The course was 'turned right down' due to 'an incident' the day before.
After Saturday’s soaking, I woke with a fluttering in my stomach on Sunday – I would put it down to the River Trent and all the wondrous things I might have swallowed the day before, but I would be lying to myself and to you. I was just nervous.
After we left Shaun Cavern on Saturday, Tim and I took a wander up to the white water slalom course. I imagine that it looks fairly intimidating at the best of times, but it was made all the more so by having half a dozen children zipping about on the water like they’d been born in a kayak. Not only was I likely to fail miserably on Sunday - I was likely to fail miserably where so many nine year-olds had succeeded before me.
Ian Raspin, coach to the Great Britain Olympic team, met us at the course bright and early on Sunday morning. He’s a stocky little man with a friendly manner and a ready smile that puts you instantly at ease, even if you can see that, behind that, there clearly lies a character who would walk through brick walls to get to whatever he wanted.
He explained that there had been 'an incident' on the white water the day before and that unfortunately it was closed. I tried very hard to look disappointed rather than relieved. He suggested we get kitted up and have a paddle about on the practice lakes in the meantime, and then maybe we could sneak on at the bottom of the course later on. It wasn’t the complete abandonment I was secretly hoping for, but it was a start.
As he helped me shove my knees into the kayak, Ian explained that you don’t get many slalom racers over six-foot tall. I didn’t mind the cramped conditions at all – I felt a lot safer than I had the day before (one's knees stick out of a racing boat).
This was ironic – a couple of hours later, it would be my excessively long legs that would be preventing me from sliding out of my capsized kayak quite as elegantly and safely as Ian made it sound like I’d be able to.
While the sprint boat is designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line, the slalom boat is designed to be as manoeuvrable as possible and to provide a bit more buoyancy than I had previously enjoyed. This was a good thing and a bad thing – I wasn’t quite as fearful of tipping the boat over as I had been the day before, but I was showing a nasty tendency to go round and round in circles.
After half an hour on one practice lake, we paddled through to another one that had some slalom gates strung out across it. Ian zipped between them with the consummate ease you would expect from a double Olympian, adjusting them with one hand while he paddled with the other. He pulled four gates into a straight line and suggested I might like to try and paddle through them.
On the practice lake with Ian Raspin, a real Olympian!
I resisted the temptation to scoff at the level of simplicity. I also resisted (briefly) the temptation to swear as I missed the first gate completely despite having started my run less than twenty feet from it. Sadly, the lake had no current running through it that I could blame.
After an hour in the gated lake, I was just about able to get through four gates in a straight line, albeit with a very dainty little pirouette in the middle of my run. Ian seized the moment:
“Because of what happened yesterday, they’ve turned the speed of the white water right down today, so I think you might be ready to hit the bottom of the course and see if we can get you to go through a gate on the moving water, what do you think?”
“Absolutely. That would be great!” I lied. “What did happen yesterday?”
“It’s very sad. Someone died I’m afraid.”
“I know - it’s terrible. Anyway, I’ll nip back and get you a helmet and so on and then we can wander down.”
And with that he turned around and paddled back to the centre, leaving me to think about the fact that someone had died on the course the day before. Now, it turns out that the poor soul who passed away on Saturday might have died regardless of where he was at the time, but on Sunday, as I stood looking at the white water and waited for Ian to come back, the connection between dying and canoeing seemed fairly strong and not a little daunting.
When we finally made it to the water’s edge and I started folding myself into my boat again, I was reminded of Ian’s comment on the phone the first time we had spoken: “If you’ve never been in a kayak before, there’s about as much chance of you getting down the white water course at all, even without gates, as there is of the sky falling in.”
I don’t think that is quite right – I think I could live in a kayak for the next twenty years and still not make it down alive. As I shoved off from the side of the course I couldn’t help but wonder how much more terrified I might have been if the water hadn’t been ‘turned right down’.
As long as I let the water move me and didn’t try to paddle against it, I felt reasonably secure, but as Ian tried to teach me the basic technique of paddling across the current from one eddy to another I felt any semblance of confidence I’d built up begin to ebb away.
"I wonder what the bottom of this one looks like..."
Sure enough, on my first full-blooded attempt to cross the course, I capsized. Far from the instantly amusing spectacle this had created the day before, I found myself unable to get out of the boat.
Ian had talked me through how to do it at great length, but strangely, with my head touching the bottom and the boat clinging to my legs as the water gushed all around me, I completely forgot everything useful he had told me and started trying to do some as yet undiscovered version of the breaststroke like some demented tortoise with a canoe for a shell.
Ian to the rescue as I gasp for air like a drowning tortoise.
Ian was laughing as he fished me out, but I was sure I’d been mere moments from drowning. I’ve since watched the video. I was probably under the water for about four and half seconds – five at the very outside.
"Not now, Kato! Can't you see I'm drowning?"
I went snowboarding once. I was handy enough at it and loved it for the first ten minutes. Then I crashed, and that was the end of that. From that moment on, I was a nervous wreck and couldn’t commit to any movement I made for fear of falling. As a consequence, I fell over a lot.
This same scenario was now in full flow on the slalom course. Having drained the boat, I got back in and paddled out into the current again. When I let it take me where it wanted to I was fine, but the instant I tried to move in any direction the water didn’t want me to go, I was all over the place. I lasted another ten minutes before I once again found myself underwater.
This time I tried to stay calm. I reached down and pulled the cover off my legs and set about trying to pull my legs out of the boat. But I was upside down, and my face hit the bottom, and the water was thundering in my ears, and I couldn’t breathe. I abandoned my calm approach and resorted to the demented tortoise impression. Fortunately, Ian was there again to pull me out.
It had a curious taste - not unlike a pair of three-day-old damp socks on a radiator.
They say ‘once bitten; twice shy’ – I’m not sure what the saying is for when you’ve been bitten twice, but I suspect it might end with the word ‘petrified’. If it doesn’t, it should. Ian sensed my increasing fear and suggested that maybe I should try and get it through one gate for the camera and we could call it a day.
I just about managed it, but only because Ian had the decency to pull the thing into the middle of the course – directly over the line anything buoyant would have taken if you’d chucked it into the river.
We climbed out of our boats and headed back up the hill to shower and drink Coke (the fact that the latter helps kill any nastiness you might have swallowed in the river is both pleasing and slightly worrying at the same time).
I will write more about this sport in the days to come, but for now I can only end with thanks – to Ian for answering Tim’s e-mail in the first place and for giving up his Sunday to help – to Shaun for doing likewise with his Saturday – and to both of them for offering to help again in the future if they can. If I can meet generosity like theirs in every sport I have to complete, this challenge will be a doddle!
Ian Raspin - what a thoroughly bloody nice chap.
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Posted by John McClure at 10:34 pm