Cars and trucks were backed up from the Hood River Bridge straddling the Columbia River to Interstate 84. Actually, sitting in my car was the only rest I’d had in four days, but I wasn’t the only tired person around. The small town of Hood River, Oregon hosted the 2000 Subaru Gorge Games and the place hopped day and night, literally, as the seven-day competition included street parties and an all-night contest. If I was beat from just watching the spectacle, how must the athletes feel?
And They’re Off!
The one of a kind show filled with competitions was like a three-ring-circus. Everywhere you looked there was action, events, and colorful festivities. Praise goes to the organizers, volunteers, and participants of the July Games.
“It was a really big challenge. I was very proud of the team that worked unbelievable hours to make it happen,” said event Director Peggy Lalor. “Every sport we dealt with is an emerging sport, which means that the rules are not clear. This is an opportunity for each sport to grow,” she added.
The week’s flurried activity began with boat sailing at Cascade Locks, just east of Hood River. Opening ceremonies that evening were at the Marina’s newly built National Geographic Adventure Village. After two windsurfing contests, two kiteboarding events, and a whole host of other exciting races, exhibitions, and clinics, the closing attraction did not disappoint. Athletes and spectators alike enjoyed the sights and sounds of a Big Head Todd and The Monsters benefit concert in the Washington town of Bingen.
Cameras Deflate Freestyle Egos
NBC television cameras, along with the viewing crowd, turned out for the promising windsurfing display held at the Spring Creek Fish Hatchery on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Following the skipper’s meeting that morning, the winds looked good and many 4.7 sails were rigged. During the first heats, the wind backed off, dulling the expected array of creative and daring moves, but wind picked up for later heats, treating the enthusiastic and sunburned onlookers to a host of Vulcans, Spocks, Wymaroos, and loops of all kinds. By the way, just what is that thing Mitch Gingrich is doing these days?
The Hatchery is an ideal freestyle windsurfing location for performers and viewers alike. Its rocks act as natural stadium seating and the swells just off Ego Point (as those who don’t sail there call it) create good ramps. An inside patch of flat water just begs for spectacular in-your-face freestyle moves practically in spectators’ laps. At times the fickle wind sucks unlucky competitors into a wind shadow. You’ve gotta love those brave souls who go for broke, sacrificing themselves in the wind shadow to please the crowds and getting stuck in the dead zone.
The sun shone and the cameras rolled on competition day, but the unreliable wind didn’t allow a totally awesome windsurfing display. It’s just bad luck as these men and women nail those back loops when the cameras aren’t rolling.
At the National Geographic Adventure Village, the freestyle windsurfing award ceremony was held later that day, amongst sun bleached booths, wooden climbing walls, and the stage with its huge TV. The setting sun glared in viewers’ eyes, making stage events hard to see. However, speakers blasted, so the ceremony was at least heard. As the growing crowd waited for the windsurfing champions to receive their awards, the giant TV screen displayed the day’s best moves to a pounding rhythmic score, a la Gorge fashion.
The winners ultimately gathered about the stage in the mock village, built on the new Hood River Marina lawn. The stoic guys received praise with affected nonchalance, while the wind-women champions played it cool without any affectation, even when the male host insisted on hugs and kisses.
What’s Blue, Hollow, And Rips?
In the Gorge it’s a Doyle board ridden by son and heir, Mark Doyle. This seventeen year-old Gorge local took second place in the Gorge Games Junior Windsurfing Freestyle—his first ever competition, performed with verve. Later in the week he went through to the second round of the Da Kine/NoLimitz Expression Session where he was head-to-head with pros.
Mark’s father, John Doyle, the maker of those nifty hollow blue boards said, “Mark has all the moves. Let’s hope he can put them together in the five minutes.” He did put on quite a show for the gathered crowds and NBC TV cameras at the Spring Creek Fish Hatchery. Windsurfing now for five years, Mark is an up–and–coming talent. On windy days father and son head to both close and far sailing sites in their big blue Doyle van.
A Wild Ride On – An Antique!
“My nemesis.” That’s how a friend of mine, who ultimately gave up after five hours, refers to the downwind Blowout windsurfing race. The racer’s biggest challenge was in choosing the right equipment to get all the way through the seventeen-mile long course. Just what do you use when wind strength and direction change at every turn of the meandering Columbia River?
One entrant, even before race day, knew exactly what he was going to use. Jon Davies, co-owner of Hood River based Windsurfing Hawaii, completed the race with an original Windsurfer One Design sailboard in two hours and thirty-one minutes, enduring high winds. He used the same antique gear in 1998’s race when the wind was actually consistent, if rather high for such a large board. After this year’s event, with both high and low winds, he said, “It’s fun to do it on vintage equipment. It adds an extra challenge.” Halfway through the race, at Viento, the challenge got bigger as high winds came into play. By the time he’d reached the famous Hatch, Davies was so overpowered that he hoped other windsurfers would just get out of his way.
The One Design oversized hull, built in 1984, powered by a simple, non-battened sail, drew much attention during the 2000 event. “People cheer,” said Davies. “It kinda makes you feel good.” And different.
When one windsurfing competition failed to materialize earlier this year, two local Gorge companies didn’t just sit back and lick their wounds. Undeterred, they simply organized another.
Following the success of the Gorge Games windsurfing events earlier in the week, Da Kine and NoLimitz held their very own impromptu Expression Session freestyle event and, without television cameras, the wind showed up. Both the men’s and women’s heats lasted thirty minutes with fifty-percent of the field eliminated at each round’s end. The mass start of twenty-eight men looked more like an unruly European soccer crowd than an organized windsurfing event.
“How can you tell who’s competing?” asked a puzzled lady. Boards and bodies flew everywhere. As the red flag went up, all but a few windsurfers came back to shore. One contestant, whose board was taking on water through its multiple holes, struggled up the rocks. Another entrant with adrenaline-pumped joviality, complained that people kept hitting his sail on their loop rotations.
With no advance notice the event came together. Bill Morrisey of Da Kine got the call at 8:00am on race day and he hustled to get his team riders to the 11:30am skipper’s meeting. The genesis for the contest came from the ill-fated West Coast Pistol River Wave Bash, abandoned earlier in the season due to bad weather. “We wanted to give the competitors some kind of contest since the Pistol River event didn’t happen,” Bill Morrisey said. But, he passed the credit for the event on to Lars Bergstrom of NoLimitz.
“It’s not an eight–minute heat scoring every move,” said Lars, the event organizer. “It’s who can impress the judges with their sailing within half an hour. It really favors the guys who can go Big.” The men’s first prize went to Web Pedrick and for the women, Jocelyn Hrkach.
Surprisingly, and not surprisingly, the Gorge Games’ most popular event was kiteboarding. The enthusiastic audience seated on the Event Site grass couldn’t get enough of it. Not that these people disowned windsurfing, but the famous Gorge winds, disappointingly, barely showed up for the windsurfing freestyle event. For the kites, which require less wind for ultimate fun and function, not only did the wind turn up, it nuked, allowing the competitors to strut their stuff higher and closer to the audience than anyone expected, or desired.
Just prior to the kite freestyle event, the seventeen-mile downwind Blowout kite race concluded and local wonder boy Cory Roesler did it again. The former Gorge Games Blowout winner came in first with a new course record time of just under 54 minutes using his personally designed self-launching kite and old water skis (circa 1980). “It’s like running seventeen miles of moguls,” said Cory referring to the Blowout course. “Anyone in their right mind would prefer skis over a snowboard in moguls.” But, despite his morning water-mogul run Cory’s work had only just begun. Surely (?) he was in his right mind.
The kiteboarding freestyle heats were held immediately after the Blowout race and as winds came up big time, some competitors took to the public address system to beg for smaller kites. They were seriously needed too, as contestants became rag dolls at the mercy of gusts, from the first competition heat. And to think all the excitement very nearly didn’t happen. . .
One week before the Gorge Games got under way, all kites were banned from Hood River Port property. Safety and liability concerns about this new sport were brought to the attention of the Port Commission, along with complaints from windsurfers who felt they were being bumped from launch areas. However, the Port had an agreement with Gorge Games organizers to allow kites on their land. The Commission voted to allow kites after a delegation of local kiteboarders convinced them that they would act responsibly and police themselves, and the Gorge Games kite event went ahead as planned. Well, almost. No one had planned on such high wind.
When two contestants were rescued from the downwind sandbar during early heats, it became clear the wind was controlling the kites and not the sailors holding onto them. Even wind sports guru Ken Winner got dragged across the rocks trying to launch his kite while TV crews and spectators gasped and cringed. One contestant threw his board around in disgust after he became separated from his kite and was rescued by the Waverunner support team. The second guy to succumb to the “sand spit,” as he referred to it, was Scott Cook who remained calm and, as he climbed up the rocks politely thanked the rescue crew, smiled for my camera and simply said, “Holy cow!”
What about the guy who was too late registering for the race, meaning he was therefore not allowed to join the competition? He wasn’t to be denied. Once in the rescue boat, he jumped overboard, entering the race in style. Perhaps his motto, borrowed from that local Oregon company, is “Just Do It.”
In the end, local hero Cory couldn’t pull off a grand slam and settled for the Blowout title only. Top honors for the Freestyle Kiteboarding event went to Flash Austin. How did you do it, Flash?
What Do You Mean There Are Other Sports in the Gorge Games?
As if windsurfing and kiteboarding weren’t enough, rumor had it that several other sporting events were being held during the Subaru Gorge Games. So, I went in search of them, looking as one might for the legendary Bigfoot. Which, no kidding, was reportedly spotted in Oregon during the Games’ week. Of course, Washingtonians tell matter-of-factly that Bigfoot lives in Skamania County, which has laws against harming the legendary animal. Under a 1969 ordinance it’s a gross misdemeanor to kill Bigfoot.
Not too sure what sporting events to look for (the schedule blew out of my car window as I crossed the Hood River Bridge), I was less sure where to find them. But I knew, as the local government knows about Bigfoot, that they were out there, somewhere.
I drove north of the town of White Salmon, only to find the road blocked by a row of neatly numbered people—highly charged race contestants. They were on the starting line for the morning’s 10k and half-marathon trail runs. The course began and ended on asphalt, but was comprised mostly of dusty off-road trails through wooded hillsides overlooking the Hood River valley across the Columbia. A poorly marked junction threw many runners off by a matter of miles. Some, reportedly ending up in nearby Bingen, were discovered wandering aimlessly around the lumberyard. Also, a dusty uphill section created unexpected challenges, forcing athletes to quit running and use their hands to climb the steep grade, snatching handholds in the dirt.
On the hills behind the town of Hood River, I came upon the twenty-four hour mountain bike race. Several teams and individuals challenged themselves with the twelve-mile Whoop Di trail (so called for the deep up and down dips on this single track). Visiting athletes, unaccustomed to the challenging terrain in the Gorge, have questioned the sanity of race organizers at events like this. However, this bike trail is a local favorite. Of course, it’s usually ridden during daylight, whereas these twenty-four hour bikers were riding throughout the night with only small headlamps to light their way. Hopefully someone wished them bon voyage at their start.
The White Salmon River, world renowned for its class V white water, supported the Gorge Games’ kayaking events. A tree shaded trail led to the river’s edge where spectators and the media jockeyed for position on the edge of a narrow canyon. Safety volunteers constantly reminded onlookers to move away from the edge, but nobody paid attention to the NBC camera crews who were hanging off the side like chimpanzees at the San Diego Zoo. Rescue kayakers running the river chose not to navigate the twenty foot falls near BZ Corners and “seal launched” from the high canyon wall instead, a better alternative then being flushed through the waterfall.
On the last day of the no fear, no limits competitions, Hood River hosted an off-road triathlon. What a way to end the week! Long and short courses started and ended at the Marina. After swimming first against, and then with, the swift Columbia River current, contestants battled disconcerted Canada geese unhappy to have their own swim interrupted. The racers then ran to their bikes, cycled up nearby hills overlooking Hood River, turned right around and ran back down again. Since the runners took to the streets of Hood River during cherry harvest, a frantic time in the northwest with more trucks on the road than usual, the police traffic control at the China Gorge Restaurant turned out to be a really smart idea.
Go For It!
San Francisco athlete Dean Karnazes was one of a few competitors aiming for the overall title in the 2000 Subaru Gorge Games. Athletes who completed at least three events in the weeklong series of sports were eligible for the title. Yet Dean entered six, hoping to gain a high overall score.
Dean’s forte is windsurfing (he’s a past winner of several contests). He finished respectably in both the freestyle event and the downwind Blowout race. “The downwind windsurfing was my favorite event,” he said later. “I like the survival aspect.”
Run into by a returning competitor at the start of his freestyle heat, Dean didn’t miss a beat and pulled off a series of forward loops for the crowds, judges, and NBC television cameras gathered on the Spring Creek Fish Hatchery rocks. In the seventeen-mile Blowout, from Stevenson to Hood River, he missed the start horn while rigging his 5.3 North Rave sail, but he made good headway and soon chased the front runners, reaching the finish at the Hood River Event Site two hours later.
Dean’s windsurfing accomplishments were more remarkable as he had just completed a half-marathon, which included grueling off-road sections, as well as the twenty-four hour mountain bike race in which he rode 120 miles, many of which were through the dark moonless night. Amazingly Dean planned to enter a seventh race, the outrigger canoes, but couldn’t get to the start in time after the mountain bike race. Despite his determined efforts, the non-stop athlete was unable to convince officials to delay the start.
Dean’s biggest test was the technical climbing wall. He trained on the practice wall, but rules forbade him from seeing the competition wall. “I’m a recreational climber,” he said. “When I saw the climbing wall course I thought, ‘jeez’. It was like putting me in the golf masters, giving me a nine iron, and being told ‘Go win’.” Can you imagine? Jeez . . .
Competing in all these strenuous events required special training. Dean spent hours sitting on his bicycle seat at work instead of his office chair. But mostly, he “mixed it up,” as he put it, to keep in shape for multiple disciplines. The biggest challenge was to “regroup after each heat,” and two days into the games he said, “I’m functioning only at forty percent capability. I’m so sore from riding and running for thirty hours straight.”
Merely two hours before the closing ceremonies, seven days after competition began, Dean completed the triathlon. Though the first heat’s swimmers contended with ornery Canada geese, Dean has completed the Alcatraz Shark Fest, swimming the San Francisco Bay with sharks, so it was no big deal facing geese. In the triathlon he came in fourth just five seconds behind the third place finisher, who also vied for the overall title. It appeared to be neck-and-neck to the end.
Dean won the top honors, but shared the title with Jason Lemieux, who entered three events. Both took the award ceremony stage with the women’s overall champ, Karen Mann, for their prizes—windsurfing trips to Vela. From there Dean went home to San Francisco (do you think he ran, swam, biked, or windsurfed down the coast?), to train for his next event. Later in the month he ran the 146-mile, 120-degree, Badwater Race in Death Valley, California, for the third time. He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.
As For the Sponsors, Etc.
Subaru, the main sponsor of this year’s Gorge Games, had an entire fleet of new Subarus zipping around the Gorge all week. Organizers used them to keep up with the many events needing their urgent attention. But the fact is a few extra Subarus hardly stood out; you can’t throw a stick around here without hitting one or two, they’re so popular. Subaru could have handed out stickers to the locals and added the money saved to the already generous $100,000 purse—oh well, next time maybe.
There’s no telling what next year’s Gorge Games will bring. But if this year’s success is anything to go by, this one–of–a–kind series of competitive and strenuous events will be colorful and high value entertainment. Cheers to this year’s event!
Athletes, organizers, and spectators alike—don’t forget your Ever-Ready batteries when the 2001 Subaru Gorge Games circus comes to town.
The Results: Windsurfing Downwind Blowout
1. Dale Cook 1:00:39
2. Bruce Pederson 1:09:14
3. Paul Raseburg 1:10:10
4. Anil Rajani 1:47:22
5. Ken Hartz 1:57:14
Freestyle Pro Women
1. Jocelyn Hrkach
2. Jennifer Henderson
3. Nori Hubbs
4. Erin Colmes
Freestyle Pro Men
1. Sean Aiken
2. Chris Wyman
3. Web Pedrick
4. Nathan Mershon
1. Kenny Harts
2. Jim Oaks
3. Chris Eubanks
1. Connor Cook
2. Mark Doyle
3. Kieman DeVanney