Being a competitive athlete in slalom is pretty special. We get to train and develop aspects of mentality that I think are slightly diluted by 'linear' outcomes in other sports. The elite end of slalom displays a range of styles and approaches that are so diverse, yet produce such tight margins of success, that it's really comparable to nothing else.
This blog isn't easy to write. A big part of being a competitive athlete is managing ego; this can range from managing expectations, to approaching relationships, to developing an objective approach to feedback and a million other very personal things. I really wanted to write about my experience here, in the hope that it helps some athletes who might have felt the same way I did when I first came to the incredible Sava river.
When we arrived in Tacen, the water was pretty high. I'd never been to this particular venue before, and I knew that I was coming to one of the biggest 'drops' in the slalom world. The top of the course begins with a steep slide that drops into the first few gates. In the whitewater world it's really not a big deal. There are few consequences of messing up the line other than time loss, and it's accessible to all levels of paddler. Even in the slalom world, there is very little time distinction between nailing the line and having a slightly 'off' run. But when we showed up on Sunday evening, and the water was absolutely pounding into the right hand wall - where I knew I should be 'aiming' - I just felt sick.
Honestly, it's one of the hardest things being open about this kind of feeling. We live to race, and Tacen is a regular venue for top events like the World and European Championships. Local Slovenian paddler Peter Kauzer, one of the most decorated and impressive paddlers to watch, can do the whole thing with his eyes closed. I knew all this while I watched the water folding back on itself at the bottom of the drop. I watched C1 and K1 paddlers flying down it, almost completely in control of their boats in the churning boils. I knew I had to do it tomorrow. I just really, really didn't want to.
This isn't an easy feeling, because as a pretty experienced athlete, my immediate reaction was to clamp down on these feelings and try to shove them out of my mind. It's easy then to get into a cycle of dismissing the fear as ludicrous, clutching at things you've heard people say like 'it's easy' or 'just stay right' or 'maybe they'll close it for the race', and sick fear that comes in waves. This is a bit dramatic; I wasn't actually sick, and I was excited to try something that was completely out of my comfort zone. But your brain so easily hangs on to these cycles of thought until they are blown way out of proportion.
What I took away from this, while I was battling the cycles of thought that clouded my brain and made my hands sweat, was that trying to grip and shove feelings away from yourself actually has the opposite effect. It feels completely anti-intuitive, but the best thing I did for myself the evening before I tried the drop, was lean into those feelings. I stopped trying to resist the feeling of FEAR. I let it wash over me, and suddenly all those scary thoughts of slamming into the wall on the right or spinning into a death roll on the left became much less specific. Over the evening, the feeling of fear became just like the feeling before a race. Excitement, gentle adrenalin, and arms itching to get on the water.
At the bottom of my first run down, I could have cried with laughter. Remembering the feelings I was grappling with when I first saw the drop, it felt absolutely absurd. But I wanted to remember how I'd felt, and try and explain that actually the best thing you can do is one of the most incredible learning experiences of all.
In all fairness, I spent the first two days on the drop doing some truly horrible lines. I went straight through the middle of the hole at the bottom countless times, paddles in the air, boat underwater, edges forgotten and upstreams missed. But every time I did it, the drop got a bit easier. It felt like I had more time to decide what was happening. On the day before the race, something clicked. I got all the way over to the right hand side, and it was like my boat had previously been paddling with an anchor whose rope had just been cut. You sit up on that pile of water, and the whole space opens up. There seems to be minutes, rather than seconds, to decide what line to take.
I didn't get the result I wanted in the semi final at Tacen. I had two pretty serious mistakes that slowed me down and gave me penalties. But I was proud that over my three runs, I had three almost perfect deliveries on the main drop. What had been a really intense personal battle for me had become the easiest part of the course. I want to go back to Tacen, to keep learning about the water - because I don't think there is a better course for that. But I feel incredibly lucky for what I brought home with me.