Canoe Slalom World Championships 2021, Bratislava
Ten years on from the last Canoe Slalom World Championships in Bratislava, 12 intrepid British athletes boarded a flight bound for the 2021 season finale. For some of us that was just 36 hours after disembarking from a flight home from the World Cup final; just enough time to get the bags unpacked, washing done and repacked again!
Unlike any other international race in 2021, the World Championships were being run under a strict bubble system. All teams slept, ate and twiddled thumbs in the same hotel which was some 49 – 56 minutes from the whitewater course. Specific times known thanks to the organisation clocking us in and out of the hotel and venue to check we didn’t stop off at a shop. A much better idea than their previous one of taping the car doors shut when you departed! Mallory Franklin did attempt to take the track record for the hotel to the venue, but unfortunately the police made sure that time was deleted! Craig Morris and Kimberley Woods also hold the record for the slowest time back from the course to the hotel; in fact, the clock is still running on that journey.
Unfortunately, on the return from training one day, their car was hit from the side. A nasty accident that gave us all a scare and saw them taking a trip to hospital to get checked out. Kim took a hit to the ankle, now matching her kayak in colour and causing her to take a few days out of the boat. We were all concerned about Craig for quite a few days because everything seemed so quiet! By the time racing began we were happy to hear his usual ramblings!
K1 Women’s Team World Champions 2021: Fiona Pennie, Mallory Franklin, Kimberley Woods
Into racing and the first British run down the course brought a gold medal for the K1 Women in the team event. Not a bad kick off for Kimberley, Mallory and myself! The K1 Men’s team were unlucky to pick up a couple touches leaving them in 5th position; without the touches they would have taken the silver medal. Touches were also what separated the C1 Women’s team from the medals, being pushed into 4th by 0.28 of a second! The C1 Men’s team came into difficulty at the top of the course and unfortunately ended up further down the order, 14 seconds away from the winners.
Qualifying day brought it’s fair share of drama. Some of the established senior team boats safely qualified through to the semi-final on 1st runs. Peter Linksted, on his debut at a Senior World Championships, sneaked in the semi-final from his 2nd run. Adam Burgess, Bethan Forrow and myself also made it to the semi-final run from a 2nd run – just another practice run right? The biggest drama came in the K1 Men’s 2nd runs of qualifying. Our very own Rio 2016 Olympic Champion, Joe Clarke, was on a flyer until the 2nd last gate. He became yet another victim of the stopper that had swallowed up the hopes of so many. It pushed him right of the gate causing him to press the panic button. Unfortunately, his efforts weren’t enough and he was left outside of the semi-final.
Peter Linksted on his Senior World Championship debut
Friday was Extreme Slalom Time Trial day. The ICF have employed a rule where the first 32 nations will qualify through to the Heats round. In the Women’s race, this meant that a handful of nations would be given a 2nd spot, but in the Men’s race only 1 spot would be available per nation as there were so many nations competing. The banter between the GB boats was high, in the end it was Kim and Mallory that took the spots for GB to go through to the Heats. I got a little tied up around the roll section and although I had the 10th fastest time overall, I wasn’t to progress. U23 Extreme Slalom World Champion, Nikita Setchell, was also left disappointed after taking an alternative line over one of the blocks at gate 3! In the boys, it was time to decide who would get the one GB spot out of Bradley Forbes-Cryans, Joe Clarke, Chris Bowers and Extreme specialist Jake Brown after weeks of fighting talk! In the end, it was Bradley who took the one and only GB spot in a time of 55.55 leaving Joe in 10th position overall with a time of 55.92 – so close! Joe’s World Championships were all over – or so he thought!
Saturday was finals day for the kayaks and also my final day racing an international race. The finals course was challenging with a choice of a spin or straight move on gates 5, 6 and 7 and a killer sting in the tail nearer the finish. An upstream on the right had been set on the Niagara drop followed by a tricky 3 gate downstream stagger sequence before the finish line. The demonstration paddlers on Friday night nearly required headtorches because it had taken the course designers so long to figure out how to soften their rock hard course!
Gate 20, the upstream on the drop proved to be what kept 3 of our 5 kayak semi-finalists out of the final. All of them came into the drop section with a place in the final in their grasp. But Niagara had other ideas and the lottery that gate 20 was did not go in favour of Mallory, Bradley or Chris.
Bradley Forbes-Cryans unfortunately missed out on a place in the final
As an early starter in the semi-final, I was surprised to see my time held 1st position for so long. Soon it became apparent I was going to be racing in my first final since the World Championships in 2018! I was also joined in the final by Kim even with her 6 seconds worth of penalties added to her super quick time. Kim set the standard early on in the final putting in a quick time with just one touch earlier in the course. To the shock of everybody, the final was missing overall World Cup winner Jess Fox, but we still had the incredibly quick Olympic Champion Ricarda Funk to give us a good fight! I was 3rd last to come down the course. I became the next victim of the sting in the tail, and although I was quick, the 4 seconds of penalties at the bottom eventually left me in 5th overall. Ricarda showed us once again why she is Olympic Champion by putting in a blistering time 2 seconds quicker than anybody else but with a touch on gate 22. This meant Kim finished up with her first Senior World Championship medal, a bronze, which put an end to her rollercoaster 2021. Well done Kim!
K1 Women’s Podium: Gold – Ricarda Funk (GER), Silver – Elena Apel (GER), Bronze – Kimberley Woods (GBR)
It was the turn of the canoes on Sunday. First of the GB boats was U23 World Champion, Bethan Forrow. Her boat ended up falling foul to the forces of the water around gate 12 and 13 and her chances of a 2nd Senior World Championship final were over in a flash. Mallory and Kim were the last 2 boats down the course, following after Olympic Champion, Jess Fox. Another shock 50 second penalty for Jess meant the Olympic and World Championship double wasn’t to be for her. Mallory came down and battled with the sting in the tail, eventually having 6 seconds of penalties and going into 10th place, 0.01 of a second ahead of 11th! Kim was last to go down the course, which meant it was going to be Mallory or Kim who would race the final. Kim had an early touch and didn’t quite have the same flow in the boat as she had had on Thursday. She managed to keep the last section of the course clean, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough for the final. Mallory was therefore the first to go down the course in the final just as the thousand strong Slovak crowd were returning to their seats with their lunchtime beverages! Fast and clean, Mallory put in a terrific performance which had us all thinking she had just won the race already! Little did we know that we were about to witness some speedy performances! Third boat down the course, was the newly crowned K1 Women’s Vice World Champion, Elena Apel from Germany. Our jaws dropped as she put in a faster time including a 2 second penalty to go 0.31 of a second ahead of Mallory. The rest of the field put in some incredible runs to the extent that there were only 4 gates touched across all 10 of the C1 Women in the final! Mallory had a long wait to know her eventual result, which thankfully was a silver to match her Olympic medal!
Mallory Franklin on her way to a World Championship Silver Medal in C1 Women
In the C1 Men’s race, rookie, Peter Linksted, became the next victim of that gate 20 and 22. After difficulties around gate 20, he struggled to get the line to gate 22 which left him disappointed with his first Senior World Championship outing, but with plenty to take away for the future. Adam was early off in the semi-final and put in a run that was clean and safe. He was left waiting for a painfully long time as to whether he would make the final! This time, luck was with him! David was last of the GB boats to go in the semi. Attacking from the start, David, who’s definitely found some form this season, put in a time that was quick enough for the final even with the couple of time errors on the course, but it was the slightest of touches on gate 22 that pushed him out of the final in 11th place, by just under a second.
David Florence just missed out on the Final in 11th place
In the final, Adam had early drama in the course. Suddenly, at the tricky sequence that was 8 and 9, he had lost the balance on the boat and tried to save the move by using his top hand as a paddle! Sadly, he needed to paddle back to make the gate and his World Championship ended with an 8th place.
Adam Burgess negotiating the tricky sting in the tail of the course on the Niagara drop
Sunday had warmed right up to bring the conclusion of the Championships, the Extreme Slalom finals. After Friday’s Time Trial, Joe’s racing was over for the season and so he was perfectly within his rights to enjoy a few drinks at the hotel bar that evening! To his surprise, he was told on Saturday afternoon that he now had a place as a couple of nations had pulled out of the race! Extreme Slalom is still a very new discipline and discrepancies in the rules and judging are still being ironed out as the GB boats were about to find out. Mallory was the first to experience this in the Heats stage. Although they as paddlers could hear the starting orders of “Ready – Go”, only the “Ready” bit came across the speakers, so Mallory and Corinna Kuhnle were judged to have false started and therefore disqualified from the race. Kim made it through to the quarter-final stage but overtaking and a bit of pushing and shoving in the upstream gate 5 meant she had a difficult time and didn’t get out of the up before the others. With only 2 boats progressing to the semi-final, that was the end for Kim. In the quarter-final, Bradley came up against the inconsistent judging. He was given a fault on gate 2, which later transpired was incorrect but it was too late to correct and he didn’t manage to progress. Joe, however, with his 2nd chance at the Extreme, safely progressed through every round as the winner of his race. The first upstream was crucial to get yourself away cleanly down the next set of downstreams and ahead for the second upstream. Something Joe managed with ease in the final! He crossed the finish line in first position and was crowned the new Extreme Slalom World Champion!
Joe Clarke – K1 Men’s Extreme Slalom World Champion 2021
As the sun set on the 2021 World Championships, so too did it on my 29 year career in the sport of Canoe Slalom. The team gathered for the usual wrap up meeting in the team tent. Little did I know I was about to be surprised with a speech reflecting on my career from my coach Gaz Wilson, champagne all round and a lovely card with messages from every team member. It’s definitely been an emotional goodbye to the sport that I have been immersed in since the age of 9, but I’m very much looking forward to plenty of new adventures! I’ve loved every moment of being a member of the PeakUK family for the last 17 years and I look forward to many more as I continue to paddle rivers for fun and maybe still race some races a little less competitively!
See you on the water or a riverbank soon!
Fiona Pennie – my last International race
Pictures: Dezso Vekassy (ICF)