LONDON — I wasn't sure about the wetsuit.
Inside a cramped locker room at Lee Valley White Water Centre — and by cramped I mean shoulder-to-shoulder with the naked chap on your right — I fought my wetsuit like we were having an MMA battle. Pulling, tugging, grunting. Eventually I realized that putting on your wet boots first was epically stupid, although it did create quite a seal when I finally inched the leggings over them.
I emerged from the locker room looking like … a bad ass?
The suit was all black. Everyone else had pretty little reds and yellows. But I was a water ninja! I was one automatic weapon away from being a special-ops frogman! As I walked to the whitewater course, I heard some distant theme music in my head.
The canoe slalom is like the ski slalom, only the competitors are paddling through roaring rapids instead of tightly packed snow. (Oh, and they're in boats. That too.) Points are deducted for missing a gate. It's a timed event, and incredibly intense.
Over 13 tons of water flow through the course — a man-made river inside a stadium. The rapids are ferocious, with waves that could capsize a boat and dips that saturate a competitor. There are barriers throughout the course to help create those waves; crack your leg on one if you fall out a boat, and it's a nasty bruise.
So, naturally, they had a group of novice paddlers/sports journalists take it on.
But first, the training.
Olympians ride the course in kayaks and canoes. We would use a large raft instead, for safety's sake.
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Our guide, a enthusiastic fellow named Pas, issued some basic instructions on how to paddle our eight-person raft, from controlling turns to tucking our bodies in between the small inflated benches when the going got rough. Body control was just as important as paddle speed — lean the wrong way, and you're headed down-river.
We learned about how to handle that, too. If you see someone toppling from the boat, grab the back of their lifejacket. If you fall in, put your feet up and ride it out until the water calms.
The last step in our preparation was one giant leap into the waterway. Gingerly stepping out onto the barriers, we jumped into the water, stuck our legs up and floated on our backs until it was time to swim against swift currents to safety.
What they don't ask you on the application: Whether you were nearly killed in a flooded cave in Belize.
Allow me to explain.
I vacationed there about a decade ago, at one point taking a jungle tour that included cave exploration. A river ran through this particular rock formation, and the group was told to dive into the water, swim against the current and then grab a rope that would bring you across the cave. Making that especially challenging: The cave was pitch black, illuminated only by our head lamps.
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It had rained substantially in the days leading up to our trip, so the current was potent. I attempted to swim upstream but couldn't make any headway. Now I was tiring, trying to grip the slick walls the cave as the river began to send me to God-knows-where. I asked for help; some others in the group caught me. We eventually found a way around the river.
I dove into the water at Lee Valley Water Centre, and I was back in the cave. Disoriented. Flailing. I swallowed some water on entry — it's filtered and quite delicious, actually — and found my head where my feet should have been.
I tried to swim to the embankment, but felt I was getting nowhere. I finally reached up, said "grab me" and someone pulled me from the current.
The danger was in my mind; but damn if it hadn't bewildered me.
Now that everyone had his or her river rescue (and/or pathetic flailing during a spelunking flashback), it was finally time to conquer the rapids.
We paddled around the pool and towards the foaming water, the instructions coming furiously from the back of the boat. "FORWARD HARD!" Suddenly, the nose of the raft dropped down, the water surged up and the vessel was drenched.
Welcome to the rapids.
The raft would give way to each bend and break of the water. It was like paddling a kayak while riding a mechanical bull; mindful of those moments when you felt your body tumbling out of the boat.
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"DOWN INSIDE!" Pas shouted during the most harrowing moments, as we wedged ourselves in between the seats. Water cascaded down on us, our weight bringing the vessel crashing into the waves. After what seemed like nearly three minutes, the journey was over.
Drenched and exhausted, we had survived … to get right back on the conveyor belt.
During downtime between the second and third runs — our raft would make four trips in total — [expletive] got real.
One of the other boats on the run hit a wave and flipped completely over, sending every rower into the drink. We took evasive action: Using our paddles to catch floaters, encouraging them to let go of their boat and swim to safety. Moments later, a second boat capsized, holding the other half of our group. Some were trapped under the raft for a few moments. All eventually reached the shore.
The conditions had changed, as the organizers increased the flow to give us a taste of a faster, more treacherous race. Just in time for me to sit in the bow of the boat.
"Harrowing" would be the appropriate word. It was like trying to propel a pile of mashed potatoes while someone shot a fire hose in your face.
I was convinced the boat was going to flip. It didn't. I was convinced I was going to fly out of the raft … and I did, actually touching the water with my backside until I was able use a rope on the side of the vessel to steady myself. Well, that and a woman named Veronica, who scruffed me like a kitten with my lifejacket to prevent me from falling in.
It was pretty much the most intense press conference I've ever attended.
We returned to the dock, and I was fairly certain I had reached my quota for embarrassments and personal strife.
That was until heard a chipper British accent say, "Why are your seams showing on your suit?"
I checked the inside of the sleeve and saw a red stripe.
This was no ninja frogman suit.
"You didn't put it on inside-out, didja?"
I wanted to dive back in, put my feet up and float back to dignity.
(Canoe slalom runs from July 29-Aug. 2 at Lee Valley White Water Course.)
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