You often hear from me in the 3rd person, speaking as “South Main.” Today I thought I’d give a first person account of my win this weekend at the 62nd FIBArk whitewater festival 25 miles south of Buena Vista in Salida. Let me begin by saying that this was the first time I have won FIBArk, and to do so with so many local friends and fans cheering me on, and with such stiff competition, was thrilling and definitely a highlight of my career. It was also among my most decisive wins, so I won’t try to hide that I’m pretty fired up about it!
What I love most about competing at the highest level of freestyle kayaking is combination of mental and physical balance and focus that it requires to do well. For finals Saturday night, I found “the zone,” but it was certainly a journey getting there.
I think the water level was pretty challenging mentally for a lot of folks as we practiced in the days leading up to the event; I know it was for me. With high water levels, it was challenging to stick high-scoring tricks; combined with the long lines, the challenge for me was to figure things out without getting frustrated. After a couple sessions I had figured out how to be consistent with a handful of the bigger moves, and my plan was to also link together a bunch of lower scoring moves like blunts and splitwheels.
Preliminaries were held Friday evening, and by that time the water had dropped enough to make the hole a lot easier. It was still possible to flush on any number of moves, but single ride scores over 1,000 were evidence of the more forgiving conditions. I sat in fifth after the cut to the top 10 men.
Semifinals were held Saturday afternoon, and the cut from 10 to 5 was very close, with less than a 50-point spread between 3rd and 7th. I made the cut by a mere 5 points with Clay Wright tight on my heels. The fact that former World Champion and freestyle legend Eric ‘EJ’ Jackson and reigning World Champion Nick Troutman both missed this cut is evidence of how deep and competitive the field was- not all events are this way.
As with prelims, it was the 16-year-old phenom and reigning Junior World Champion Jason Craig in the lead after semis. I love Jason’s smooth yet explosive style- it’s safe to say that he’s the most competitive 16-year-old in the history of the sport. It wasn’t until 18 that myself and other Juniors of my generation were giving the Pro Men a run for their money.
And then there were finals. Sitting in 5th, I took the first run of finals. The banks were packed with spectators still jazzed from the Hooligan Race and Women’s freestyle finals. The energy was high, and I was able to feed off it, setting the bar with the highest scoring event of the competition- 1220 points. It’s not often that the first ride of finals is also the winning ride. Even with some of my biggest wins at Teva Mountain Games and other events, It’s often my 2nd or 3rd ride that wins it. Throwing a 1220 as my first ride made for a unique and much-less-stressful finals experience.
I knew my first ride would almost certainly put me on the podium, but 2009 FIBArk/ National Champion Stephen Wright came incredibly close to beating in his first ride, which came in a mere 10 points behind. With a simple flat spin scoring 10 points, this was insanely close and made me think that my first ride might not actually win it. Big props to Stephen for hanging in there despite an upper-respiratory infection that had him dry heaving between rides.
So I came into my 2nd ride with the goal of scoring higher. I also had the benefit of feeling relaxed and confident with my first ride under my belt; I think that really helped me. After a shaky start, I found the zone and started ticking off my moves- huge clean loop, space godzillas, McNasties in both directions. My secret weapon in finals was that I threw Lunar Orbits in both directions, adding 300 points to my score. I personally think this move is over-valued on the score sheet, but without it I don’t know that I could have won, especially since my Phonics Monkeys (terrible name) were really inconsistent. In the end, this was the highest-scoring ride I’ve ever thrown, coming in at 1305. Nonetheless, my 1st ride still would have won it.
Anyhow, that’s the blow-by-blow for you. I feel really fortunate to have stepped it up for such a big event. FIBArk is a legendary festival for good reason. With dozens of food and craft vendors, outstanding and free live music in the park, a family-friendly atmosphere and a myriad of athletic events, it truly is ‘the oldest and boldest whitewater festival’ in the nation.
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