The deep blue waters of the Futaleufú River in Chile stir near the shore as 22 men in kayaks start plotting their route. The competitors anticipate the sound of a whistle from the judges onshore, alerting them the final leg of the Whitewater Grand Prix has begun. The vast void of white water rapids stretches on before their eyes. Western sophomore Todd Wells, one of the remaining competitors, looks around at the kayak legends floating beside him — people he has admired his entire life. His moment of awe is broken by the screech of the whistle, and the kayakers paddle as quickly as they can into the first rapid.
Wells’ fast paddling won him fifth place overall in the Whitewater Grand Prix in December 2012. The race brings together 30 of the world’s best whitewater kayakers to compete in five events over 14 days, according to the Whitewater Grand Prix’s website.
“I came from a background where I hadn’tdone much competitive racing before,” Wells said. “[But] I’ve always paddled pretty fast.”
Although Wells worked with experienced kayakers from time to time, he said he did not have specific training coaches. In September, he submitted a video of himself kayaking to enter in the Whitewater Grand Prix. He found out at the end of November he was accepted. He then decided to change up his training strategy, focusing more intently on forward strokes and paddling fast.
Wells practiced in the Nooksack and the Stillaguamish rivers.
Kayaking in the Chilean rivers was more difficult than any other rivers he had raced previously, Wells said. Stages in the Whitewater Grand Prix had more than 30-foot waterfalls.
Everyone worked with their resources as best as they could to stay safe during the grand prix, Wells said.
“Going into potentially dangerous situations, it’s all about the equipment and experience,” said Jonathon Mayfield, the equipment shop coordinator at the Associated Students Outdoor Center.
At the grand prix, the competitors were divided into two safety groups: one would watch the other race, and then switch, Wells said.
Wells described the start of the final stage of the race, which lasted about 22 minutes, as the craziest yet most incredible moment in the whole competition.
“We were paddling down huge rivers surrounded by jungles on either side with mountains in the background,” Wells said. “The whole time you are battling right up against each other,”
Wells grew up near the Columbia River Gorge. His interest in kayaking began at age 13. He started paddling the White Salmon River in southern Washington.
Wells works at the AS Outdoor Center as a whitewater kayak trip leader and whitewater kayak roll session instructor, and is praised by his coworkers for being thoughtful and thorough in his work. Jake Merill, the excursions assistant coordinator at the AS Outdoor Center, described Wells as patient, methodical and able to customize each lesson to plan to fit the needs of each kayaker.
Wells is professional and friendly and is a valuable guy to have around, he said.
Wells is looking forward to more races in the future.
“The energy you get when you are around that many enthusiastic and talented people is incredible,” Wells said.
He plans on taking a break from school this spring quarter to focus on training for races in May and June.