By Martin Cleary
There’s a new event ready to make its debut at the 2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games and a pair of Ottawa slalom canoeists are aiming to experience its rock’em-sock’em contact, underwater flipping and wincing chaos.
Welcome to kayak cross, which will be an adrenaline-rushing competition for the athletes as well as an intriguing spectacle for the spectators.
The Winter Olympics have ski cross and snowboard cross, where four racers chase each other down a snowy course. Kayak cross is similar, featuring four canoeists being pushed off a start line and battling it out from start to finish over the course of a minute.
Lois Betteridge and Maël Rivard completed the first step in that wild and woolly, whitewater race Friday at the Pan-American Games in Santiago, Chile, but the time trial was a gentler version of kayak cross as each paddler raced the course one at a time.
The time trial was made even more difficult than the Canadian team had expected, when members learned Thursday night only one paddler from each country in the kayak cross could advance to the semifinals and potential medal final on Sunday.
Betteridge, the only Canadian paddler to race all three women’s whitewater slalom events – kayak, canoe and kayak cross – finished third in the women’s time trial in 54.02 seconds. As the top Canadian, she was promoted to the semifinals.
Rivard, however, placed fourth in the men’s kayak cross time trial in 51.46 seconds, but was eliminated because teammate Alex Baldoni posted the fastest time of 49.74 seconds. Rivard felt he lost time in a couple spots on the course and finished 1.72 seconds behind Baldoni, a dual citizen of Canada and France who is originally from Sault Ste. Marie but lives in Pau, France.
“It went according to plan and I’m happy with the outcome,” Betteridge said in a phone interview with High Achievers.
“It went fairly well. I pushed, but I didn’t have enough because Canada could only take one boat (to the semifinals),” said a disappointed Rivard, who was surprised to hear only the top kayak cross racer from each country would advance to the semifinals. “I’m a little bummed.”
Both Betteridge and Rivard are scheduled to tackle the whitewater on Saturday. Betteridge will have two qualifying heats in each of the women’s C-1 and K-1 slalom competitions, while Rivard is focused on the men’s K-1.
Formerly known as extreme slalom, the International Canoe Federation changed the name to kayak cross to align the race with snowboard cross and ski cross.
The time-trial race is used to determine the seeding for the bracket races. Four paddlers in identical boats line up for each race and are pushed off a ramp to ignite the instant excitement.
Some paddlers like to take the lead and avoid as much of the paddle splashing and movement as possible. Others prefer to be second or third and target the leader, looking for the right moment to make their move.
As the paddlers manoeuvre around six overhead, hanging gates in the jostling water, collisions are inevitable.
In the second half of the race, there’s a zone marked by flags where each paddler must do a quick 360-degree roll under the water and pop up, which doesn’t always go smoothly. The roll is similar to the water jump in track and field’s steeplechase race and is used to break the rhythm of each paddler.
And there can be disqualifications for a false start, missing a buoy, dangerous paddling and failing to complete a roll.
Betteridge knows all about being disqualified from a rough-and-tumble kayak cross race.
“I was disappointed in my last kayak cross World Cup race as I was disqualified,” she said. “It’s a contact sport. I hit another paddler and that’s not legal. She was hurt and I felt terrible.”
Betteridge laughs several times as she describes the exciting slalom discipline, probably replaying races in her mind as she speaks.
“There’s a lot of splashing,” she explained. “It’s quite a challenge in a jumble of boats. You only can control what you do and not what anyone else is doing. It’s all about seeing what happens in the race and being the first to make that decision.”
The roll is an extra challenge midway through the course.
“I had a bad roll this morning (in the time trial),” Betteridge said. “It could have been bad. I lost about two seconds. It was poorly executed. I didn’t flip over fast enough and roll back fast enough.”
Betteridge will start her Sunday semifinal in lane two and will be surrounded by world-class paddler Evy Leibfarth of the United States (lane 1), Mexico’s Sofia Reinoso Diaz Barriga (lane 3) and Ecuador’s Emilie Armani (lane 4).
“I like the strategy of the race,” said Betteridge, who finds the kayak cross relaxing and intense while making decisions on the fly.
Betteridge was a Canadian team alternate for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, but hopes to earn Olympian status in the next few months for the Paris Games.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said about having kayak cross on the Paris Olympic canoe slalom calendar. “It’s a great spectator event and it’s a great use of the venue.
“We were kind of told four to five years ago that it would be in Paris. It was confirmed three to four years ago. It has attracted way more competitors, who are getting faster and better.”
Rivard has only had a couple of kayak cross races this season, but he enjoys the thrill of that moment.
“It’s very dynamic and there’s lots going on,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of pushing back and forth and blocking. There’s no down time and you go from start to finish to try to be first.
“The adrenaline runs super high. It’s almost the reverse of slalom, where I do my best to be calm and focused. In kayak cross, you want to get agitated.”
Pan Am Games appearance a victory in itself for modern pentathlete
Meanwhile on the final day of the modern pentathlon competition, former University of Ottawa swimmer Robert Bonomo of Toronto and Quinn Schulz of Calgary finished eighth overall in the men’s relay.
After placing eighth in the fencing and riding competitions, they produced the fastest time in the 200-metre freestyle and concluded the day-long, multi-sport competition with an 11th-place showing in the laser (shooting) run.
Bonomo and Schulz finished with 1,253 points, while the medals went to Mexico at 1,413 points, the United States at 1,397 points and Ecuador at 1,396 points.
“For me, this competition was about a celebration of my four years of hard work,” said Bonomo, who was competing in his first multi-sport Games. “I’ve been through a lot of problems with my body and had spinal surgery.
“When I had the spinal surgery, I was sick after and I never thought I’d compete again. For me, this has been a huge accomplishment and I’m really honoured to be part of Team Canada and around these talented athletes.”
Earlier this week, Bonomo, a four-time U Sports bronze medallist at the national university swimming championships, finished 22nd overall in the men’s individual competition with 1,096 points.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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