Saltwater Is a Challenge for Canoe and Kayak
By JULIET MACUR
Published: August 17, 2004
ATHENS, Aug. 17 — One by one, the canoeists and kayakers came splashing down the Olympic slalom course, bobbing and twisting in the roiling seawater, their boats and bodies swallowed by what looked like a heavy-handed pour of Mr. Bubbles.
When they climbed out of the water, nearly all were doing the same thing: raising their hands to their reddened, squinted eyes and rubbing them.
"The saltwater causes a number of problems for us," said Chris Ennis, who finished 16th in today's heats of the one-man canoe. "My eyes are stinging and burning and my mouth tastes like I've been swimming for three hours at the beach. That's the most difficult part of this thing."
For the first time, the Olympic canoe and kayak slalom events are being held in saltwater, the churning lime green liquid turning the course into blanket of sea foam. It has made a course that is steeper, at a 2.1 percent grade, and faster than any other and arguably much harder to maneuver.
A man-made creation that is half a raging river with rapids, half Disneyland log flume ride, the course is one of the most taxing and tricky ones in the world, though it looks more like pure fun. It takes a circular path, not the usual linear one, and there are green and blue plastic rocks along the way, a conveyor belt to transport racers to the top of the course, and six turbines to pump in the water from the Aegean Sea.
One of the steep drops has been nicknamed "Margaritaville" because going through the water makes the racers feel as if they have just licked salt from a margarita glass.
"It's like an amusement park," Ennis said. "It's a little bit scarier to race on a natural rivers because they have sharp rocks, not round plastic ones."
Stinging eyes have been only part of the course's challenges. Sight has been another. The sun reflects off the white foam and makes it like "snow blindness," as canoeist Robin Bell of Australia said.
The foam also makes it tough for racers to read the current and pick the correct line to make it through the course's plastic gates. There are 20 of them hanging above the water in different locations, some which the racers need to go through upstream.
"It takes years of experience to know how the water acts and know how it looks, and this changes all of that," said David Yarborough, executive director of USA Canoe/Kayak. "But nobody has ever seen a course like this, so it's fair."
While some racers tried to wear goggles on the course, the eyewear fogged up and reduced visibility. So most are going without after learning to deal with the water hitting their face, sometimes knocking loose a contact lens or two. Then some take a surgical route.
With the Olympic saltwater course in mind, Louise Natoli of Australia, who finished second in today's one-woman kayak heats, had laser surgery done to correct her eyesight. And America's Rebecca Giddens, who also advanced to the semifinals, said she was "strongly considering" the surgery because the saltwater dries out her eyes and causes problems with her contacts.
Giddens found out how the saltwater affected her sight when she first came to the course in February, just after it was completed. It was late to begin practicing on the course, she said, because slalom racers usually spend one or two years at a course, trying to perfect it.
She had been considering renting an apartment near the course, but the training sessions were too short — about two weeks each — so she flew from California to Greece three times instead. The site needed to be closed for spurts because it was still being fine-tuned for the Olympics.
But now, most of the racers say, the course is perfect, difficulties, saltwater and all. During the heats, the fans seemed to agree. About three-quarters of the 8,000 seats, many which have panoramic views of the sea in the distance, were filled with rowdy spectators.
"The course couldn't have been better," said Mariusz Wieczorek of Poland. "The saltwater is O.K. If we flip over at least we're assured to float right to the top."
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