Small margins of victory or defeat in kayak slalom can drive a person nuts.
When you win a gold medal by two one-hundredths of a second, as Jazmyne Denhollander did at last weekend’s 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, you may as well not try to explain it.
“Someone said it was like the length of the hockey puck, that I was just that far ahead at the finish line,” she said with a laugh, holding her thumb and index finger four inches apart.
Denhollander beat Brazil’s Ana Satila by .002 and American Ashley Nee by .003, winning the first ever Pan-Am gold in K1 slalom in dramatic fashion.
Having been on the wrong end of narrow finishes, she could relate to her vanquished foes.
“When I lose, yes it does drive me nuts!” she said. “To think that maybe if I took that one extra stroke coming out of the upstream, I might have won. That’s just part of the sport though. You’ve got to accept it and work that much harder the next race.”
Denhollander can attribute some Pan-Am success to random chance.
But it was a very deliberate decision before her final run that landed her on the podium.
An afternoon thunderstorm near the Minden Wild Water Preserve set the stage.
“Clouds were coming in and you could hear the thunder and see the lightning, so they delayed my race by about an hour,” she recalled. “I got soaking wet. I got hungry. I had to re-hydrate, but I look back on it as a good thing because it gave me time to re-evaluate my plan.”
“I thought, ‘This is it! This is the final,’” she continued. “‘Either you go all out and take risks everywhere, or you play it safe.’ I felt confident and comfortable and decided to give it everything.”
The key moment came before the fifth gate.
After the fourth gate paddlers reach a pool of churning water, where most of them do a spin and pick a safe line before carrying on. Denhollander didn’t spin.
“My plan was to surf across and go direct, which is the fastest move to do,” she said. “I was fully committed. You’ve got to be thinking, ‘I’ve got this! Let’s go!’”
Denhollander was buoyed by a massive cheering section, a wave of red and white support. At 21 years old she’s already a grizzled veteran of international competition, but she’s never seen anything like that.
“When we go to Europe, it’s usually a big crowd but they’re not necessarily cheering for you,” she said. “Having people there cheering exclusively for me, that was an amazing thing!”
Denhollander went third to last and was in top spot heading into her run.
“During my run I had a little thought, which you’re not supposed to do, that I was having a really good run,” she said. “I finished, saw my time, thought it was pretty good and did a little fist bump in the air.”
Then she waited.
The last two kayakers had solid runs to cause her some anxiety, but minutes later she was finally able to celebrate.
“In that moment I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I’ve won a lot of national races, but not one like this.”
“I pulled through after the delay and a not-so-great semi-final run. I was proud of myself.”
Denhollander’s win secured a spot for Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
But in a somewhat strange twist, Denhollander’s win doesn’t guarantee her a trip to Brazil.
“There’s still a lot of work to do, and I know they want to pick the best paddler to compete in the Olympics,” she said. “Whoever is competing well, getting results and being consistent, that’s who will go.”
Six races, including the upcoming World Championships, team trials and World Cup events, will decide her fate.
Meanwhile, the Chilliwack Centre of Excellence grad is home this week, and talked about all this while sitting on a log by the Vedder River.
When she was 17 she couldn’t wait to leave Chilliwack and have adventures in Prague and London.
Four years later, there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
“It was always fun to leave and explore, but it’s great coming home because it’s comfortable,” she said. “I speak the language. It’s always beautiful here, so green.”
Denhollander welcomes Canada’s best to her hometown this weekend for the 2015 Whitewater National Championships.
She’ll be back on the course she’s most comfortable with, the Tamihi Rapids she grew up on.
“At the moment, there’s not a lot of water coming down, so the level is low and you’re not going too fast,” she said. “But the biggest thing is just being in the mountains. It’s so scenic up there and I just love living here.”
l A full weekend of racing at Tamihi includes age group nationals, starting at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The main event is open slalom nationals, with the same start times on Sunday.
A full schedule and more event info is available online at ccekayak.com/spectator-page/ and find results in next week’s Progress sports pages.