The kids at Valley Mill Camp in Germantown don't know how good they have it. When they take whitewater instruction -- a staple at this old-style outdoors institution in Montgomery County -- their counselor is Andy Bridge. And these days, the rest of the paddling world would give plenty to learn Bridge's secrets.
The 27-year-old veteran canoe racer is just back from Europe, where he proved untouchable on the World Cup wildwater circuit.
Four races: Four aces.
As a result, Bridge said European coaches and rival paddlers have been all over him, measuring his gear, videotaping him during practice and ruminating about what suddenly lit his fire.
"They're surprised and curious about me," said Bridge, who finished a disappointing seventh at last year's World Championships on the Savage River in Western Maryland.
"I'm the only non-European to place in the top three in any of the races so far and I won them all," he said. "So now, every time I boat, French and German coaches are checking my equipment, watching my technique, seeing how my boat is rigged."
But Bridge, who builds boats for a living when he isn't counseling campers, said it wasn't changes in equipment or technique that pushed him to the front of the wildwater pack. It was a change in attitude.
"Before, a race was just a race to me," he said. "I'd start fast and go as fast as I could till I got to the finish. But my experience at the Worlds last year convinced me to break the course down and figure out where to go hard and where to hold back a little, to save something for the end.
"It's an art -- a real challenge -- to look at a four- or five-mile course and see the whole thing, where to pace yourself and where to go hard. Now, my best results are when I actually hold back a little. My strategy is hard, harder, hardest."
The tactic proved fruitful at the most recent World Cup race, June 17 on the Soca River in Yugoslavia, where Bridge battled huge waves and powerful currents to beat West German strongman Ernst Libuda by 15 seconds on a 19-minute course.
Bridge was fifth halfway down the river, but the course was particularly demanding at the bottom and the strength he saved in the early going left him the power to thunder through the rough stuff for a convincing triumph.
The win was doubly satisfying because it was on the course that will be used for the biennial World Championships next summer. The Europeans now know they have 15 seconds to make up on him by next year, Bridge said.
An American dominating wildwater competition in Europe is news. U.S. paddlers for more than a decade have led the world in slalom events, where the course is run through gates on a short, 600-yard stretch of river. But Americans never had success in the longer wildwater event, the paddling equivalent of a downhill ski race on a direct, four-mile downriver course with no gates.
In two previous World Championship attempts before last year's Savage River Worlds, Bridge was 13th twice, once in two-man canoe and once in solo canoe. Then came the dispiriting seventh-place finish on the Savage.
He had pinned high hopes on that race, the first Worlds ever held in the United States. Bridge considers the Savage his home river and figured his exhaustive experience there would have given him an edge. He trained four years for the race, dashing to the Savage every time enough water was released from the dam to make it runnable.
But while he hammered the course in the early going last June, he tired at the end and finished well out of the medals, six seconds behind third-place Steve Wells of Great Britain and 15 seconds behind gold medalist Andrej Zelenc of Yugoslavia.
Bridge went on to race twice in Europe later last summer and took a first and a third, which convinced him he could beat the competition if he stuck at it, which he decided to do.
"If I'd had a great race on the Savage and wound up seventh, I'd have said, 'Okay, that's the best I can do, now let's try something else,' " said Bridge. "But when I crossed the finish line I knew I could have done better and I wanted to prove it."
Last fall he called U.S. slalom coach Bill Endicott and asked for help. All winter, Bridge worked out five to seven days a week, concentrating on 20-minute drills where his speed increased toward the end, rather than falling off. Endicott rode alongside once a week, pedaling a bicycle along the C&O Canal towpath and demanding more and more push at the finish.
"I knew how to paddle," said Bridge. "Now I have a taste for how to race."
Zelenc, last year's winner, raced in only one of the four events Bridge won this season -- the Europa Cup on the Passer River in Merano, Italy. Bridge beat him easily there, Zelenc finishing a distant eighth.
Bridge now must go back to Europe for the final race of the season July 26 at Bourg St. Maurice, France. Another first will assure him the overall World Cup title.
Meantime, the kids at Valley Mill get his undivided attention. Good instructor? Ahh, he'll do. He's just the best in the world ....