Friday, September 18, 2009
Carlisle teen competes in whitewater freestyle kayaking
Tracy d’Arbeloff fervently hopes to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. And it could happen. The 17-year-old Russell Street resident possesses the physical stamina, strength and mental determination to continue on the path she’s started down as an elite athlete. One major obstacle stands in her way: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hasn’t yet decided whether to include her sport, whitewater freestyle kayaking, in the competition.
But d’Arbeloff is optimistic after a handful of IOC members showed up earlier this month to observe the World Freestyle Kayaking Championship in Switzerland where she placed as a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team’s junior division. From her perspective, the daring, complex and thrilling sport of whitewater kayaking is ideally suited to the Olympics, the final frontier of international competition.
“On a river, the waves are constant, not like the ocean,” d’Arbeloff explained. “You surf the waves and do tricks. Each trick is worth a certain number of points, and you try to get as many points as you can in 45 seconds.” Tricks include feats such as spinning on a wave, rolling in the air, and her newest accomplishment: a loop, which she described as “when you plug your bow into the water and it bounces you back out and then you throw a front flip into the air.”
Learning at camp
D’Arbeloff discovered kayaking as a camper in Vermont. “I’ve always loved water and spent a lot of time at camp hanging out at the waterfront,” she said. “A counselor taught me how to roll in a kayak, which is a key skill. From there I started running rivers and doing tricks.” The following summer, she attended a camp specifically dedicated to whitewater kayaking. That camp was located on the Ottawa River in eastern Canada, which d’Arbeloff says is one of the premier locations to practice the sport.
She should know. With only two years of competition experience behind her, she has already traveled the world as a kayaker, riding the rapids everywhere from the east and west coasts of the U.S. and Canada to New Zealand, Chile and Switzerland.
Best of all, d’Arbeloff doesn’t need to miss school to go whitewater kayaking in exotic locales – because these trips are part of the curriculum at New River Academy, a private preparatory high school where she is a senior. The school works on a nomadic model. Taking their studies with them, students and teachers travel from one whitewater location to the next, meeting for classes during the school day and going kayaking afternoons and weekends.
A perilous pastime
Conceding that kayaking is a fairly perilous pastime, d’Arbeloff said she knows her parents worry about her. “I’m aware that it scares them. But they know I’m not going to attempt something above my skill level.” Never paddling alone and trusting your teammates, d’Arbeloff said, are among the biggest factors to kayaking safety. Ultimately, though, there’s no denying that hazards exist. “Fear is a part of the sport,” d’Arbeloff said. Like all team members, she is trained in swiftwater rescue and knows best practices for avoiding danger.
D’Abeloff’s mother, Jill, concurred. “One of the things I have learned over the past two years is that good whitewater kayaking programs teach paddlers about the rivers, the dangers, what to watch for, how to keep their heads during a rescue or emergency, and what to do in the event they do have to swim [out of the boat]. Tracy has been fortunate to have been trained by some of the best kayakers in the world. That, coupled with her own personal experience, on and off the river, has made her a better paddler.”
Tracy’s most frightening encounter with the water occurred last summer, when she was paddling on a river at flood level and got caught in a whirlpool. Forced to swim out of her boat, she was near exhaustion when a teammate rescued her and conveyed her to the side of the river. She recovered quickly and went right back into the rapids.
Her itinerary for the upcoming school year includes travel to Canada’s east coast, Chile and Mexico. Next summer she hopes to do a competition circuit in Colorado and then participate in the World Cup in Europe, with the continued hope of seeing her sport admitted to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. She will also be busy applying to colleges, with an eye on those near whitewater rivers, so that she can continue kayaking on weekends.
“I want to keep it as a hobby for the rest of my life,” she said. “It will always be hugely important to me, no matter what else I do.” ∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito