Sam Sutton is Sick

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Sutton defended his title with a new course record of 55.84 seconds, undercutting the record he set in 2010 by three seconds. Sutton’s compatriot Mike Dawson claimed silver (58.00) with German Paul Böckelmann (58.03) finishing in third.

Over 140 of the world’s best whitewater, slalom and freestyle paddlers from 26 different countries met last weekend in the picturesque town of Oetz to compete for world championship honors on the legendary Wellerbrücke rapids, a section of the glacier-fed Ötztaler Ache River that is considered to be one of the most difficult whitewater sections on the planet.

The Wellerbrücke rapids are solid Class V, dishing up consequences to mistakes. The field was first filtered down into two qualification rounds to determine the 45 best paddlers to compete on the Wellerbrücke course, a section that is often referred to as the “Eiger Northwall” of whitewater kayaking. The top three of the previous year – Sam Sutton (NZL), Michele Ramazza (ITA) and Lukas Kalkbrenner (GER) — were automatically set for the finals, but still had to run the qualification to be seeded in heats for the knockout race format in the quarter and semi finals. The faster kayaker of each heat advances to the next round, together with two “lucky losers,” meaning the two fastest of the knocked-out athletes.

Compared to the previous year, the water level at Wellerbrücke was higher, which made the racecourse even faster. Sutton’s 2010 course record of 58.85 seconds was already broken in the quarter final by 25-year old Russian Egor Voskoboynikov, who won the qualification.

But the new course record didn’t last long. In his semi final heat, Sutton had to battle his younger brother Jamie. Incited by the duel with his sibling, Sutton was fired up and gave it his all finishing his run in an incredible time of 56.41 seconds. That made him the pole-sitter for the final. If Sutton could repeat such a smooth “Sickline” in his final run, he would be unbeatable, despite the fact that several athletes clocked sub one minute this year.

Italy’s Michele Ramazza (26) from Bologna, who won the silver medal in 2010, was highly motivated to move one place up and finally claim the title. But after starting off smooth in the upper part of the course, he rolled after a slight mistake in the turbulent core section, which cost him his victory. Still, Ramazza had a great time, the clock stopped at 58.96. “I had a very good run apart from a little mistake that took my head under water, but I made a very good time so I’m happy,” he said afterwards. “The Sickline is one of the most important races at the moment, there are so many good athletes here and it’s a really great place where everyone can push their limits.”

Last year’s German Slalom Champion Paul Böckelmann, who had placed ninth at the Sickline last year, presented a nearly perfect final run. With a time of 58.03 he took the lead, earning him the right to relax in the Hot Seat whirlpool next to Miss Tirol 2009, Christina Keil. Four runs later Böckelmann, who trains in Augsburg, had to make way for the new race leader.

Mike Dawson from New Zealand, who qualified for next year’s London Olympics in canoe slalom three weeks ago, was three hundreds of a second faster (58,0). In 2009 he won the silver medal at Sickline and in 2010 was in the pole position after the semis before losing time in a rapid called Champions Killer, the last three-meter drop of the course. This year, Dawson had a solid run that put him in the leading position with just five kayakers to go. “After getting blown out last year, I just wanted to have a good race today,” Dawson said in the hot seat whirlpool. “To hold a race of this caliber and still have racers so close shows that the level of kayaking is stepping up every year.”

Finally all eyes were on Sutton, who had the fastest-ever time down the Wellerbrücke section in the semis. He played in another league in the finals also, nailing Champions Killer to secure his second title in a row by over two seconds.

“The top-seeded person has always felt a lot of pressure and they’ve had a really great run but they haven’t been able to put it back to back,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure. I just tried to forget about that and to do my own thing and I’m extremely happy with my final run. It’s all about just trying to stay consistent and smooth through the whole thing.”