On a clear Saturday morning, kayaker Pat Keller bobbed in the water waiting for the 2014 Great Falls white-water race. At the sound of the start, the 28-year-old bolted downstream, guiding his boat smoothly through the waves and waterfalls of some of the country’s most demanding and dangerous rapids.
It was an adrenaline-fueled experience for Keller and each of the 31 other kayakers who came from as far as New Zealand to participate in the race, but one that this year was far from guaranteed.
Almost twelve months ago on the same frothy stretch of the Potomac River, 23-year-old kayaker Shannon Christy of North Carolina drowned while training for the annual race days before it was to take place. The 2013 event was canceled, and instead a memorial for Christy was held on the river.
This year, race organizers faced a weighty decision on whether to proceed with the event, according to race director and six-time winner Jason Beakes. But support from the kayaking community, in the Washington area and beyond, convinced Beakes and other race organizers that this year’s competition should go on.
“In one way, it does give more meaning to the race because there had to be a real conscious decision on [the part of] the whole community, not just on the part of a handful of organizers, that we’re going to go forward with this,” Beakes said. “Paddling this kind of white water means enough to all of us in general that we’re not going to stop because of what happened.”
At a meeting for racers Saturday morning, national-champion kayaker Geoff Calhoun, 28, led racers and volunteers in a moment of silence honoring Christy.
“This is the 26th Great Falls Race. I think the first one was held in 1988,” Calhoun, a Bethesda native, told the group. “Things have changed a lot, but what hasn’t changed is that it’s dangerous.”
According to Beakes and Calhoun, last year’s tragedy showed the already safety-conscious group of race organizers and competitors that more needed to be done to ensure the safety of paddlers during the event and at informal practice sessions.
Groups of kayakers usually take new or dangerous sections of river slowly, often getting out of their boats to scout rapids from shore or to “set safety” with long throw ropes. Racing changes this approach, as paddlers challenge themselves to run drops as quickly as possible. This focus on speed can make practicing for a race as dangerous as the race itself.
At a practice session Friday, kayakers armed with throw ropes stood watch on rocks in the center of the Falls as fellow paddlers dialed in their lines. During Saturday’s race, the number of safety personnel grew, with volunteers anchored to rocks and in boats above and below every drop on the quarter-mile course.
Local authorities and the National Park Service allow the race and have been supportive of kayakers’ efforts to improve safety.
“I would have understood if they’d sat us down and said, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” Beakes said of authorities’ response to Christy’s death, before adding that the Park Service and other agencies had been “extremely helpful.”
“I think everyone’s going to be pretty universal in their support of these guys who can handle it,” said John Green, a member of Montgomery County’s Urban Search and Rescue Team.
Most spectators on the packed deck of an overlook on the Maryland side of the Falls expressed a mix of curiosity, excitement and disbelief at the white-water acrobatics taking place below.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling that people in little, flimsy craft are navigating these tumultuous waters,” said Jonathan Slevin of Potomac, who came out after reading about the race.
Spectators cheered and clapped as announcers called out racers’ names as the competitors barreled down the course. Several groups were there to support family and friends.
“I’m always scared to death,” Veronica McCandless said as she watched her son, former Chilean Olympic slalom paddler Pablo McCandless, compete. “But each time, I see him go so smoothly it’s like a ballet.”
Keller, an associate with Merrill Lynch who traveled from North Carolina for the race, remembers Great Falls as his first Class V white-water experience growing up. This year, he sat in first place after his preliminary race in the “long boat” class of 12-foot kayaks. After powering toward the finish line of his second and final run, Keller pumped his fist as fellow competitors cheered from their boats. Though he wouldn’t receive his official time and place until a planned evening party and bonfire, Keller had just won the long boat class.
Calhoun, who has a day job at Mid-Atlantic Infrared Services, came in second. He summed up the kayaking community’s mentality in his speech to competitors before the race. “We want to keep this race alive,” Calhoun said. “And each other, too.”