For professional and amateur paddlers alike, summertime means competition is in the air. Kayakers compete in a wide range of events, including straight-laced gates and booze-fuelled free-for-alls. This season, we’ll see competitions that span the spectrum, from grassroots jams to paddling on the world stage at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. But Vail’s upcoming GoPro Mountain Games, running from June 9 through 12, aims to keep the sport’s mountain culture at the forefront of the competition.
As one of the epicenters of mountain life—think: trails, rivers, and plenty of places to grab a cold brew—Vail hosts kayaking events that are both high-octane and authentic. This year's GoPro Mountain Games will feature four: a fast and steep run on Homestake Creek, a freestyle session at the Vail Whitewater Park, an American Gladiators-meets-boardercross sprint (yes, there are kayakers in the water tasked with knocking down racers), and a four-mile down river rally. Spectating is free and amateur paddlers are encouraged to register alongside some of the top professionals.
While creeking events thrive on the connection between paddlers and the natural environment, slalom events are largely held on manmade courses. With the change of venues, comes a noticeable shift in atmosphere. While racers have largely applauded the technicality of Rio’s course, there’s no doubt that a concrete ditch is a far cry from a mountain stream.
“The differences in experience between slalom races and events like the GoPro Mountain Games are quite stark,” explains Aaron Mann. With a foot in both creeks, Mann serves as director of communications for USA Canoe/Kayak (the national governing body for the sports) and competes in creeking events. He’ll paddle in this year’s GoPro Mountain Games and attend the Olympics as support staff for the athletes.
Slalom, Mann says, is result-based and requires a very intense level of focus when you are both on and off the water, which can create an intense environment. But it’s that stress, the crowds, and the commentary that appeal to fans of Olympic paddling. “Just qualifying for the Olympics is incredibly challenging and stressful,” says first-time Olympian Michal Smolen. “The Olympics host the best of the best.” And that alone is a large part of what makes the Games great.
The slalom and sprint events found at the Olympic-level of the sport dramatically differ from the familiar and festival-like atmosphere of creek competitions. Few paddlers hit the water in the hydrodynamic fiberglass boats used in the Olympics, and it’s safe to say no one cracking IPAs between runs is giving any thought to making gates. Commitment to the fun-filled roots of the sport sets the GoPro Mountain Games apart, says Tom Boyd, director of PR and communications for the Vail Valley Foundation “When kayakers get together, or tour around an area riding the runoff, they will go creeking in the morning and then go hit a play spot in the afternoon,” he says. “They’ll run rivers, they’ll freestyle, they’ll choose their own way.”