The Welsh aren't known for prodigal display, but last week they poured a veritable Niagara of water into the peaceful little Tryweryn River at Bala, the better to entertain—and vex—the world's leading practitioners of the art of messing about in small boats on unruly streams. The occasion was the biennial Wild Water World Championships for canoes and kayaks, and when the Welsh Water Authority opened the taps—to the tune of 250 million imperial gallons—a measure of graveyard humor seemed in order. David Jones, an Atlanta dentist and U.S. team member, examined one of the brass luggage tags that had been given out by one of the event's sponsors and said, "This is for tying on my big toe before they dump me in the body bag, huh?"
By now the Tryweryn was an angry, high-kicking flood that crashed over falls and swirled between boulders. At intervals the coffee-colored water, with frothy cream highlights, plunged into dark tunnels beneath overarching trees. "Listen," said Cathy Hearn, of Washington, D.C., who won a gold medal at the last world championships, "get some of those spare men over here. Make them go berserk on that bridge when I come through. Give 'em beer or something. Get 'em shouting. I feel so terrible in that dark patch after the falls."
"The water is freezing and it's rotten and miserable," said a British competitor. "This is a very boat-damaging river, with sharp rocks and a lot of them."
At the precipitous falls on the course it was possible to observe such mishaps as pitoning (running the bow of a boat into a cleft in a rock) and bageling (a roll with a hole). All weekend at the falls boats flipped and banged into boulders. As one Japanese kayak crashed and submerged, for a moment one saw just a pair of desperate eyes and a helmet above water. But the paddler survived without major damage, as indeed did all the rest.
The real destruction was dealt out by the French team. Consisting mostly of guides who operate on the swiftest streams at home, the French not only were the most adept but also were equipped with the best boats. But Hearn was honest enough to admit that people, not boats, win races. "They would be great in any range of boats that were even basically competitive," she said.
Never mind that wild water racing's most competitive event, men's K-1, or single-handed kayak, is widely known by its German name, die K‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánigsklasse, king class. On Friday in Wales it turned into a Gallic gallop, the French contingent taking first and third. Claude Benezit won, supplanting four-time champion Jean Pierre Burny of Belgium. Next came the C-2 championship, for men's canoe pairs, and the French were even more devastating, sweeping first, second and third.
But the Yanks, once the laughingstock of the cockleshell crowd, briefly interrupted the French onslaught in Friday's third event, mixed canoe pairs, Mike Hipsher and Bunny Johns of Bryson City, N.C. winning the gold medal. "You realize we were a whole minute ahead of the French," Hipsher crowed.
By the end of the run the pair was on the verge of collapse. Neither had eaten that morning, and now Johns couldn't decide which she should do first, find food or call home. "I was tired before we'd gotten halfway down," she said, "but I kept telling myself, 'The hardest part's over; go on, go on.' Then we hit the highway bridge, which I think is about halfway, and I kept thinking, 'Guts, guts, guts.' "
"I said a little prayer before we hit the falls, that we'd have enough left," said Hipsher. "Then, on an eddy, we passed somebody. The Swiss pair. Unbelievably, they took the outside route and we came inside them."
"It was the Germans," said Johns. "Number 125. Now I think I'm going to collapse."
After the gallant American effort, the march of the French resumed. Dominique Gardette was the vedette of the women's K-1, but by only 2.05 seconds over Gisela Grothaus of West Germany. Next, in Friday's final event, men's C-1, or single canoes, came a prodigious creature whose name could well resound in a caveman comic strip. As French fans awaited his appearance, they began chanting "Zok! Zok! Zok!" in honor of their compatriot Gilles Zok. Well, Zok zapped the field, with fellow Frenchman Luc Verger finishing second. John Butler of Madison, Wis., who had been disqualified for allegedly practicing after the official closing time and then had been reinstated, came in third.
Saturday brought team races, and in the K-1 the Americans narrowly missed the bronze. They were fourth again in the C-2 men's event, won, naturellement, by the French. Jones, he of the body bags, looked ready for one when he finished. "I feel very bad," he said. "Total fatigue. An absolute drain of my body. My stomach is twisted."
The French inexplicably were up the creek without a medal in the women's K-1, but their men's team made amends by winning the final wild-water event, the C-1. Near the end of the race an agitated voice was heard on the P.A. system, announcing that the French had caught up with the Canadians and Yugoslavs, who, in a staggered start, had commenced racing four and two minutes ahead of them, respectively. "What a jam there'll be at the finish," the announcer cried. Then: "No, the French are clear of both."
"For God's sake," an English voice groaned, "drop a rock on them from the bridge!"
Chances are it would take more than a few rocks to keep the French from rolling on in this week's slalom segment of the championships. "Wild water is the real thing," said Hearn disdainfully. "Slalom is more of a game." She and other paddlers believe wild-water slaloming is becoming too much like its skiing counterpart. "It used to be important to be clean, not to hit any poles," said Hearn. "There used to be major time penalties, but not now."
At week's end, the Americans had won one gold, one silver and two bronze medals, but they clearly have a way to go. "We have a lot to learn," said Ben Sandiford, a U.S. coach. "It's just a matter of racing more in Europe, learning to push ourselves harder," said U.S. competitor Terry White. "Do you think," said Ginny Stillman, who'd been kept out of competition by a shoulder separation, "that someone could introduce me to Dominique Gardette?"
Not a bad idea, Ginny. If the guys get going, too, maybe someday they'll sock it to the Zok.