THE AMBITION DRIVING KING KENNY RICE’S STUNNING RUN AT THE GORGE
He already boasted unrivalled success at the Gorge Downwind Championships, but Kenny Rice admits his latest victory stands out as “pretty special.”
The South African, already the only man to win the Gorge more than once, overcame a star-studded field on Friday to claim an incredible fourth title – and also his first since moving to FENN.
Weather charts suggested the 2022 running could have been one of the best yet, and with 25 knot winds fanning the 22 kilometre course all morning ahead of the start, excitement was at fever pitch.
However once the race began, those dream conditions seemingly dried up, leaving the field of 494 paddlers to grind it out against a stronger-than-usual flow on the Columbia River.
Still, it didn’t slow Rice (1:31:21), who finished ahead of fellow Capetonian and reigning ICF World Champion Nick Notten (1:31:55) and American Austin Kieffer (1:32:13) in a hard-fought duel.
Australian Mackenzie Hynard (1:32:40) and South African great Jasper Mocke (1:33:23) rounded out the top five.
Holding the Gorge’s iconic wooden hammer trophy aloft once again brought Rice immense satisfaction – and also a sense of relief.
“Yeah, this one meant a lot changing brands and just being back traveling again,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ve done the work I’ve needed to do over the last three weeks… in fact, I know I haven’t.
“But it helps coming here and being confident that you know the place, you’re comfortable in the environment and you’re around good friends.
“Today you definitely need a little bit of fitness, so I do have some sort of work in the in the tank, which is nice.
“It’s really satisfying to come back and win in a different boat and prove that, yeah, I’m comfortable in the ski and I’m ready to go.”
Rice’s run of three-straight victories (2017, 2018 and 2019) was only brought to an end by global travel restrictions.
Although, any thought that he would reclaim his throne with ease was blown away within seconds of the start.
A blistering start saw five paddlers edge clear. Mackenzie Hynard led the attack, with Mocke, Notten, Kieffer and Rice all giving chase.
“I pretty much caught one run and was like, ‘Well, here’s the ticket. All aboard, let’s go.’” Rice laughs.
“I literally went past everyone on one run and I just sort of chased that to open up a gap.
“Along the flat stretch I backed off a little because I realised I’d fried it a bit. The ticket wasn’t all inclusive.”
“Nick caught back up again and we had a bit of a ding-dong battle through the middle, but coming into the last third I ended up getting ahead of him.”
“By the end of it, he got pretty close but I had the luxury of backing it off a little bit.”
Notten was “very, very stoked” to finish second in his first outing at the Gorge, particularly after taking his own line through the first five kilometres, paddling down the centre of the river.
“I was worried I would over-analyse it and follow people too much, denying myself the best chance to win,” he explained.
“My plan was to stick to the centre of the river unless it was going significantly worse, and that never seemed to happen.”
It’s a performance from which he draws plenty of positives ahead of his ICF World Championship defence in Portugal in early October.
“There’s no substitute for these international races with everyone from around the world and the intensity that comes with them.”
“From this, I know I can definitely do some more training before Worlds, but I am very happy with this result.”
In the hours after claiming his first win at the Gorge in 2021, Austin Kieffer told The Paddler that he felt his triumph carried an asterisk given the absence of the world’s best.
That thought helped to motivate Kieffer through training for this year’s race, but after crossing the line in what will be his only international event this season, he held no regrets.
“I’m super proud of fighting hard,” he says.
“At one point I had given up and I was like I will be fifth and I will be happy with that.
“So to salvage a podium and push Nicky all the way to the finish line, I was thrilled.”
Given the quality of the field that turns out each year, and the standard to which they perform, it’s no surprise Rice takes enormous pride in his sustained dominance at Hood River.
“Yes I do,” he says. “It means a lot.”
“I’ve watched my brother [Sean Rice] make EuroChallenge his own and I’ve watched Hank [McGregor] make Cape Point Challenge his own, so it’s nice to come to a race and maybe not ‘stamp your authority’ but just feel comfortable and confident that you will bank a good result.”
“It’s pretty special and it’s nice that five [of seven Gorge races] have been won by Rices as well… six if you count Austin,” he laughs.
The women’s field didn’t boast the same depth that it has in previous years, but it certainly carried the same star-power.
The match-up between Danielle McKenzie, the world’s most in-form paddler, and rising star Ana Swetish was billed as the most intriguing of the race – and it did not disappoint.
The pair went run-for-run through the opening kilometres of the course, before McKenzie kicked clear in the first flatter section to open up a sizeable gap.
And while she would go on to claim victory in a time of 1:39:55 – placing 13th overall – she was pushed to the very end by Swedish (1:40:54) who was less than a minute behind.
April O’Gorman (1:58:34) rounded out the top three.
The women’s overall top five (from left to right): April O’Gorman, Ana Swetish, Danielle McKenzie, Abby Scroggins and Iwona Gancarz. PHOTOGRAPH: © Gorge Downwind Champs/Sandy Yonley.
“Ana was absolutely so quick,” McKenzie told The Paddler. “She flew off the start and just went for it.
“I sort of stuck to my race plan, which was once it started flattening out, that’s when I knew I was gonna go.
“I got ahead, but at no stage was I comfortable throughout the race, sort of looking over my shoulder seeing if I was on the right line.
“It was a bit of a struggle and a bit of a slog, but it was loads of fun. It’s unreal out here. We’ve had a good week of paddling on the river and just really enjoying our time.”
It wasn’t the result Swetish had dreamed of, but her performance sends a strong message, particularly ahead of the World Championships.
And that’s not just to her rivals – the 20 year-old also proving some lessons to herself.
“The first part when the waves were good, we were right next to each other,” Swetish says. “And that was really fun.
“Once it got flat, she’s just an animal and just walked away from me. But it was really fun to be able to dice with her for that bit.
“I haven’t really gotten to race international women more than like once or twice since 2019. So I was super happy just to have her here and be able to hit it out with her.”
Danielle McKenzie only cemented her reputation as the world’s best paddler. © Gorge Downwind Champs/Sandy Yonley.
The appreciation is shared.
“Ana paddled bloody amazing and she’s super strong paddler,” McKenzie says. “She’s got some good things to come and so does the future of female racing.
“I think it’s probably the closest race finish over about 20 kilometres that I’ve had in the last few years so it was really, really good.”
“To be honest, I didn’t think she’d be as close but yeah, I’m really happy that she is. It’s going to make everyone go harder and faster.”
Danielle McKenzie and Ana Swetish debriefing at the finish line after their downwind dice. © Gorge Downwind Champs/Sandy Yonley.
McKenzie will now take a brief break from training to return home to New Zealand for the first time in two and a half years.
But after that, it’s all systems go in her build towards her two World Championship campaigns – first in surf lifesaving, and then in downwind paddling.
“I think it leaves me around 8 weeks into Worlds,” she says.
“It’s going to be fun. It sounds like a lot of paddlers are going so I can’t wait.”
Carter Johnson had the best seat in the house to watch all of these storylines unfold.
The race director got each wave away to a clean start, with a process that some experienced paddlers labelled the best they had ever seen.
But the crowning achievement of Johnson and his tireless organising team came away from the racing arena.
Instead, it was just seeing the smiles return to Hood River.
“We’re stoked. It’s still a little bit funny with international travel post-COVID, but we had 700 people here for the week and 500 do the race. And the other 200? They couldn’t be bothered… they came for cheap beer and to shred!” He laughs.
“Some of those guys have been doing three downwind a day since Monday and by tired were just too tired.
“It’s a downwind carnival, a downwind festival and we’re pretty stoked.”
The Skamania County Fairgrounds came alive for the Gorge Downwind Championships. © Georgia Schofield.