Kayaking: Keeping your head above water

The kayak days in Augsburg are a bit like a spin cycle in your washing machine! The sky above Augsburg is grey and full of ominous black clouds. It's already 16 degrees at the "Jugendstrecke" (youth course) of Augburg's Eiskanal and business is slack on this summer Saturday morning.

Just a handful of kayak enthusiasts can be seen executing laps in their brightly colored boats. A few abandoned wheelchairs stand on the shore. Today, at the spot where 32 years ago athletes competed for Olympic medals, people with disabilities are testing their limits in white water kayaks. A total of nine people with various disabilities have traveled from all over Bavaria to take part.

Inspiration from the internet

The inspiration for this unusual water sports project came to Jochen Knorz from the Augsburg kayak association while surfing the Internet. The twenty-year-old came across a report about American canoeists who were teaching kayaking to children suffering from cancer. "If it can be done in the USA then it should also be possible in Germany - in particular since we have the ideal conditions here in Augsburg," explained the experienced water sports competitor. He accomplished this project together with Rita Mayingers from SV Reha, the Augsburg sports association for the disabled. Their kayak training course for people with disabilities opened last year.

"We had a few problems before we got started since in addition to the concerns of the kayak association and the water patrol we also had to consider insurance aspects," explained Rita. Even Jochen had some doubts: "I had a few sleepless nights at the beginning, for instance how could I explain the paddle stroke to a blind person?" However, the venture's successful launch has dispelled all objections. After completing the course last year, despite a visual impairment, Oliver Krause is now navigating the canoe slalom course alone in his kayak. To find his way, he uses his sensitive hearing to distinguish the changing sounds of the current along the course. In addition, a helper in a different boat is calling out directions. He doesn't find it frightening: "I would never dream of diving from a 10-metre board, but I will try everything else," stated the 32-year-old proudly, when he returned to dry land.

Not "undangerous"

In the meantime, the sky has become even darker and it's started to rain. Things are now serious for the beginners' group. In their neoprene wetsuits, life jackets and hard hats, they navigate the "washing machine", the name given to the start of the course due to its whirlpool-like current. The professionals from the kayak association lend a hand from their boats while the wheelchairs are brought to the finishing point. The disabled participants sit at the front of a two-person white water kayak, while behind them experienced canoeists watch carefully until their charges reach the safety of the shore. The water patrol always accompanies the party. They are responsible for ensuring their safety and have been known to fish a few people out of the water who have accidentally taken a dip.

On land, there are a few final instructions on how to behave in the event of a capsize. The spraycover is then drawn tight and, with one mighty pull, the boat is in the water. It may have looked like an elegant dance with the waves when the competitors at the Athens Olympics spun their kayaks around the slalom posts, but it's not that easy. Beginners to white water kayaking feel like clumsy puppies in a garden pond. Over time, you develop a feeling for the current, and it becomes easier to steer the canoe between the poles.

Just like the Olympics course

Next was a leisurely paddle down the "Jugendstrecke" of the Eiskanal. This artificial slalom course with surging water and other obstacles is fed from the River Lech - just like the Olympics course. A brief initiation on the course was followed by the obligatory baptism of the Eskimo roll. Refreshed after their dip in the River Lech, participants were ready to face the most demanding part of the day. All the way up to the sluice in their wheelchairs. The current flows far faster up here, turning the canal into a rapid mountain torrent. "It looks worse than it is," Jochen reassured them.

With a slightly queasy feeling, the participants plunged down from the two meter high sluice. The white water whirled around the kayaks. Just don't come over the side! However, the professionals maneuvered the kayaks through the gates, with everyone safe and sound although rather wet. This thrilling finish was the highlight of the kayaking experience for all involved.

Source: Tina Schmid, HANDICAP magazine, the Magazine for quality of life, Issue 3/2004.