Hood River, Oregon is the windsport mecca of North America. And now, thanks to race director Carter Johnson, who has done a fantastic job organizing a world-class paddling race, the Gorge Downwind Champs is an event not to be missed! Why, you might ask?
To start, the finish site in Hood River is breathtakingly beautiful and framed by two huge, glacier capped mountains (Mount Hood and Mount Adams). But it's not the beauty that keep people coming back, it's the wind and waves.In the summer, the wind is near constant and between 20-40 knots on a regular basis. This wind, combined with the river current pushing the opposite direction creates magnificent and consistent waves pumping up the river. That is why paddlers come to the Gorge, and that is what we hoped 2018 would finally provide for us on race day.
In previous years, the conditions for race day at the Gorge were a bit disappointing. But for the 2018 Gorge Downwind Champs race, the weather delivered. The sun was out, temperatures were comfortably in the mid-70s, and the wind was absolutely howling. Game on!
From the moment the start horn sounded, athletes were into the waves and surfing. The pace was intense. My goal leading into the race was to make sure not to go out too hot. With waves from stroke one and the excitement of ideal conditions, I wanted to make sure I didn’t blow up too early. It was all about finding a rhythm early and trying to go wave for wave with the leader.
As athletes rocketed off the line, Sean Rice took the lead, charging up the inside of the first bend in the river and pushing up, over and through waves to separate himself early from the field. As the top contenders spread out on the waves behind him, it looked like Sean was planning to put on another masterclass and dominate (as he had the weekend prior in Canada).
The number of athletes in the hunt right off the line was astounding. I floundered off the start line. I was hoping to position myself off to the side to avoid the melee but still keep up. Instead, I watched the top athletes swarm out ahead of me. Somehow I found myself on my back foot, four waves behind and battling to stay relevant within the lead group. I was able to limit the damage and keep from falling back too far, but despite my efforts I couldn’t catch up. Sean, Macca Hynard and Cory Hill seemed to be leading the race. On the inside of our first major turn, Sean charged up the left side of the river while Cory and Macca took more of a middle line. Just a wave or two behind were Kenny Rice, Dawid Mocke and Stu Maclaren. I found myself still further back and battling.
At this point, defeat was too mild a word. I was devastated. Here was my race, my course and finally the conditions I had been dreaming of and I couldn’t even contend. At that
point it was no longer about the win or even about the leaders. Just hold it together, Austin.
The top guys were gone, but this was still my river. I had paddled in the Gorge more than any of them. I knew the water and the wave patterns. If my body wasn’t going to allow me to do it by fitness and sheer force of will, it was time to focus on the waves and water, not my competition. Time to find my rhythm.
It took a little mental shaking, and longer than I would have liked to shed frustration of the start, but I had prepared for this. If things weren’t going well and I wasn’t leading, I had to remind myself one thing: it’s not over until you cross the finish line. Just as I was making that mental shift, focusing on the long game, Pat Dolan came up beside me. We surfed together for a moment trading the lead and even riding the same wave for a time, but he soon moved a wave or two ahead. He was charging up the field looking strong, relaxed and frustratingly efficient. That was the definitive turning point for me. Pat lit my fire. This race wasn’t even close to being finished.
At this point, just over a third of the way through the race, I was sitting in 8th position and hammering after Pat. With him leading the way, we managed to catch and pass quite a few fading paddlers over the next couple of miles.
As we passed Viento (marking 8 miles to go), I finally drew even with Pat and moments later we caught Macca, who was in 4th place. Sean Rice was holding onto third a few waves ahead. Up ahead of us, Cory was surfing masterfully and reminding the field why he was the reigning 2 x World Champ, but Kenny Rice was proving to be the man of the hour. Already, holding a commanding lead over Cory, Kenny was gaining more and more distance and looking like he would take home another Gorge Downwind title! Back in fourth, I was finally feeling the way I had hoped to from the start: strong, in sync with the waves. And was hungry -- I was on a mission. I passed Pat and then Macca charging after Sean. I looked over my shoulder to check and see if Macca or Pat would come with me, but neither did.
Now was the deciding point. I had been deliberating for months: what was the fastest line? Head to the side of the river and search for the current eddies or charge up the middle against the stronger current, but in the stronger wind. For those who have never been to Hood River and paddled on the Columbia, it is a huge river. From bank to bank the river widens to a mile in places and line can make a big difference.
I decided to stick to the eddy on the Oregon side. Sean had already started to drift that way and I knew I was surfing and paddling phenomenally. My thought was that the only way I would be passed or let the top three get away would be if they passed me in faster water in the eddy, so I surfed to the eddy to cover any potential moves. I was surfing well. I managed to catch up to Sean and for the next mile or so we surfed side-by-side,
trading waves and the lead. The conditions at this point were perfect. I think that despite our battle for third, we each let out whoops of unbridled joy as we hurtled down the faces of bigger waves. This wasn’t just a race, it was a blast!
The energy of moving up the field and the excitement of surfing kept me going. I slowly pulled ahead of Sean and managed to put a little distance on him. At this point I had done it! I had gone from a write-off race to pulling myself back into a podium position. I dared to look ahead. Just ahead of me was Cory Hill. He was shockingly close. He was surfing in the middle as well. With any luck my line choice on the Oregon side would reel him in easily! I put my head down and tried to concentrate on what I was doing.
“You’ve got this!” I kept telling myself. I put my head down and charged after every wave. I paddled masterfully. I was confident that when my line finally took me back to the middle for the final push I would be commandingly in 3rd and maybe even in 2nd out ahead of Cory.
Crushingly, that was not the case. As I would learn later (comparing notes and GPS files with other racers), the middle line was the fastest on the day. The waves and wind were better, and despite being in the heaviest current, the middle was the race winning line. As a result, Sean and I ended up losing a lot of ground. As I came back to the middle, I looked ahead to see that Cory had increased his lead and Macca and Pat had moved from behind to just a few waves ahead.
Like a full sail suddenly bereft of wind, my momentum floundered. The thought of reeling Macca back seemed too daunting a task. For a second time in the race my mind receded to a dark place of self-doubt. I did my best to keep up the pace, but I had already conceded both 3rd and 4th place to my competitors.
As we all rounded the final turn buoy, and I saw Pat starting in on the last half mile to the finish line, I realized that deep within me I wasn’t quite done with this race. I found a defiant voice screaming that I had not worked this hard all year long to come in second American and outside the top 5. Pat is an incredible paddler and over the years we have had a wonderful rivalry where he has bested me in numerous races, but there was no way I was giving up, not yet!
My fire was lit again, for one final push. Pat had 50 feet on me in almost complete flat water and we only had minutes left to race. I was going to have to burry myself if I had any chance of catching him. Burry myself I did. I am not sure if I have ever hurt so much or dug so deep at the end of a race. Inch by inch and stroke by painful stroke, I gained on Pat. Just seconds before the finish I pulled even with him, both of us grimacing. With mere feet to go, I put on one final surge and pulled ahead crossing the finish line in 4th. I was utterly spent -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- having won and lost so many times in one race.
1. Kenny Rice 2. Cory Hill 3. Macca Hynard 4. Austin Kieffer 5. Pat Dolan 6. Sean Rice 7. Stu Maclaren 8. Noe Pelizza 9. Dawid Mocke 10. Nacho Fabre
Huge shout out to Ana Swetish who finished an incredible 3rd place in a STACKED womens field!!
Womens Finish 1. Naomi Flood 2. Teneale Hatton 3. Ana Swetish 4. Rachel Clarke 5. Michele Eray 6. Maggie Hogan 7. Sally Wallick