Freestyle General

The highs and lows of white water kayaking in 2022

I went for a run recently and started to reflect on the highs and lows of the year in terms of kayaking. Both for myself and for wider the kayaking community. I often take the time for reflection in this way around the new year. In recent years I have written a reflection blog to finish the year. This year I want to do it differently. In this blog I will not just be focusing on the highs of the year but also the lows, both for myself and for the wider kayaking community. I will be honest that you might find reading about the lows upsetting. I do not want to make anyone sad but I think it is important that they are acknowledged with the same gravitas as the highs.

Loss in our community

Whilst running I thought back to January of 2022 and the first blog of the year. I wrote a blog about who would be inspiring YOUR paddling in 2022. In this article I introduced readers to 5 people who had been suggested to me as inspirational. Each person was discussed along with the reasons why it was that the person who nominated them thought they were inspirational. The very first person on this list was Robert Eggleston. He had been nominated several times.

Of course, I was immediately hit by a wave of sadness because Robert sadly died following a kayaking accident in Norway in August of 2022. He was one of many to sadly lose their lives paddling in 2022. I started the year with Robert and I wanted to end the year with him too. Below, I have shared the words that I have already used to write about Robert in January.

‘Robert Eggleston was nominated by 16-year-old James. James chose Robert because he has ‘become one of the top paddlers so quickly’ and because ‘he has such a smooth style.’ Robert is talented, and ambitious and quickly becoming one of the biggest names in kayaking. Watching videos of Robert is truly mesmerizing and it is no wonder that the younger generation are already looking up to him as one of their biggest inspirations!’

After posting the blog, Robert messaged me to say thank you for the kind words. I had briefly met Robert a couple of times before but would not have said that I knew him. He was a world-class paddler and yet he had still taken the time to thank me. A truly humble person. We shared many mutual friends and in the weeks that followed his passing, I watched as they grieved for him. In tribute posts, paddlers of the world described him as humble, and talented and his passing as a huge loss to the kayaking community.

I was in Llangollen, North Wales when I read the Facebook post that shared the news of Robert Eggleston’s accident and death on behalf of his parents. Despite not really knowing Robert, I felt an inexplicable amount of grief at the news. I sat on a bench near the Town Falls carpark and cried. The news was truly shocking. I cried for Robert and the tragedy of how suddenly his life had been cut short. I cried for his family and the close friends who I knew would be hurting so badly right now. I cried for our community and the cruelty that a sport that we all love and live for, has such a dark side to it. I tried to put it into words to a friend later on and described it as ‘I grieve for our community’. I didn’t know Robert personally or any of the other incredible paddlers who lost their lives in 2022. But I felt their loss.

I would have a lot of time to think about Robert over the weekend. The reason why was that I was back in the Town Falls carpark at 9am the next morning to start my second 24 hour kayaking challenge for charity.

Dee 24 hour charity challenge success

I won’t go into a huge amount of detail about the challenge as I have already written a full article which you can read. Essentially we paddled down a white water section of the river Dee and back up the canal for 24 hours straight. In total, we paddled 14 laps and raised over £5500 for three brilliant charities. I can say without a doubt that this was one of both my biggest highs and challenges of 2022, as well as probably one of my proudest achievements ever.

Dream team! Photo: Tom Clare

The night before the challenge my head had been full of thoughts and I had struggled to sleep. So I started this challenge a little groggy and distracted. Regardless, I was paddling as part of an awesome team of 6 who provided a great source of distraction and motivation to overcome the tiredness. Our support crew were immensely important in keeping us going over the 24 hours as well. Our immediate support crew were there for every portage, every meal and every change of gear. They cheered us from the banks/bridges and helped keep our morale up even when it seemed impossible.

The support of the wider kayaking community really helped as well. I couldn’t tell you how many people came to join us for a lap, cheer us from the side or send us well wishes. It was our final lap coming down and we had dozens of paddlers join us and then wait at the bottom of the final rapid to cheer us down. In that moment, it just felt so special to be a part of this community. This was a real high for me. Not completing the challenge itself but having so many people to share that moment with me. Whenever I try to explain to non-paddlers how special the paddling community is, it is moments like this that come to mind.

Final rapid! Photo: Alan Potts

Having completed another 24-hour charity challenge the year before on a flat water section of the Trent, many people asked me which was the harder challenge. Without a doubt, it was the Dee challenge. In part, this was because it was on white water. Paddling serpents tail on our first night lap in a slicey boat was certainly an exhilarating experience! Mainly it was due to the amount of (lack of) training I had been able to complete.

For my Trent challenge, I spent 3 months training intensely for it. I had been extremely paddle fit and as such, found it pretty okay. The same thing had not happened with the Dee challenge. I had simply not had the time and this was because of another exciting kayaking event that happened earlier in the Summer. The freestyle kayaking world championships – hosted in my home city of Nottingham!

A freestyle kayaking world championships to remember

In late June/early July, Nottingham hosted the 2022 freestyle kayaking world championships at Holme Pierrepont (HPP). A home freestyle world championships is a real community high for UK freestyle kayaking. For the UK freestyle athletes, this allowed them to compete at a world championships with all of their friends and family being able to come along to support them. For many people, this meant the absolute world. It was a brilliant event that has had long-lasting positive impacts on the city of Nottingham and all who attended.

Team GB at the opening ceremony

These world championships were a personal high of 2022 for me. Whilst I was not a competitor, I became quite involved with the event through my writing. I had written a series of blog articles in the lead up to the world championships explaining what the event was, what the different categories involved and interviews with some of the athletes. I wrote these articles because I wanted to share the excitement, both within kayaking and within the local Nottingham community. Following these, I was invited by the ICF to attend with the idea of writing a few articles. In the end, I wrote two specific articles, one about the event itself and one about the development camp that ran the week before the championships.

Becky winning her silver medal in c1! Photo: Jack Ledwith

I would have been there every day to support friends who were competing but to be able to share what an amazing week it was with the wider community felt very special. It was however exhausting. I work full time (teacher) and so would be coming straight from work every day to see as many of the events as I could. I would then get up at 4am to write before work whilst it was still fresh in my mind. Yet I would not have changed it for the world. It was incredible and I feel very lucky I was able to be a part of it.

Read my articles if you want to know more but there are a few personal highs within this week that I want to share here. The first was being there to see my lovely friend Niamh Macken win a silver medal in the junior women’s event. I don’t think I have ever been as nervous and overjoyed as I was in her final! It was very well earned. Equally seeing Becky Green get her silver in the first-ever women’s c1 event and Tamsyn McConchie get a silver in squirt! Incredible women!

The second was meeting so many people I admire throughout the event, with Emily Jackson being at the top of that list!

So happy to meet Emily! She was lovely!

Thirdly was getting to take my students there for the day. They spent the day cheering on the athletes as well as having a taster session on the lake. Many said they thought kayaking was brilliant and wanted to try it more. That meant the world to me!

Finally seeing Ottie Robinson-Shaw make history as she got gold in all three of her events. She got the highest ever score for women’s k1 and c1 (first ever women’s c1 too!) AND she absolutely destroyed the squirt boating score record for both men and women. What a woman!!

Ottie! Photo: Jack Ledwith

This leads me nicely onto perhaps the most nail-biting event of the week, the senior men’s k1 final. I don’t think anyone who was there can deny what an utter performance the athletes in this final pulled off. You had to see it to believe it. Any one of them could have won it. Ultimately though Dane took the gold with an incredible ride. This wouldn’t be his biggest achievement of 2022 however…

Dane! Photo: Jack Ledwith

Making history in the Green river race

The Green river race is a notorious white water kayaking race in which the world’s most elite white water kayakers compete. This was the first year in which a competitor managed to complete the race in under 4 minutes. Who was the paddler you ask? You guessed it – Dane Jackson! Dane set the new incredible record of 3 minutes and 58 seconds. I have no doubt that this was a personal high for Dane but it is also an absolute community high too. Well done Dane for showing the rest of us what is possible in kayaking!

The return of kayaking post covid

My final thought about kayaking in 2022 is simply that it is happening again. For two years, there has been so much disruption because of Covid. Events were cancelled, rivers not paddled and memories not made. This feels like the first normal year post-Covid where events have been able to take place and we have simply been able to meet friends for a paddle once again. This has sadly meant that the number of accidents on the river has increased and the pain of that won’t go away. But it also means an increase in the number of days ending in smiles, happy memories shared and the improved mental well-being of countless paddlers. It is good to be paddling again.

Sharing the river with friends again – it means the world! Photo: Ibbo

Happy New Year

I appreciate that this article has been a little different to my usual. I also appreciate that for some, each of the events mentioned above might trigger strong and potentially different emotions from what I have expressed. I know that each of you will have had a very different 2022. Whatever 2022 has brought for you, I wish you all the very best going into 2023.

There was a wonderful tribute video to Robert made by 286 West. I wanted to finish this article with a link to the video. I cannot embed the video but please do spend a few minutes now by following this link to see it on their Facebook page. It is a very touching tribute.

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