BZ CORNERS, Wash. — If you’ve ever braved rush-hour traffic in the big city, you may have a grasp on what the sport of head-to-head kayaking entails.
The biggest difference is the terrain, but the attitude remains the same.
“Head-to-head competition is pretty intense,” said Brad Ludden of Vail, Colo., who finished third in Wednesday’s event. “A lot of the guys feed off the intimidation factor and things can get pretty heated. But at the end of the day we’re all one big family.”
Ludden was joined in the final four-man heat by Kurt Braunlich (fourth), 2001 winner Eric Jackson (second), and Steve Fisher, the 2002 Ford Gorge Games champ.
Two of the event favorites, Tao Berman and three-time world champion Scott Shipley, were ousted in the first round, while 2001 Extreme Kayaking champ Sam Drevo sat out the competition.
“A lot of head-to-head racing is luck,” said Ludden, “but the Extreme race is pure skill.”
Ludden advanced to Friday’s 16-man Extreme finals after a strong qualifying round on Thursday. Sixteen women also competed in the event, which took paddlers over Big Brother Falls, which measures close to 30 feet. (Extreme results not available at press time. See the July 24 edition.)
In the women’s head-to-head bracket on Wednesday, Shannon Carroll of Raleigh, N.C., snaked past Nicola Kelly of New Zealand and event favorite Brooke Winger of Eugene for top honors.
“This was an incredible field this year. A great fight to the finish,” said Kelly, who out-lunged Winger at the finish line to eek out a silver medal.
“I was fortunate to squeeze through at the end,” she said.
Finishing fourth in head-to-head was Maria Nokes of Bryson, N.C. Another event favorite, Kelly Liles, was ousted in the first round.
Liles placed 12th in Thursday’s Extreme qualifier with an average time of 56.43 seconds. Kelly led the field with an average of 46:52, while Sara Mullett was second (48:33) and Winger third (49.42).
Heading up the men’s pack was Fisher with an average time of 44 seconds. He finished ahead of Andrew Holcombe (44.4), Scott Mann (44.78) and Shipley (44.98), who competed Friday against 12 other top paddlers for the Extreme title.
One of those top paddlers is Brad Ludden of Vail, Colo., who founded First Descents, a motivational kayak camp for youth cancer patients, which will hold its second-ever camp Sunday in Vail.
“Those kids inspire me every day,” said the third-place finisher in the 2002 Gorge Games head-to-head kayak competition. “I thought of them at the start and I was able to draw a lot of energy from it. The camp adds so much to everyone’s life.”
In addition to teaching kids how to run a river, Ludden and organizers also try to make the camp memorable by bringing in world-class athletes such as skier Picabo Street, swimmer Amy Van Dyken, snowboarder Barrett Christy, and 11-time Para-Olympic gold medalist Sara Will.