Steamboat Springs Stephen Wright knew that preparation would be key to a successful bid in a race designed to test a handful of the world's best kayakers' overall paddling prowess with a creek race in the morning and a freestyle event in the afternoon.
"The creek race presented its own challenges, and I think it favored people that did some practice runs - it was less about paddling hard and more about staying off the rocks," said Wright, a 29-year-old resident of Rock Island, Tenn., who arrived on Friday to size up Fish Creek and Charlie's Hole on the Yampa River - the dual sites of Monday's Paddling Life Pro Invitational.
The practice paid off. Wright wrapped up the overall men's title and Australia's Tanya Faux, 29, defended her title from last year, winning the women's division.
"It was a much different style of creek racing this year, where if you made one mistake, you'd lose so much time," Faux said.
The race began above the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District diversionary weir on the middle section of Fish Creek and ran for roughly a half-mile downstream.
"It's just four-wheel paddling today where you gotta power over the rocks. As long as I beat those two, I'm all right," Kevin Dombey, the only local entrant, said of the talented 13-year-old tandem of Dane Jackson and Jason Craig, who rounded out the field of 15 male and seven female competitors.
On a day the Fish Creek gauge measured a depth of one-foot, eight-inches, a level more than one competitor described as "super-bony," it was no surprise that a boater with nine years under his belt on the US Whitewater Slalom Team, Jason Beakes, had the fastest time of two minutes, 30.71 seconds.
"You cross that starting line an all you can think is, 'paddle fast,' but that's not the smartest way - you have to compromise going fast by focusing on your line, the race was won and lost by people with the cleanest lines," said Brad Ludden, last year's creek race winner, who took second place behind Beakes, a second ahead of third-place men's finisher Bryan Kirk.
Many racers agreed that the boulder-riddled course favored lighter paddlers in larger boats - as evidenced by Nikki Kelly. The New Zealand native was the women's creek race winner, scorching the overall second-fastest time on the day in 2:32.58.
Although Kelly bested her southern hemisphere friend and rival (Faux took second in the creek race, followed by Eleanor Perry in third), Faux had the last laugh when competitors went from bouncing boulders to aerial antics in the freestyle event.
The C-hole "was a bit more flushy, so you had to be on your game and wait for it and be aware or you'd flush out," said Faux, who made the most of her two 45-second preliminary rides to earn the female biggest trick award and make it to the final round to best some stiff competition - Emily Jackson and Ruth Gordon, the respective 2007 junior and overall female freestyle world champions, who took second- and third-place honors in the freestyle event.
Emily Jackson's pint-sized brother Dane exploded off the wave and wowed judges with some mid-surf air guitar lessons to make it to the five-man finals with Kirk, third-place overall 2007 freestyle world champion Nick Troutman, John Meyers and Wright.
As the field was whittled to Wright and Meyers, the 2007 collegiate national champ (Western State College), Wright's ability to stay in the hole and link tricks throughout his ride was enough to beat the massive front-flipping loops that Meyers brought and earned him top big trick honors.
"Things just came together better and the lower water made it more manageable, you could do wave and hole moves - what a great event," Wright said.
Meyers' runner-up freestyle performance earned him third place overall behind Beakes in second. Kelly took second overall for the women and Emily Jackson took third.
"I liked the course better, it was great start with that launching boof, there was more technicality and it was more spectator friendly - it keeps you amped with the people cheering and people deserve to see what we're doing," Ludden said of the smoothly-run second annual event.
For full Paddling Life Pro Invitational results, visit www.paddlinglife.net.