By Chris Gragtmans

The sport of kayaking has given me so many incredible memories.  From the seat of my kayak, I have made lifetime friendships, seen stunning landscapes in five continents, and learned many lessons about life and business.  It’s tough to quantify and define which are my favorite, but I wanted to reflect on a few of those peak memories in this blog series. The 2011 Whitewater Grand Prix is without a doubt one of my top 5 favorite kayaking moments!

The concept was bold- Patrick Camblin envisioned a competition that redefined kayaking.  A two week , six venue, traveling event in Quebec, Canada that pits 25 of the best athletes in whitewater against each other.  It would take place in the beginning of May, a time when the colossal mass of snow, dumped all winter over thousands of square kilometres, would melt and funnel all at once into the massive rivers of Eastern Canada.  The biggest whitewater + the best paddlers = surely something awesome, right?

I was honored and excited to be invited as part of this group.  Still trying to decide my life’s direction after graduating from university, I had been working a marketing position for a technology firm in Asheville, NC.  Not ideal conditions to train for an elite competition.  But I had been making the most of it- CrossFit workouts every day on my lunch break and kayak workouts before or after work.  I was doing my best.

I arrived in Canada with Bryan Kirk and Tino Specht to the Ottawa River (the river where I learned how to kayak) higher than I had ever seen it.  Conditions looked to be lining up for one of the most epic waves in the sport of kayaking- Gladiator.  I had never surfed this wave, but it is a surgy 15 foot tall behemoth, and unfortunately has one of the biggest, meanest looking hydraulics I have ever seen about 100 meters downstream of it.  This translates to 13-14 seconds in kayak time.  A broken paddle or blown sprayskirt is life-threatening on Gladiator.

The first day of the competition was a media jam format- take as many rides as you want, and your best trick is scored on video.  On my first ride, the speed and power of 100,000 cfs blasting underneath my boat took my breath away.  Throwing tricks was the last thing on my mind… I couldn’t help but think that if I flipped over on this beast it would rip my arms off.  It was survival boating.  I finally got a few tricks in to put my name on the board, and fell asleep that night thinking that I may be a bit out of my league.

That set the tone for the Grand Prix, and things only got more intense from there.  Head to head races through massive volume rapids, a time trials creek race with gnarly holes and a half kilometer long slide, and a freestyle through the rapid off of a barreling river wave called Hawaii… competitors had to step up their game in every way, and there was certainly carnage.  The swim tally racked up to over 20 swims (again- these are the best in the world!), and numerous paddlers sat events out.  

The other fascinating thing about the Grand Prix was the social aspect of it.  Each one of us were big fish where we came from.  We were used to being the hero- the center of attention, and the person who everyone else supports to run the big waterfall.  Not so here!  Upon looking at that same waterfall or rapid, there were now 15 people ready to go. It was definitely a strange feeling, but the collective energy was addictive, and paradigms were being redefined.  

Photo credit- Bryan Kirk

As the events ticked by, I managed to consecutively stay in the top 10, something that was definitely exciting.  However, my body seemed to be rebelling against me.  I think that I drank some bad water partway through, and there was something wrong- my strength was definitely ebbing.

The final event was a “Giant Slalom” format, and would determine the final competition standings.  The course was sick- very manageable at the top, but then cycling down through some massive holes and drops, with the biggest one at the finish line.  A couple of athletes were heard saying “if I found this rapid on a normal river run, I would walk it!” My practice runs were good, but the power was not in my body when I needed it.  This final event was damage control for me- put a result on the board and finish strong.  We would take two race runs, and the best one would count.  

My run started well- I charged into the rapid and hit the first three gates smoothly, just the way that I practiced.  However, as I tried to duck the fourth gate, I fell into a hole at the top of the gnarliest section.  As I surfed that hole, upright and then upside down, my brain was redlined.  My muscles were fatiguing, the safety setup was not ideal to nab me above the 20 foot drop waiting just below, and I realized that swimming was a very dangerous proposition.  The river has a way of making you feel tiny sometimes.  I finally fought my way out of the hole, completely exhausted and gasping for air.  Rather than finish that race run, I caught an eddy and ran my fingers in front of my throat- “I’m done.”

I’ve never quit a race run before, but it was an easy decision.  I was spent after that surf, and my weak body certainly was not ready to tackle the two class V moves downstream.  I got out of my boat and sat down on the trail.  This was a moment of reckoning.  I could walk away and accept the hit of a DNF on my Grand Prix results, safe and sound, or I could rest for a few minutes, pick up my kayak, and go back to the starting line for my 2nd run.  Left- car, beer and warm clothes.  Right- chance #2 at a dangerous, technically challenging race course.  It felt like one of those pivotal decisions in life, and I finally turned right.

It was very mentally challenging to line up in the starting gate again, but overcoming personal barriers is part of why I love the sport.  I took a slower pace, and just focused on making all of the gates and staying away from hazards.  I flipped against the wall on the 20 foot drop, but was able to roll up and keep it together to the finish line.  I floated downstream with my paddle resting on my boat, silently giving thanks for a safe deliverance through all of the rapids of the past two weeks.

I ended up 6th Overall in the 2011 Whitewater Grand Prix, a result that I am still very proud of.  After driving 20 hours home to Asheville, I went to the doctor, found out that I had the intestinal parasite Giardia, and underwent a powerful two week antibiotics treatment.  

2011 Whitewater Grand Prix from Tribe Rider on Vimeo.

This event was significant in my life not only because of the huge whitewater and fantastic experiences, but also because it spurred me to live a new life.  The Grand Prix solidified my resolve to quit the cubicle grind, and make a living in the paddlesports industry- working for myself.  I did that a few months later, and I haven’t looked back.

And here’s the cool thing- it’s almost time for a reunion tour.  Check this out:


2014 should be bigger and better than ever, and I look forward to teaming up with an epic crew for two weeks of camaraderie and whitewater.

Chris Gragtmans

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