The still surface of the water seems to explode as the paddlers strike, and, in an instant, nine four-man teams are moving their narrow vessels fast enough to pull water-skiers. This is Olympic sprint kayaking.
It is an obscure competitive sport in the U.S., but sprint kayaking is very popular in other parts of the world -- top paddlers in Hungary are regularly featured on the front of newspaper sports sections -- and it has been part of the Olympics since 1936.
Men race in 200- and 1,000-meter events, and women in 200-and 500-meter races -- in one-, two- and four-person boats. A series of heats and semifinals condenses the field until only nine paddlers or teams are left to vie in the medals race.
(Slalom, a second form of Olympic canoe-kayak is raced on a whitewater course. Added as a one-time event in 1972, it has been a permanent part of the games since 1992.)
Sprint kayakers use a paddle with double blades modeled after airplane wings to generate lift. With stroke rates exceeding 160 a minute, races are often won and lost in a photo finish by hundredths of a second. The men’s double kayak 200-meter event, new to the Olympic program this year, will last just longer than 30 seconds.
The races can appropriately be compared to running or swimming. The 1,000-meter kayak event is like the mile (or the Olympic 1,500-meter run). Aerobic conditioning, pacing and strategy are paramount. Some racers are faster off the start; others conserve energy for a powerful finish. Five-hundred-meter race strategy is comparable to running 800 meters or swimming 200 meters.
The 200-meter races are a pure sprint. The bow of each boat is placed in the gate, which drops below the water’s surface as the starter’s gun sounds. After bursting out of the gate, the paddler keeps going full blast to the end. In a close finish, competitors “shoot” their boats across the line by taking a last powerful stroke and then throwing their bodies back.
The U.S. team has two sprint kayakers in London. San Diego native Carrie Johnson will compete in her third Olympics, in both the 200- and 500-meter singles events. In Beijing in 2008, sadly, a flare-up of Crohn’s disease kept her out of the finals.
Tim Hornsby of Gainesville, Georgia, learned to kayak at the venue built for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. This will be his first Olympic 200-meter kayak singles. He’s usually only 1 second off the pace of the world’s best.
Vying for top of the podium in the men’s 1,000-meter kayak singles will be Adam van Koeverden of Canada and Max Hoff of Germany -- two athletes who show a nice contrast in racing styles. Van Koeverden likes to take the lead early and extend it by midrace to the point where nobody can catch him. Hoff races from behind, letting others take the lead, then accelerating to pass in the final 250 meters. That strategy paid off in both the 2009 and 2010 World Championships, as Hoff’s final kick took the gold. Last year, though, van Koeverden had the upper hand, pulling into a comfortable lead at the halfway point, and then keeping up a blistering pace to the end.
A handful of other competitors aim to spoil the Hoff-van Koeverden duel, including Tim Brabants of the U.K., the 2008 gold medalist, and Erik Veras Larsen of Norway, the 2004 winner. Aleh Yuyrenia of Belarus, an up-and-coming youngster at age 22, is another threat.
The biggest story on the women’s side is Natasa Janics. A native of Serbia, Janics competed for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 2000 Olympics and then moved to Hungary. In 2004, she won gold medals for Hungary in both the 500-meter singles and 500-meter doubles (with partner Katalin Kovacs). In 2008, Janics and Kovacs repeated their gold-medal performance in Beijing. After taking time off to have a child in 2011, Janics is again the gold-medal favorite in the 200-meter singles and has a chance for a third Olympic victory with Kovacs in the 500-meter doubles.
The Olympics are a chance to see the world’s best athletes in events both familiar and strange. Rather than watch another replay of swimming or the dream team’s latest game, why not catch the excitement of sprint kayak? The competition begins Monday.
(Greg Barton, the president of Epic Kayaks Inc., in Charleston, South Carolina, won two gold medals in sprint kayaking at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and a bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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