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In Charlotte, U.S. Sets Canoe/Kayak Team With Fast Races And 'A Lot Of Fun'

The Canoe Slalom World Championships are in Maryland this September. The members of the U.S. national team who will compete in those championships were determined over the weekend in Charlotte at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Casey Eichfeld hadn’t quite been born the last time the world championships were in the U.S. 25 years ago, but the way he puts it, “I was sort of present.”

“My mom was a volunteer/judge at those World Championships and she was six months pregnant with me,” he said.

Now Eichfeld has already been to two Olympics. Over the weekend, he competed for another trip to the World Championships. 

“Alright, ladies and gentleman, welcome to the 2014 U.S. slalom whitewater team trials here at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina,” an announcer said to welcome the crowd.

The rapids here are manmade, and the race is kind of like ski slalom. Joe Jacobi is CEO of the USA Canoe and Kayak governing body.

“You're competing on rapids,” he said, “and you're paddling around poles that are strung from wires above the rapids.”

The poles are either green or red. Green, you shoot straight through.

“The red poles are upstream gates where you actually go below them, paddle upstream against the current, and then you go back out into the channel,” Jacobi said.

That part can be brutal, and it’s why you hear a lot of people yelling, “Up, up, up!” during the races.

The canoes and kayaks the competitors use look almost the exact same, except the canoes are a little bit wider. Devin McEwan races one of them.

“All the boats that we compete in are what people think of a kayak as looking (like),” he said. “They’re enclosed, and they’re not like a canoe that you’d take out on a lake.”

In fact, there is nothing leisurely about how they use them. The course is 1,000 feet long, and the fastest competitors finish it in about 90 seconds.

John Eddins from Charlotte couldn’t believe how easy they make it look.

“It’s fun to come out and watch, similar to going and watching a PGA tour,” Eddins said. “Seeing those guys do what they do as well as they do it – I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.”

So did Hannah Anderson from Gastonia, who often whitewater rafts here.

“It’s nice to come out here and be in the same waters as these awesome people and get to watch them compete, it’s really cool,” she said.

And what would it look like if she were trying to race with them?

“I would be on my back in the water with my feet up trying to get back into my raft,” she said with a big laugh. “It would not be very pretty.”

One of the racers who made it look easiest was Ashley Nee. She finished second in one heat, and she was pumped as she carried her kayak out of the water.

“That was so much fun!” she said with a laugh.

And despite the cold water and strong winds, you heard that a lot. 

“I think that’s kind of a good marker of when you’re having a good run because it’s a lot of fun,” said Casey Eichfeld, who had just finished racing a canoe with Devin McEwan. “You’re like, yeah! I nailed that move! I nailed that move! And in this case I get to share it with a good buddy.”

Also, 14-year-old Tyler Smith from Huntersville said he had his best race ever in front of what was basically a home crowd.

“I feel great with all my friends coming, watching me,” he said. “I had some of my teachers here yesterday from school, so it’s great.”

Smith had already qualified for the U.S. junior team and almost made the adult team over the weekend.

Ashley Nee will represent the U.S. adult team at the World Championships this September. The event is in Maryland, where she’s from.

“My entire career, it’s always been in Europe,” she said. “And for once, we’re having the Europeans come to us. It’s an opportunity that the entire team is excited about.”

Including the guy who was sort of there the last time it was in the U.S., Casey Eichfeld.

Twenty-five years after his mom helped judge the event while pregnant with him, the two will be back at the World Championships. This time, Eichfeld will race, and his mom will cheer him on.