KIEFFER AND SWETISH BREAK THROUGH FOR MAIDEN WINS AT THE GORGE
They’ve claimed several podium finishes over recent years, but Austin Kieffer and Ana Swetish are both champions of The Gorge.
The pair thrived in today’s incredible downwind conditions, with winds of more than 30 knots whipping up runs that Kieffer says were “some of the best” he’s seen on certain sections of the course.
Kieffer recorded a crushing victory, finishing more than five minutes ahead of Jonas Ecker in second and Wilson Reavley in third.
Impressively, Swetish was the fourth surfski across the line.
As ecstatic as the pair are to have broken through for their first titles, there’s also a sense of sadness that with iconic event denied a full international contingent due to the ongoing travel restrictions in place around the world.
“I feel like it’s ‘champion’ with an asterisk.” Kieffer says.
“It’s so special to race again and I’m so honoured to win, but I think it’s very much mixed emotions because it doesn’t feel like a true victory when everyone, especially Kenny [Rice] the three-time champion, and all of the internationals aren’t able to be here.
“For Ana and I, I think we both had a real shot to win it with a full field here, but it makes it difficult to claim that ‘we won The Gorge.’
“There needs to be a bit of humility and perspective in acknowledging that it’s a victory and it is special, but also that it can’t carry the same weight, in my opinion, as a win in a normal year.”
Nonetheless, there’s no denying Kieffer’s joy at claiming the title that has been so close for so many years.
“It feels really special, my first opportunity to take the top step on the podium in a race that means so much to me,” he says.
Particularly after some drastic lifestyle changes that led to “not much paddling.”
“I got a new job and moved onto the next phase of my life a year ago, working for a venture capital firm,” he explains.
“The first six months were all consuming and my paddling was negligible, if not zero.
“I kind of got back into it and realised how much I missed it, and even casually just how important it was to be a part of this sport and have surfski in my life.”
“I was able to do one of the local Vortex races in the lead-up to The Gorge and that relit the fire, so I’ve had a solid month of heads-down training to get as fit as I could.
“I probably won’t be training ever again at the levels I was in 2019, but I hope to be fit and put my foot on the line and follow up Ana’s first win in 2022, and hope to join her on top of the podium again.”
It’s something that Swetish appears destined to repeat in future.
She claimed her first podium finish at The Gorge aged 16 in a stacked field brimming with superstars.
Three years on and still a teenager, she’s picking off more and more of her male counterparts, solidifying her reputation as a genuine downwind paddler.
“I definitely love racing the guys,” she says. “There’s just not enough women in the US, unfortunately.
“I love having competition, so if I have to compare myself to the men, then I will… I love having those guys to chase.”
“I’m super stoked with that today, I felt like I had a good race.
“I didn’t see anyone while I was racing, given the way they space out the starts.
“But I pushed super hard and I’m really happy with how I finished.”
It rounds out an incredible fortnight for Swetish, after claiming the overall silver medal at the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in Lanzarote.
“It was really great coming back here, everyone was super excited,” she says.
“It was so great to see everyone and paddle with all of the local guys again… it was a lot of fun.”
While she says she’ll continue to compete in local races for the rest of the year, Swetish’s racing season is now essentially at an end.
But there’s no shortage of motivation – she’s targeting the famed Molokai Challenge at the beginning of next year.
Not to mention the pursuit of Kieffer, her close friend and surfski mentor.
“His goal was to make up the 10 minutes start today, but the men started a little late so he couldn’t quite catch me by the end,” she laughs.