Whitewater team paddles on
Slalom boaters work to overcome vandalism

SideStory: Whitewater Park maintenance delayed by high flows

Durango Whitewater Coach John Brennan offers support and encouragement, while also pushing the young team of local slalom kayakers toward technical competence. The group, which trains year round three days per week at Smelter Rapid, has experienced a setback with the recent vandalism of its slalom gates. It is estimated that $8,000 in damage was done to the training facility and repairs will take away from valuable training time./Photo by Dunbar Hardy

by Dunbar Hardy

The Animas River never stops flowing, and neither does a motivated group of young Durango kayakers. However, fluctuating river levels and frigid conditions are not the only thing Durango Whitewater paddlers will be encountering this training season. The nonprofit developmental slalom racing group now has to overcome the recent destruction of its training facilities at Santa Rita Park.

Whitewater slalom kayaking, similar to slalom skiing, involves navigating a fast, and ideally, clean line through a series of gates while being timed. Penalties are assessed for touching the gates, which are suspended above the river on wires. Locally, this series of gates and wires was recently cut down in an act of vandalism never seen before in the 13-year history of Durango Whitewater.

“Once in a while, we will have a couple of gates cut down, but it has been six years or so since more than a few gates have been cut,” said team coach, John Brennan. “This level of vandalism has never been seen before.”

Brennan said 23 of 28 gates were cut, thrown into the river, and lost. The estimated cost of damages was $8,000, with a timeframe of four to five months before the athletes, who build and hang the gates themselves, can replace them.

Brennan said re-hanging the gates will take away from valuable training time and could have a negative impact on what is known as one of the best junior development programs in the country. “In 2007, we have the opportunity to place five athletes on the National Slalom Team,” he said. “This will be difficult if every time we have to train, we instead have to spend that time fixing and repairing our equipment.”

The recent destruction could also spell a financial setback for the group, said Durango Whitewater President, Helen Kunz. With an estimated annual operating budget of $4,000, the group has trouble making ends meet, as is, she said. “It is a constant struggle to afford coaching.”

For the most part, the group relies on fund-raisers, such as car washes, raffles and its spring auction, as well as donations from local businesses, to get by. Fortunately in this instance, A C Houston Lumber has donated wood for the gate replacements, and Lynn and Brent Brown, whose sons Rogan and Cully are Durango Whitewater athletes, have supplied some of the pipe material to replace the gates. “That still leaves us with the cable, the most expensive, and paint and pull twine to be paid for,” said Kunz.

She said Durango Whitewater is currently in the process of applying for 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which will hopefully open the door to larger grants and more funds.

Brennan said efforts have been made over the years to prevent this type of vandalism. There is a message board next to the river outlining that the gates are Olympic Team training facilities and asking bystanders to please not tamper with them. Furthermore, each of the poles supporting the slalom-gate wires has an information strip posted on it, reiterating the message.

The Santa Rita site is known as a U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team (USCKT) Center of Excellence, one of only four in the country. The others are in Washington, D.C.; Wesser, NC; and Atlanta, GA. As such, each center receives financial support from the national organization for facilities and coaching. However, in order to receive funding, each center must maintain its training facilities, receive a top-three finish at a national event, and host future races. Fortunately, this funding is not in jeopardy because of the vandalism, and the group is awaiting matching funds of around $1,500 from the USCKT.

In the meantime, the team is trying to stay focused on upcoming events. Three Durango Whitewater members, Niko Peha, Luke Palko-Schraa, and Sarah Kunz, all sophomores at Durango High School, will be traveling to Gaiyang, China on Nov. 17, to train and compete at the Chinese Olympic Training Center in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Closer to home, Durango Whitewater athletes John Gerstenberger has secured a spot on the Junior National Team and racers Will Lokken, Lucas Palko-Schraa, Sarah Kunz, Anna Pierotti, Bug Lokken, Rogan Brown and Cully Brown all have gained spots on the Junior Development Team.

Coach Brennan sums up the group’s morale, saying, “We are still training out there as best we can. It is very frustrating that people can’t be decent human beings and leave things alone. We will still paddle every day at Smelter all winter long, and we will get the gates repaired. It will take some time, but we will get it done.” •

For additional information on Durango Whitewater, go to www.durangowhite water.net or call 382-9199.



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