I woke up Wednesday morning feeling sore and bruised, like I’d slept on a bed of rocks. The culprit could have been the mattress on my twin bed in the mouse house of a dorm room I’m staying in while covering the Olympics in London, one obviously designed for someone much younger and shorter than me.
Then I realized I was feeling especially beleaguered because I actually had bounced off several rocks the night before. Well, they weren’t really rocks, they were blue plastic barricades masquerading as boulders on the man-made Olympic white water course at Lee Valley. But they left bruises just the same.
Six other journalists and I opted to take the 40-minute bus ride out of London to raft the Lee Valley course that will be the venue for the Olympic sports of canoe and kayak. We went under the guise of getting a taste of these under-the-radar sports. Yet when we discovered several glaring discrepancies between our activity and the Olympic ones – going down the course in a broad and stable eight-person rubber raft rather than a sleek and tippy one- or two-person fiberglass vessel, discarding any concern about our speed and barreling straight through the long poles called “gates” that line the course rather than going around them – we turned a blind eye. Really, we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to escape the 31-degree [make that 87-degrees, fahrenheit] heat with a dunk in a river.
Of course, I didn’t realize we actually would be dunked, something I blame on the language barrier.
“Statistically, we’re going to lose a couple of you, hopefully not permanently,” Paskell Blackwell, an assistant manager for the public water park and the head of the safety team there during the Games, had warned us. Spoken in his charming British accent, though, his words did little to instill fear, even though they came during nearly an hour of safety orientation.
To be honest, I didn’t even bring a change of clothes. After all, this was a press excursion, which usually means all guides are instructed to play nice and give us only favorable things to write about. Besides, I spent a couple years in Durango, Colo., where whitewater kayaking was practically a varsity sport and river rafting takes the place of pickup soccer games.
That was a challenge. This appeared to be little more than a roughly $50 million amusement park, complete with purified water and a log-ride-like conveyor belt that delivers boats to the start.
“When you get to the top, it’s a really big drop, and you’re allowed to go ‘Whoopee,’” said John MacLeod, a 1972 Olympic kayaker for Great Britain who helped design the course.
Whoopee? This really was going to be easy.
As predicted, the first time down went without a hiccup. I almost wished the wall of five or six grandstands surrounding the course were full, just so people could witness how good our team was at this. The seven of us paddled together like a seasoned rowing crew and surfed the rapids like the men of Maverick’s.
The second time down didn’t go so well. Perhaps it was deservedly so, considering my lack of levity when our guide Ben Waddington warned us that this run would be more vigorous and my abundance of glee when another boat spilled all of its occupants after coming upon the third of four major drops. The guides had aptly named that rapid “Boom.”
“That’s what tends to happen there,” Blackwell informed me later. “You think everything is all right, then boom!”
A short time afterward, that’s exactly what happened to us.
Waddington made a key error to kick off the chaos. He believed that, as our raft plunged nose first down a drop off and our adrenaline was pulsing, we could discern our right from our left. Shortly after we slammed into one of those blue barriers, called “rapid blocks,” he shouted at us to lean left. We leaned right.
Suddenly I went tumbling. I landed on rapid blocks, bodies and whitewater before everything went dark as the boat flipped over of the lot of us. I pushed it off, gulping in some filtered water and some air in the process. Then, I tried to remember those safety instructions I vaguely remember hearing while I was taking photos for posterity.
Posterity, right! Blackwell had told me to keep my posterior off the bottom and my feet facing forward. That worked long enough for me to see a rescuer throw a line to one of my shipmates. I, meanwhile, dropped down the third rapid, bumped against some fake rocks and somehow ended up under the raft again. This time as I squirmed to get out, my feet ended up behind me. With the force of 13 tons of water per second, the river then sent me into an underwater somersault.
Thankfully, that was the last of the rapids. I found the surface after one revolution, got my feet pointed downstream again and, though shaken and water logged, realized I would be able to safely float to shore.
But there was one more blue rapid block ahead of me. Of course I hit it, but this time it was on purpose. I used it to pull myself out of the current and onto the shore.
Once there, I closed my eyes, took a big breath of unpurified air and tried to collect myself. When I opened them, I was looking right up at those grandstands. My Olympic moment took place in front of an empty house, and nothing could have made me happier.