In hot water
Local slalom racers ready for big time

SideStory: Watching whitewater slalom racing

Local slalom racers Wil Lokken, left, and John Gerstenberger take a break from their busy training regimen last week at Santa Rita Park. The two, along with six other locals, will be vying for a spot on the U.S. Whitewater Slalom Kayak team during team trials this weekend in Durango./Photo by Todd Newcomer

by Missy Votel

Team sports were never Wil Lokken’s forte. From tee-ball to soccer, he tried them all, with only marginal results.

“I was always average at everything,” the 16-year-old Durango High School student confessed.

But then he found whitewater racing.

At the age of 10, Lokken, already an accomplished river runner, jumped into his Prijon Fly, a play boat for its day, and entered the Animas River Days slalom race on little more than gumption.

“Before that day, I never had any racing instruction or had done a race, so I asked (Durango Whitewater coach) John Brennan what to do,” he said. And while Lokken admits to “not doing very well” in the final standings, he was hooked.

“After that race, I said, ‘Wow, that was really fun,’ and I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he said. Lokken decided to stay with his newfound sport and soon afterward joined Durango Whitewater for more regimented training.

“I decided to stick with it and get good at it,” he said.

A few years earlier, classmate John Gerstenberger had a similar revelation. Growing up watching from the shore as his dad kayaked, Gerstenberger was no stranger to the sport. However, he was smitten by racing when, at the age of 7, Olympic paddlers came to stay with his family during the Championship Whitewater Series, held in Durango. “We would go to their practices and races and cheer them on,” he recalled. “And I though it was really cool.”

Like Lokken, Gerstenberger got his feet wet by taking the beginner’s course at Four Corners Riversports. He parlayed that into a few months training with Durango Whitewater, and the following spring, at age 10, he was racing slalom boats in Animas River Days, Fibark and at the Junior Olympics.

Today, the once fledgling racers, who will both be high school juniors next year, are the rising young stars of Durango’s prolific slalom racing scene, poised to take the mantle from such recent local champs as Corey Neilson, Ian Hamilton and Cody Harris. And if they do, they will be in good company, joining a longer local list of slalom greats that includes Andy Corra, Jana and Mike Freeburn, Cathy Hearn, Nancy Wiley and Kent Ford.

“When I started racing, there was this crew of senior level athletes, and it was neat to have them to look up to,” said Gerstenberger. “And now it’s funny, because Wil and I are the top generation, and we have all those younger guys looking to us.”

Lokken and Gerstenberger’s first legitimate shot at the big time comes this weekend, in the form of the U.S. whitewater Slalom Senior Team Trials, which will be held Friday through Sunday at Santa Rita Park’s Smelter Rapid. Up to 15 of the weekend’s fastest racers, out of a field of about 60, will be chosen to join the U.S. National Senior Team. The team – which includes men and women’s solo kayakers as well as solo canoeists and tandem canoeists – will then embark on a summer abroad, competing in World Cup

Races in Athens, Greece; Augsburg, Germany; and La Seu d’Urgell, Spain. In September, the team will travel to the World Championships in Penrith, Australia.

John Gerstenberger positions himself above Smelter Rapid prior to a practice run through the park last week./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

The racers, who had to qualify via a series of races held earlier this spring, also include fellow Durango Whitewater constituents, Maria Kallman, Mary Marshall Seaver, Rogan Brown, Sarah Kunz, Lucas Palko-Schraa and Kier Samuelson. They will be facing stiff competition in the form of 2004 U.S. Slalom Team members, Olympic Silver Medalist Rebecca Giddens, Brett Heyl and Scott Parsons.

And despite the obvious home field advantage, Lokken and Gerstenberger both realize that to land one of the coveted Men’s K1 spots on the team, they’ll need not only precise moves, but a little luck.

“It’s not like Nordic skiing, where losing half a second is not that big of a deal,” said Gerstenberger, who qualified for the trials fresh off a gold-medal win at the Nordic Junior Olympics. “But with slalom racing, it’s so easy to mess up. The tiniest mistake can be incredibly costly to your race. And sometimes it’s not your fault – if a wave breaks at the wrong time or there’s a surge, it can cost you.”

Nevertheless, the twosome, which has been training with former Polish Olympic Team member and Nantahala, N.C., slalom coach Rafal Smolen for the last few weeks, is confident.

“This is the same crew we’ve been racing against,” said Gerstenberger. “And although they’re getting better, we’re getting better, faster.”

Durango Whitewater Coach Brennan agrees that, given their respective strengths, the boys will give the other racers a good run for their money.

“Each one is the best in the country in certain aspects of kayaking,” he said. “Wil’s big water skills are unreal, and John just has so much power and is really growing into learning how to use it.

“It’s going to make for some exciting racing.”

The key to a good finish, both boys agreed, will be to stay focused.

“In this sport, so much is mental, more so than any other sport,” said Gerstenberger.

As a result, both say they will try not to concentrate on their nerves and focus their energies instead on something else. For Lokken, this will come in the form of warm-up morning paddles down to the races from his home on 32nd Street.

“There’s always the ‘What if I screw up?’ in the back of your mind,” he said. “But, the one thing you have control over is the routine you have in the morning.”

From there, both racers said they are willing to let the river take its course, noting that although a spot on the team would be ideal, the experience alone will be well worth the effort.

“It’s going to be great just to see Olympians and an Olympic medalist and be on the same course with them,” said Gerstenberger, who will be leaving for races in Slovenia in a few weeks as a member of the U.S. Junior Slalom Team.

And like all good slalom racers should, they already have their eyes trained toward what’s next.

“Everyone is looking at the Olympics in Beijing in ’08,” said Gerstenberger. “So, we’ll have to start training for that next.” •

Wil Lokken works his way through Smelter Rapid last Friday evening. Lokken and fellow Durango Whitewater teammate John Gerstenberger, both 16, have been slalom racing for six years and will have the homefield advantage during this weekend’s U.S. team trials./Photo by Todd Newcomer.



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