Jon and I drove up to the Lee Valley White Water Centre for my canoe and kayak slalom coaching. The centre is the venue for the Olympic white water events where – to quote from the website – you can “Experience the thrills as you tackle Olympic standard wild rapids, drops, holes, eddies and boils on the 300m Olympic Standard Competition Course”
For anyone not familiar with the sport, slalom canoe / kayak involves going down a white water course while navigating your kayak or canoe through a series of downhill and uphill gates. It’s a spectacular and thrilling sport.
My coach for the day was Paskell Blackwell – assistant manager at the venue and captain of the UK’s men’s white water rafting team. He began the day by walking us around the venue and, yes, the Olympic course did look pretty terrifying. We them moved on to kitting out – a fairly major process given that every part of your body has to be covered with skin tight water proof material. As a final touch you add a skirt which goes around your middle before (later) being attached to the cockpit of the boat.
Paskell first took me out on the flat water lake where he established that, although I struggled to paddle straight, at least I didn’t fall in the whole time. We then moved onto the bottom of the Legacy Course (a 160m fairly easy white water course). I managed to get through a few gates so Paskell moved me onto the lower reaches of the Olympic course. The water here is a lot easier than further up the course but things quickly got interesting as I tried to learn the techniques of manoeuvring myself around in increasingly fast flowing and choppy water.
Inevitably I went over – which is a little scary as you don’t come out of the boat due to the aforementioned skirt. You just move down the course at a fair old speed – upside down. At this stage, I forcibly reminded myself of Paskell’s training “You’re not going to drown immediately – you have some time. Don’t panic, take a deep breath (figuratively rather than literally..), pull the skirt off the boat and kick yourself free.” I followed his advice and soon found myself bobbing down the Olympic course before being fished out and put back in my boat.
In an odd way, it helped to have gone in as it removed some of the fear and when, after further training, Paskell suggested we took the ‘boat elevator’ to the top of the Olympic course, I didn’t panic too much. At this stage, I should stress that I was in a two man boat with Paskell – there was no question of a beginner like me going down the full Olympic course on my own.
However, once we got to the top of the elevator and set off, the calmness disappeared. I had the feeling you get at the top of the most terrifying theme park ride you’ve ever been on. Except when you go on a theme park ride you know, underneath it all, that it’ll be fine as thousands of people have already done the ride and survived. Here it all depended on Paskell and my efforts. In other words, it all depended on Paskell. He had steer us through the roiling, broiling water while I just did what Paskell told me i.e. paddled as hard as I could over the drops and into the walls of water.
We got to the end and the exhilaration was right up there with my show jumping or the 10m high board. Foolishly, I said I wanted to do it again. Foolishly, as by now – after two hours of paddling – I was exhausted. I’m not quite sure how Paskell kept us upright during that second run – but he did and we paddled to the slipway to get out of the boat and return to civilian life. I could hardly move – but what a session. Very testing but fantastic.
The venue is currently closed in the lead up to the Games but, once they’re over, it’ll be open again to the public. The Legacy course and the flat water lake will be open to the public for canoeing and kayaking. The Olympic course will also be open for white water rafting – saner than going down in a kayak but still a real thrill.
It’ll be an amazing opportunity to try out an Olympic venue – give it a go!
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