Competitive sport is the ultimate expression of this idea. You dedicate your life to training to try to win, to stand out from others, to be the best.
And this post is about that, about competition and the pleasure of competing.
After a summer without touching the kayak for work reasons, and after the typical summer drought on the Basque coast, September arrived and brought with it a period of hectic activity. Three competitions, three world championships in two weeks.
Slalom World Championships
The commotion started with the Canoe Slalom World Championships in Pau (France). My friend Aitor Goikoetxea and I qualified to compete in the C2 category, after getting second place in the Spanish championships held in Sabero (León), at the beginning of summer. This is a category that has few practitioners at national level and therefore there isn't a great deal of merit in being among the first three that win a place for the world championships. Until a couple of weeks before we did not have the confirmation from the federation that they would let us compete and, as Aitor was away all summer, we didn't even have the chance to train together a little. We arrived in Pau a couple of days before the competition eager to get on the water and we managed to do a couple of sessions before the world championships began. To our surprise we qualified in the first heat for the semi-finals, and in the semi-finals we finished 16th out of 17. We were happy enough with the result and although it might have appeared otherwise, we enjoyed our heats more than I can say.
For the Spanish team in general, things didn't go all that well. The aspirations were high, with lots of chances of medals, and the final result was fairly frustrating, with only two finals and with several of our biggest hopes a long way from their peak performance. Too much pressure, maybe? It was a great pity, but that's competition for you.
As soon as the slalom was over, it was time for the extreme slalom. This is a new event, where you compete in an extreme kayak type of canoe. Four kayakers start at once, and the first one to reach the finish is the winner. This was the first time that this event was official at the world championships. Only two canoeists can compete from each country, and the event begins with a timed qualifying round, with the 32 best going on to the final rounds. Only one passed per country, and I had to compete against David Llorente, one of the young stars of the national squad, and a tough opponent, much stronger than me and the favourite to do well. Even so, I had a good qualifying round and succeeded in getting through to the finals. Then, in the final rounds I first got through to the round of sixteen, then to the quarter-finals before landing myself, with a bit of luck, in the semis. In the semis I had a tough battle against Neveu, Prindis and Aigner, three crack slalom canoeists, and that's as far as I got, close to reaching the final, but happy with my performance in the competition. I finished up 8th.
Extreme Kayak World Championships
Once the curtain had come down in Pau I loaded everything in the van and, together with my Norwegian friend Dag, headed to Austria, where in 5 days the Adidas Sickline, the Extreme Kayak World Championship, was due to start.
Of all the competitions throughout the year, this is the one that I like the most. It has the highest standard of all and with a section that I love, but the slightest error will cost you dear. I did not feel on good form training. I noticed the lack of preparation and I felt tired. Because of that, I limited my sessions to one a day and I was quite relaxed, knowing that it was what was best for me, trying to control myself so as not to become exhausted.
The competition started off strangely. There were 147 of us at the start, and I made mistakes in the first qualifying round, not at my best, and finished in 28th place. In the second heat I was a bit sharper and I managed to set the second best time of all, and in the end, combining the two rounds, I qualified in 13th place. Good. Safely through to the finals.
In the final rounds, the best 52 of the qualifiers competed in a one-on-one format where the best time took you through to the next round. In the quarter-finals I had a tough match, paired with the ex-world champion Thilo Smidt, but I had a good heat and I managed to be faster than him. In the semis I was drawn against another ex-world champion, the Olympic champion in Beijing, Alexander Grimm. I had another good heat, but Grimm beat me by 10 hundredths of a second and I had to wait to see if my time was good enough to go through as a "lucky looser". And that's what happened. My time was the second best from among those who had been eliminated and so I was through to the much-desired final.
In the final, however, I didn't have as good a round as in the previous rounds and with a couple of faults I was a long way from the podium, dropping down to 14th place. It was a great final, the tightest in the history of the competition, with the 16 finalists separated by less than 3 seconds. I was left with a bittersweet taste in my mouth at the end, but was still very happy with the competition in general.
And so, in two weeks, I had ground my way through three competitions. I had gone from zero to a hundred in a few days and I had been able to give of my best. I had not set myself any goal; I had no clear aspiration. In the end you have to be realistic with yourself and I was aware that I did not come well prepared for the events. I just saw these competitions as a good opportunity to get away and take a break from the daily routine, to do something different and get together with friends. And, more than anything else, it was a good way of training for the expedition on which we would be embarking after these competitions, heading to Pakistan, to face one of the biggest challenges in the world of white water: the immense Indus River and surrounding areas.
And so it has been. Over the years, competitions have gradually taken on a very secondary role in my life. They give me the pleasure of pushing myself a bit competing against someone else from time to time, rowing in a different way, totally focussed on a stretch where you look for perfection over a few days of heats during which you are not allowed to make mistakes. It's good for working on your technique and improving. For a few days you live immersed in a stretch of 200m that isn't especially difficult but in which it isn't easy to be fast. Your mind goes over the section constantly, in and out of the water; it becomes an obsession. They are different values. Even so, you enjoy it, because in our case this week is the exception. In the end, doing better or worse doesn't change anything beyond the personal satisfaction that it gives each of us and, fortunately, in my case, in no time at all I'd be in another river, submerged in another adventure in some wild place, with good friends and exciting rapids. That's what we like about it and why we find it so fulfilling, and it's the reason why this sport has become our passion.