DICKERSON — The course is only 900 feet long, but the half dozen drops of 3 feet or more and the churning whitewater make for a heart-stopping descent.
Three members of this year’s Olympic canoe slalom team got their start on the NRG Dickerson Whitewater Course, as kids learning to maneuver boats through swirling rapids and around gumdrop-shaped concrete boulders along the 40-foot-wide course.
They returned to the course earlier this month as some of the most skilled paddlers in the world. It was one day before they were to head to the first two legs of the World Cup in Europe. This year, that event will serve as a prep for the paddling events at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
Ashley Nee, a native of Darnestown, still trains on the course, which stays warm even in the middle of winter. Nee, 24, who now lives in Bethesda, regularly paddles at Dickerson, and has finally qualified for the Olympics, after two near misses.
Nee and fellow Olympians Michal Smolen and Casey Eichfeld demonstrated the moves they’ll be doing in the Olympics at NRG Dickerson as they got in a workout before the worlds.
Nee and Smolen used quick, deft strokes with their double-bladed kayak paddles, ferrying their boats across foaming whitewater, turning, spinning on top of the frothy waves, using the power of the churning water to aid their momentum. With their constant, vertical strokes, they kept one blade or the other in contact with the water nearly all the time.
Eichfeld, using the shorter canoe paddle, knelt rather than sat in his boat, although all three of the boaters wore “skirts” to cover the openings in their boats. He, too, paddled gracefully, moving powerfully through the drops, and putting his boat squarely between flimsy, hanging poles that served as gates for the slalom moves.
The NRG Dickerson course was built in 1991 to model the 1992 Olympic whitewater course. The Bethesda Center of Excellence, now the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center, or PWRC, modified the existing water discharge flume from the coal-fired Dickerson Generating Station into the whitewater course.
“It was incredible to build a site where there is a flume,” said Dana Chladek, coach and race director of the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center. The course is the only manmade whitewater course in the world to feature warm water.
Nee says she’s spent hours and hours at the course, which she thinks has some similarities to this year’s Junior/Under 23 World Championships course in Krakow, Poland, and the Rio course.
Each whitewater course has drops in elevation, which helps to increase the speed of the water. The size of the drops and the obstacles vary. The gumdrop-shaped boulders, made of concrete, serve to funnel the water around them and add some interesting challenges for each paddler.
Manmade courses are the norm in whitewater sports, said Bill Endicott, former head of the PWRC. The courses take out the natural variations found in whitewater rivers.
A paddling legacy
Whitewater paddling has deep roots in the Maryland-Washington, D.C., area, Endicott said. In 1989, the Canoe Slalom World Championships were held on the dam-controlled Savage River in Western Maryland. Chladek, who medaled at that event, went on to earn two Olympic medals. She won a bronze medal in 1992 and a silver in 1996. The area’s rivers, from West Virginia to Great Falls in Washington, have served as a training ground for numerous world-class paddlers.
At the Olympics and international competitions, the athletes paddle through gates on a timed 300-meter whitewater course in either canoe or kayak divisions, known as K1, K2, C1 and C2.
Eichfeld will compete in C1, a solo canoe, and C2, a tandem boat, along with Devin McEwan. Smolen and Nee will compete in the men’s and women’s K1, which are solo kayaks.
Nee’s coach, Silvan Poberaj, described her as the most persistent of the young boaters he coached. “She never gave up,” he said. “She kept going and she kept improving from year to year. That to me was her main strength.”
Nee, 27, was introduced to paddling at age 12 at a whitewater camp in Seneca State Park. Her first time at Dickerson, she remembered flipping over in her boat. “But I kept coming back,” she said. “It’s still a very challenging course. It’s a world-class course.”
Bad luck kept her from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. In 2008, after she helped qualify the U.S. team for a spot in the Beijing games, she dislocated a shoulder during a test event for the course in China. She was unable to recover in time for the Olympic trials. In 2012, she scored enough points to qualify for the team, but she lost in a tiebreaker event.
Nee, who now lives in Bethesda, said she often comes up to Dickerson in the dead of winter to train. When she’s not training, she’s teaching kayaking to adults and kids. “If you’re living in this area, you have to try it,” she said. Local whitewater spots, from the Potomac River to the Shenandoah River, make paddling accessible to a variety of ages and skill levels.
“I grew up on this course”
For the members of the PWRC, training at Dickerson when the flume is operating gives them a chance to experience world-class rapids in a safe environment. Paddlers can aim for the faster whitewater portions of the course, or they can catch their breath in an eddy.
Eichfeld, 26, originally from northeastern Pennsylvania, spent a lot of time on the Dickerson course as a young paddler. “I grew up on this course,” he said. His mother was six months pregnant with him when she served as a scorekeeper during the Savage River championships. “My parents were recreational paddlers,” he said. “They had a C1 waiting for me when I was born.”
He added, “My parents like to say I have river water running through my veins.” When he was a kid, his parents took him to paddling events up and down the East Coast. They shuttled him to Dickerson on weekends. He now lives and trains in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Like a roller coaster
Eichfeld likes the variety offered at the Dickerson course. “No whitewater is ever the same, but we’re building that instinctual database so we can instinctively react to whatever the water throws at us as we train,” he said. Manmade courses are different from natural rivers in that they have a smooth, usually concrete bottom. Debris on river bottoms can make paddling easier, or harder. The concrete base makes the water a bit more slippery, but paddlers still must be able to read the course.
Smolen, 22, who now lives in Gastonia, North Carolina, did a great job of reading the course while paddling a tandem kayak through the course with me in tow. Although “tow” is not exactly accurate, since I was in the front of the boat. I was handed a paddle, but told I probably wouldn’t need it. In fact, I tucked it parallel to the boat after I accidentally whacked a couple of the hanging gates with it. I was also given the requisite helmet and life jacket.
We headed straight through the drops, and I felt a bit like I was on a roller coaster ride. On a couple of the drops, I swallowed mouthfuls of water. I relaxed, knowing I was in the hands of an Olympic-level paddler, and enjoyed the ride. I did hesitate a bit before the last drop, which at over 4 feet, was much larger than the others. There were also a few more boulders. I looked beyond the swirling rapids, at the calm Potomac River ahead. I knew that if we should flip, it was a quick pull of the skirt, and a short swim into the Potomac.
Such planning served to relax me. Then, just like that, we were safely into the clear, and pulling the kayak up onto the muddy banks.