Champion of Slalom and Freestyle Kayaking

Colin Kemp, Whitewater Rider

In the Beginning * Spouting Off * Slaloming into Freestyle * Information Corner * Photo Gallery & Resources

In the Beginning

"Hey Colin, let's go hiking." Walking on a ridge with his Dad, young Colin Kemp looked down on the Youghagheny. Boatloads of rafters challenged the white water below. Intrigued by the action, the 11 year old from Washington DC convinced his father to take him rafting. Rafting was fun but what caught the youngster's imagination were the kayaks accompanying their rafting trip. Colin never rafted again. But he wasted no time getting his first kayaking lesson. A life-long love affair was born, even though that first lesson was in a thunderstorm.

Surprisingly enough, the Washington, DC area offers some of the best whitewater training around. The "Bethesda Center for Excellence" is the local paddling club and houses some of the world's top competitors including the likes of Erik "EJ" Jackson and Davy Hearn. EJ has been an Olympian, the 1993 World freestyle champion, and a member of the US Freestyle team from 1993 to 1999. Davy Hearn has been the C1 US and World Champion on more than one occasion. These are people who love their sport and are happy to share their knowledge with others. Of course, great instruction is not particularly valuable unless there is also opportunity to practice. In the DC area there is an Olympic training site constructed on the discharge canal of a local power plant. This man-made course was modeled to be like the course used in the Barcelona Olympics. And of course there is the mighty Potomac River. It is one of the few major rivers in the United States that has remained without dams. Not far away, are Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland with whitewater infernos like the Cheat River and the Youghagheny River.

With great instruction, great whitewater, and parental support for endless chauffeuring, the other necessary ingredients are enthusiasm and practice. Colin would be in the water daily. Lessons were three times a week. Practice, practice, and more practice was Colin's daily regime. After about one and a half years of learning, Colin entered his first competition. It was a slalom event. His diligence was rewarded with a second place.

Spouting Off

For the average visitor, the Great Falls of the Potomac is a chance to witness the fury of a massive river whose flow is squeezed between impressive rock formations. When water is squeezed like this, it runs fast, churning with fury and thundering its resentment. The largest single vertical drop at the falls is 23 feet. Secure railings and carefully crafted walkways remind the visitor that the torrent can be deadly to anyone who might lose their footing. For most of us, a visit to Great Falls has been an opportunity to witness from a distance the incredible power of water, and to secretly breath a sigh of relief upon our safe return to the dry river banks. For Colin, now 23, the falls are practice. The screaming 23 foot vertical drop is known to the kayaking community as "The Spout". Colin first ran "The Spout" at the age of 15. (Click on the picture to see a larger image. An image "in the spout" is in the photo gallery below.)

Having been one of those nervous visitors to Great Falls, I asked Colin if he had a death wish! He took my question in stride and carefully explained that the sport is quite safe. The practitioner must use good judgment is assessing personal skill level against the level of challenge presented by the whitewater. Fear tends to result in self-limiting of risk. Colin has learned the technical skills of boat control and honed these to a fine level. He has learned to read the water so as to know where the danger spots lie. And Colin has learned about himself and can tell when fear is just nerves and when fear means "walk around it". To quote Colin, "Never be embarrassed to walk a rapid."


Slaloming into Freestyle

Whitewater competitors have a choice of competing in slalom or freestyle events. Slalom events involve passing through a series of numbered gates in both downstream and upstream directions. Freestyle events are an exhibition of complex maneuvers with the kayak in the midst of heavy whitewater. Slalom boats are longer having a required length of thirteen feet two inches (4 meters).. Competing in these larger boats requires technique that has a great deal of finesse coupled with exceptional ability to "read" the water. Colin feels that this type of training forms the best foundation for the freestyle competitor. He noted that the world's greatest freestylers come from a slalom background. Colin has been competing as a freestyler for the last two years. He is already rated at the expert level. In 1999, he won the Potomac freestyle competition among other experts and placed fourth in the Ocoee competition in Tennessee. (Click on the picture for more information and a larger image)

Freestyling, as well as kayaking in general, has seen tremendous gains in popularity in recent years. Colin has approached freestyling with enormous dedication. But freestyling can be a great deal of fun for the more casual "weekend warrior". Standing waves where rivers join and the hole formed by water running swiftly around a boulder form playlands for the casual freestyle kayaker who can maneuver today's kayak designs every which way in the water. With the new boat designs, better supporting equipment, and improved instructional techniques, the novice can be having an absolute blast with a minimal amount of training time.


Information Corner

During the course of my interview with Colin, he shared with me a great deal of information about boat and equipment design. I was amazed to learn that a new boat design introduced in 1997 had revolutionized the sport of freestyle competition. Wave Sport's "X" boat entered the scene with a distinctive bow design that facilitated cartwheels and other maneuvers favored in freestyle competition. freestyle is also known as rodeo. Many kayak manufacturers now sport variations of this theme. Interestingly enough, the handling of the boat is extremely dependent upon the weight of the paddler. A beginner of 150 pounds should be in a boat rated for a person of greater weight. This keeps the eddyline (parting line) of the flatter deck design further above the waterline. Although wonderful for the expert, catching the eddyline at the waterline will quickly flip the beginner.

Colin provided some advice for the new paddler:

  1. Get equipment of the new designs
  2. Get your boat padded out so that it fits like a glove and responds to your every move
  3. Get good instruction
  4. Do as much learning in moving water as is feasible
  5. Try different rivers
  6. Use good judgment

Colin is a member of the Wave Sport northeast regional team. Wave Sport is his sponsor and provides his boats. He also recommends gear developed by Kara Weld of Immersion Research. His latest sponsor, Lotus Designs, provides personal floation devices (PFD's).

Colin is currently in the Lehigh Valley having just graduated for Moravian College in Bethlehem with a pre-veterinary degree. However, he expects to dedicate the next several years to competitive paddling before continuing with veterinary school. When he's not paddling, he can be found in the summer of 2000 working at Nestor's Sporting Goods in Whitehall, PA. Visit him there to get your boat padded out by an expert. Colin also provides personal lessons at what I consider to be incredibly low rates for instruction of such caliber. His e-mail is : This winter (2000-2001) Colin will be with Wave Sport on the big rivers of South America. So take advantage of his expertise while he's still available. And have a great time!


Photo Gallery

"In the Spout" on the Potomac

No Hands on the Delaware

Vertical on the Ocoee

All Eyes on Colin on the Ocoee

Vertical and Buried

Having Fun


Paddling Resources on the Web- A Sampling

The World Kayak Federation

National Organization of Whitewater Rodeos

American Whitewater Affiliation

Wave Sport's page

Colin's final word of advice, "Always have fun."

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