U.S. Open brings paddlers to Nantahala gorge

The best of USA Canoe/Kayak’s whitewater team will descend on the Nantahala River this weekend intent on making a clear impression about their Olympic aspirations.

The Bank of America Whitewater U.S. Open (March 27-28) is the first measuring stick in the paddling season that will intensify at the U.S. National Trials in Wausau, Wisc., and culminate in a trip to September’s World Championships in Tace, Slovenia.

Twenty-year-old Asheville native Austin Kieffer, who’s spent his whole paddling career with the Nantahala Racing Club Rhinos, relishes the chance to make that impression in the slalom competion in his own backyard.

“It’s always exciting when the season starts up. It’s exciting to be racing again and it being on home turf is just really fun. I hope it gives me an edge,” Kieffer said.

Kieffer races K1 or single kayak, and as he’s moved from Asheville’s Carolina Day School to Davidson College, he’s kept his eye on one prize –– a shot at the 2012 Olympics in London.

“I want to be on the team this year,” Kieffer said. “I hope it’s kind of a transition year for me.”

Kieffer, currently on the national developmental team, is one of the only local racers challenging for a K1 spot with Team USA this year. Western Carolina University grad and two-time national champion, Scott Mann, should also feel right at home on the Nantahala Outdoor Center course, and Vermont native Brett Heyl will be eager to re-establish his place as the country’s best slalom racer.

Kieffer thinks this year is his chance to step up his career by beating the big boys, and he believes the U.S. Open and the Charlotte Open at the National Whitewater Center the following weekend (April 2-3) will help him gauge how much ground he’s made on the rest of the field in the off season.

The back-to-back races pose different challenges to what will in all likelihood be a near identical group of competitors.

“Nantahala is a sprint, and there’s not much variability,” Kieffer said. “Charlotte is big and powerful, and it’s more explosive. There are more areas where people can really make time or lose time.”

The U.S. Open is a classic whitewater slalom race and Nantahala Racing Club coach Rafal Smolen, who raced for Poland before coming to the U.S. to coach, has a reputation for setting courses that test the competitors. But Smolen said the Nantahala’s natural features won’t create a lot of separation between the top contenders this weekend.

“Usually it’s a really close race even if the course is set up right,” Smolen said.

In contrast, Smolen said the man-made course in Charlotte is one of the world’s most demanding, capable of punishing technical mistakes heavily and testing the conditioning of the athletes.

Austin Kieffer hopes a good result on familiar water at the U.S. Open will set the stage for him to showcase his power on the concrete river in Charlotte.

“I’m a little bit bigger athlete compared to some of the other paddlers, so I think that can make it a bit more forgiving on the bigger course,” Kieffer said. “But it all depends on that day of racing. Who’s on their game and who’s off.”

No matter how you look at it, the U.S. Open is one of the classic showcases in the sport of whitewater racing, and the event will bring some of the world’s best racers in both slalom and wildwater classifications to Western North Carolina to show off their skills.

In whitewater slalom, the paddlers will negotiate 14 downstream gates and six upstream gates — in under two minutes. If they touch a gate, they incur a two-second penalty.

In wildwater racing, the competitors paddle down river as fast as possible.

After a winter in the gym, all of the paddlers will be happy to be back on the water, and for spectators, a day at the races is the perfect way to ring in spring.

“There’s no slalom race in the region as big as this race,” Smolen said. “If you want to see the best competitors in the sport, this is the place to come.”

For race schedules go to www.nrcrhinos.com or for info on USA Canoe/Kayak go to www.usack.org.

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