Competing after the pandemic
By Abby Holcombe
A plethora of worries and doubts bombarded my mind in the months leading up to the Colorado Tour, which is a series of four plus competitions across the state. I have participated in the entire Colorado Tour since the age of 10, which also happened to be the year where my parents and I hit the road full time in our Winnebago View. Ever since my first competition circuit, the month we spent each year traveling around the state of Colorado and visiting as many rivers and competitions, alongside many of my nomadic kayaking friends, was always the highlight of my year.
One of my favorite parts about traveling is coming back to my favorite destinations and getting the opportunity to reflect on my growth since the last time I had been there. I really enjoyed that aspect of the Colorado Tour because I got to reflect emotionally as well as athletically. It was always satisfying to come back and have a stronger competition mindset or get higher scores than the year before. Last year, because of the pandemic, I didn’t get to compete and I was really scared to come back. Because…
What would competing look like after a pandemic?
Would I still be good at it?
Would I still like it?
What happens if I don’t like it?
And to my delight, coming back to competition after a year off felt no different, and maybe even more fun and exciting, because I had unknowingly missed it so much. Not only did I get to reflect on one year of growth, I got to reflect on two years of hard work. In addition to competing, I also volunteered to organize all of the freestyle events for Paddlefest, the first competition of the season located in Buena Vista, Colorado. Organizing the freestyle events was something I had never done before. Instead of focusing on what tricks I would try in the competition, I was more focused on finding judges and creating start lists, which, incidentally, was a pleasant distraction that surprisingly helped my performance on the water.
In the freestyle competition, I went head to head with 3x World Champion kayaker and my mentor, Emily Jackson. She has always been the pinnacle of freestyle kayaking in the USA and has inspired a lot of the motivation for my own freestyle progression. In finals, each paddler gets three, 60 second long rides where they get the opportunity to throw as many arial, acrobatic tricks as possible, with each trick having its own unique point value. How to win? Get as many points on the scoresheet as possible. With each ride, Emily and I were fighting for the gold. I’d top her score by 30 points, and then she’d top my score by 50 points, and we continued increasing our scores with each ride. This made for an exciting finals, with Emily coming out on top and a close second finish on my part. The Colorado Tour was already off to an amazing start!
The Animas River Days event in Durango, Colorado was our next stop! Not only was this my next competition, but it was also the 2021 USA Freestyle Kayak National Championships! When we first arrived in Durango, the weather had just started to get warm and the snowmelt was just beginning to fill the river. My first training session was in a small, gentle, and challenging wave and all the athletes struggled to get any tricks. However, as the weather got warmer with each day that passed, the river rose higher and higher, creating a bigger, more retentive, and more intimidating hydraulic wave. While the tricks were easier because of the retentive nature of the feature, I struggled to overcome my fears of the wave and actually try my moves. But day after day, I got braver and more comfortable in the feature and by the time of the competition, I was feeling confident in the wave and was able to secure my third US Junior Women’s National title!
Next stop was the GoPro Mountain Games, the most prestigious event of the entire Colorado Tour. The river we compete on is called Gore Creek and is notoriously challenging with ever changing water levels. Each day, and frankly, each training session was completely different. Unlike most of the other competitions, the GoPro Games has three rounds of competition to decide the freestyle champion. The feature never felt the same for any of the rounds, yet they were all equally as energetic and challenging!
The flows on the first round were difficult for me, and I didn’t put up the fight or the score that I had hoped. However, during round two, also known as semi-finals, I had another intense head to head with Emily Jackson. In a semi-finals, each athlete gets two 60 second rides to score as many points possible. Their best ride counts and the top five athletes progress to the finals. In our first rides, I was in the lead by 100 points with the possibility of moving onto finals sitting in first place. However, on the second round, Emily Jackson beat my previous score by another 100 points with a really strong performance, resulting in her heading into finals in first place!
By finals, all the athletes were sore and tired but the competition wasn’t over yet! During finals, all the athletes get three 60 second rides with their best one counting. Emily’s first ride was strong but I was a mere 30 points behind sitting in second place. During the next round, Emily put down an even stronger ride, sitting her in first place and topping my highest score of all three rides by over 200 points, leaving me with a second place finish! This experience at the GoPro Mountain Games was amazing, and it was so nice to be able to preform some of the higher scoring moves in the feature, that I didn’t know how to do the last time I was in Vail. Throughout the whole experience, the crowds, the cameras, and the stricter judging had me reminiscing on my experience at the 2019 Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Sort, Spain and made me even more excited for World Championships to come!
While a blast, the GoPro Mountain Games was not the last competition! We still had the iconic FibArk in Salida, Colorado left! FibArk is one of the oldest whitewater festivals in America, and the feature in Salida is, hands down, one of the best in the entire country. While it might not be as big as the other events, I might have been looking forward to this competition the most, with the prospects of high scoring rides and preforming tricks I had only learned this winter.
The prelims were a jam session format. During a jam session, the heat of athletes are given a pre-determined amount of time (for example 20 minutes), and a start order which they must maintain throughout the competition. Once the time starts, the athletes enter the feature in succession, one after the next, throwing as many tricks as possible on each ride for the duration of the heat. Once the time is up, all of their tricks they completed throughout the entire heat are totaled for their final score. This format isn’t common but is a fun opportunity to try riskier and higher scoring tricks.
During the jam session prelims, I scored over 1,000 points…which was a first for me. The freestyle finals were a traditional finals format, with three 60 second rides. During the third ride, I stepped up my game and preformed my personal highest score of 790 points in a traditional competition format, and ended up winning the entire freestyle event. While there weren’t as many other athletes, this was a really fun weekend of seeing what’s possible and pushing my newer tricks to the next level in competition. Moving forward, I hope to break the 1,000 point barrier in a traditional finals format…hopefully next year!
All in all, I had an amazing Colorado Tour, and am so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to travel around in our Winnebago and compete in so many different events from such a young age. Because of my experiences in so many different rivers and competitions, I was able to develop a fiery passion for freestyle kayaking that has fueled my progress up until this point. Looking forward, I have one more big competition left, the U.S. Team Trials where if I can podium in the Jr. Women’s class, I will have the opportunity to represent the USA in the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships in Nottingham, England in the summer of 2022. With the constant uncertainty of the pandemic, it has still yet to be announced when or where Team Trials will be held but I’m continuing my training and I’m already looking forward to the next competition season.