by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
The Warren Wilson Canoe/Kayak Team was victorious at the American Canoe Association’s Southeastern Intercollegiate Whitewater Championships the weekend of Oct. 6, winning every event that they entered into, which included individual races in addition to the relay race on Sunday.
“We blew the other teams out of the water,” said Cameron Thacker, co-captain of the team.
Initially, though, the team was a little nervous that they were underprepared for the competition. John Griffith, the coach of the team, was notified of the competition less than two weeks before it was to take place.
“Going into it I felt like we would be a little unprepared,” Thacker said. “We had a lot of new boats to get ready and a much smaller team since only a few people could clear their [Homecoming Weekend] on such short notice.”
Out of the 14 paddlers on the team, only seven were able to travel to Dillsboro, where the races took place on the Tuckaseegee River.
“I knew that the few people that could make it out were strong boaters and we were all going to be in fast boats, so once it all came together, I was pretty confident we would do well,” Thacker said. “When we got there, we had the fastest boats by far, so we couldn’t use our old excuse that we had slow boats. This fact changed my attitude from my normal ‘racing to see how well I will do’ to ‘I have to win this.’”
This year, the Canoe/Kayak Team was awarded money to purchase new canoes and kayaks, to further suit the needs of the team. It became clear to Coach Griffith that the team needed new boats that would complement, rather than inhibit, the paddlers’ abilities.
“We had gotten to a point where we had the skills but not the boat to match,” Griffith said.
He applied for a grant through the President’s Initiative Fund, which is sponsored by several Trustees of the college.
“I told them that a national championship is within our grasp if we have competitive boats,” Griffith said.
With the $5,000 that the team was given, Griffith spent this summer shopping for boats, most of which are used. When the team arrived at the competition, they soon realized that their boats were superior to those of the other teams.
“We had brought a gun to a knife fight,” Griffith said. “Everybody else had old whitewater kayaks and we had sea kayaks which are way faster.”
To “even the playing field,” Thacker said, the team shared the boats they were not using in the relay race with the other teams. Even without the significant boat advantage, the Warren Wilson team still won the relay race by almost three minutes.
“It felt good to know that even with the same kind of boats, we were still a faster and stronger team,” Thacker said.
The Warren Wilson Canoe/Kayak team has been around since the 1980s, when Griffith and psychology professor at the time Windy Gordon, an olympic slalom racer, decided to establish the team.
“After I started working here at Wilson and Windy came on staff, he was a big mentor for me,” Griffith said. “I followed him around, and learned the ins and outs of racing.”
Gordon left Warren Wilson several years ago, but he returns often to coach the team during practice. The team have other guest coaches come, like Eli Helbert, a Warren Wilson alumnus, who is now a professional open boater and creek racer. Chris Gragtmans, a professional Kayaker, also attended Warren Wilson, also returns to instruct the team.
“In a lot of amateur sports that really don’t have a lot of ways of paying athletes, people work at McDonald’s to support their habit,” Griffith said. “They train at a high level for something that doesn’t pay them much.”
Paddlers are passionate about their sport, Thacker adds.
“When you are paddling at the professional level like Eli and Chris, it becomes much more of a lifestyle than a hobby,” Thacker said. “I feel like it is an exciting time to be involved in kayaking since it is so relatively small. As I grow as a kayaker, the sport as a whole is growing too.”