Mcnasty (?), Loop, Split-Split-Cartwheel (all linked), repeat Mcnasty, Phoneix (missed), tricky wu (nailed it). Celebratory Back loop after the buzzer. YES!!!!!!

The magic about to begin

Mid flow

You can see me smiling, its working

Enjoying every minute of the run
I nailed it. Like absolutely nailed it. That was the ride I wanted this whole event. Yes it wasn't all perfect but... it almost was. I was so happy. That was the ride I had been looking for. The ride I could be super proud of. The ride that was really really good and really really fun. Right there in that moment I felt so happy. Years and years of hard work had paid off and I had taken all my big tricks into a competition ride and nailed them in a worlds final. At that stage to be completely honest the result and score didn't matter I had done it. Den smiled, Jez smiled, Clay smiled, Islay smiled, Anna smiled everyone smiled that ride was really really sweet.

The excitement burns within

As the crowd cheers calmed I looked at the score board and realised how big the other girls rides had been. They too had had awesome first runs. Especially Marleene who had hit an 743 point ride and set a new record for the event. Wow. What an event.

We didn't have to wait long. The scores were in ... 925 points. A new world record score. I was in first place. I was stoked and this was only ride one in.

I can't find a direct link to the live stream but check out my ride here through this link.

Crowds going crazy in the stands
So we all lined up to go again. Islay first run score was a little low, no surprise with the hecticness of getting to the event. Second run though she found her form and began to fly. Nailing her second highest score of the event just missing out on a new personal best by 10 points.

Islays left Space Godzilla had eneryone in awe
Loading up a massive Mcnasty

Hitomi and Zofia threw some great rides too but just missed out on a few key moves not quite showcasing their very best but putting down an awesome performance and battling right until the last second of each run.

Zofia non stop action during her runs
Zofia so closing to nailing a huge scoring run
Hitomi so talented
Going huge in her runs
Marlene though was on fire she was in the zone and fighting for the 1000 points. Her second ride she just dropped a few tricks but in her third ride went full out with an amazing display of freestyle. Linking sequences and nailing hard tricks.

Marlene nails a sweet entry move
Beautiful space godzila links

A sign of a very happy athlete after a great run
My second ride went awesome I scored lunars both ways (the first time a female paddler has done this in a competition) as well as some other tricks but didn't get a higher score.

Loading up a massive offside lunar
So much fun throwing the big tricks

It was make or break on Marlenes last ride. Would it beat my first score. If it did wow!!! That would be insane but... it was very possible it was an awesome performance. We both sat happy watching the scores. Once again womens freestyle had stepped it up another notch today and that was super exciting to be part of. The scores came in Marlene had a new personal best and very high score of 887. The 3x European Champion had won her first World Championship medal she had the silver and was in second place. Hitomi was in third with the Bronze. Her third World Championships her third freestyle podium place and I had won. OMG I had won the double again.

So awesome sharing this moment with Islay
This was insane. It felt as exciting, if not maybe even more exciting than the first freestyle worlds win and the double in America. I think because the ride was so awesome. Plus it had been a really hard fought competition. I loved it. I smiled. I went back in and took my third ride throwing a helmet grab loop. I just had fun. I had done it :)

Just having fun out there in front of the crowds
Cheeky helmet grab
ICF World Championship Gold number 8!!! World title number 10!!! New World Record 925 points!

The crowd went wild. I hugged everyone. I couldn't believe I had done it again.

Claire O - World Champion

Sadly for one person to win others must loose and I could see the disappointment in the eyes of the girls as well as the happiness. The crazy mix of emotions that come with sport. But in the awesomeness of sport everyone cheered and celebrated as well. It was a very important day in the history of the sport. New world records and standards had been set and that ride. I was so happy with that ride. I went to celebrate with Den but he was gone. Straight back to it to be with Rob in the mens final. I could see Jez cheering for me in breaks between announcing high in the stands. Celebrating with them had to wait until later, the show was still going on. As I paddled to the edge of the river the camera crews were waiting ready to do interviews and celebrate and everyone came to say well done to everyone who had just been on the water.

What an awesome final

Then all eyes turned back to the water. It was time for the men's competition to begin.

Men's Finals

Caught once again in the behind the scenes chaos. I didn't get to see as much of the men's finals as I would have liked. But I did hear the crowds go absolutely wild time after time. By now it was dark so the flood lights were on and the place looked electric. As did the sky in the distance. The storm holding its distance allowing the competition to go on. The mountains had multi coloured lights brightening them up. All elements I hadn't noticed during my runs.

Steve O throws a mix of wave and hole tricks

Adding huge air for extra points
Dane so fast, technical and talented
Going huge and clean
Landing a massive lunar orbit
Seb flys during his run

I manged to sneak onto the VIP platform a few times. It was packed with people. TV stars, dignitaries, media teams all taking in and enjoying the show. The stands were packed, the road above on the top of the hill was packed. Everyone watching and cheering on the action.

Rob cleans a huge Mcnasty
Frustration as he just gets flushed
Dane flew, Seb flew, Rob flew, Stephen flew over and over again each battling for that ultimate ride. Dane was in the lead and then in his very last ride having already smashed out a new world record in the prelims with a ridiculous 1,937 point run. However in this finals it was Quim Fontane Maso who really shone and flew in his last ride with an insane routine of tricks. Putting himself into the history books, taking out the win with a 1,718 point run.

Quim drops in the zone and just goes crazy
Big air
Fast, precise, explosive tricks
Fully in the zone. One goal. One focus.

It was unbelievable so many talented athletes battling head to head for the ultimate title in the sport. World Champions, European Champions, National Champions some of the best of the best putting on a technical display of freestyle magic. The crowd went wild with emotions in this stunning dessert spot. 'Quim Fontane Maso is the new World Champion'

World Champion - Quim Fontane Maso
Then just as quick as the event had started the event came to an end. Almost 200 athletes having taken all their allotted rides.

The 2017 ICF World Champions had been crowned.

SQW - Claire O'Hara
K1W - Claire O'Hara
Jnr W - Ottilie Robinson Shaw

C1 - Dane Jackson

SQM - Clay Wright
K1M - Quim Fontane Maso
JM - Tom Dolle

Champagne Celebrations
The prize ceremony launched off the same way the whole event had started at the opening ceremony a week earlier with a massive fireworks displays. Flags were raised, national athemes were sung, medals were awarded. Then the huge photo shot, massive good byes and big party begun.
Fireworks light the sky over the river
Crowds gather to watch the awards
People and mountains everywhere
Marlene (Silver), Claire (Gold), Hitomi (Bronze)
I walked off the stage so excited, so happy and so hungry. I found Jez and Den and we tucked into a VIP Argentina feast of steak, potatoes and veg. It was perfect. Outside the music pumped and the athletes began the final party of the event.

Quim & Jacko, Claire & Den. The 2017 winning partnerships
The end of another amazing Journey
Me and Jez had other plans though. We hung out until 1pm then jumped in the car and headed back to our cabin with Clay. Jez literally couldn't keep his eyes awake as we loaded the car and I drove through the night to the airport. It's was 2.30am when we left our chalet and we had a morning international flight at an airport over 3hrs drive away. The decision to leave the boats out of the bags was a smart one as half way to Mendoza the storm hit. It was huge. Hammering rain, huge lightening and thunder storms. The road flooded over and the wind blowing like mad. The call to move it the event forward was a good one. This storm would have destroyed the event had it hit as planned.  With the roads flooded and no lights anywhere it was hard to see in the dark. I hit the first flood at full speed the water flying up the wind screen with a loud bang waking Jez and bringing our travel speed down to about 30km per hour. The next hours journey was slow as we drove through flood after flood along the main road with the sky exploding all around. To think what it would have done to the event if this had hit during finals! It was a huge decision to pull the event forwards but driving through the storm we both knew why. Luckily our go-kart (tiny car) overloaded with gear made it and as we pulled into the airport we were met with the big bubbly smiles of Sydney and Rowan. We were paddlers number 3 and 4 to check in that morning.

All checked in and ready to go
Knackered waiting to board our flight home
By the time we caught our flight our boat and paddler check in count was over 40!!! On our flight alone we had Team NZ, Australia, GB, Japan, Finland and Canada. Our World Championships Adventure in Argentina was coming to an end. But we made it. As did many other athletes. I have never seen as many kayaks lined up to get on international flights at a tiny airport before in my life. Probably 45+ kayaks all in the line in this tiny airport in the middle of the desert.

So many kayaks in such a small airport
A true testament to the magnitude of how unique and special this event was. In the middle of no where Argentina, on a feature that only 8 years ago didn't exist. One man (Mauricio Caif) and his team of volunteers (friends), with the support of the ICF freestyle committe volunteers (Jez, Terry, Tony, Ned and Lluis) managed to plan, organise and host a hugely successful ICF World Championships crowning seven new World Champions and distribute the whole thing live from the middle of the desert to the world (via the Olympic Channel), Insane.

Mauricio and his team from San Juan
18hrs later the adventure was over, well almost, as we landed back on home soil with no real plan. Normally the best news ever all our gear had landed with us but not this time as we had forgotten to arrange a ride home. 2 smelly tired boaters, 1 huge big bag of gear, 2 play boats, a squirt boat and a massive amount of camera gear we found our selves laughing as we found our selves stranded at the airport only 40 mins away from home. Luckily we had friends who we could call on to help us finish this massive adventure off.

Seriously amazing medal collection
8x ICF World Champion!!!
Thank you so much to everyone involved in the organsation and to everyone who helping me get to and supported me in the build up to and throughout the event. To my sponsors, supporters, family and friends. Thank you.

Next stop... The ICF Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Spain in 2019.

Thank you Peter Holcombe Photography for the incredible photos