THE HATCHERY, USA—New faces, old hats, big crowds, and big money might best describe the scene at the Freestyle event at the Gorge Games this year. With $20,000 on the line—to be split evenly between men and women (about time, we think)—some of the world’s best freestylers descended on the Gorge mid-July to show their latest stuff.
HEAVY PRESSURE: Web Pedrick (left) and event director Greg Aguera (above) were both feeling the heat the day of the event. Pedrick was under pressure from sponsors to win the event after blowing off the Pozo contest, Aguera was conflicted between competitors who wanted to postpone in hopes of more wind, and the TV people who wanted footage no matter what. In the end it appeared that Aguera made the right call.
The result was a dramatic showdown that did not disappoint the record crowds as underdogs Mitch Gingrich and Nori Hubbs defeated heavy favorites Web Pedrick and returning champ Jen Henderson in the final rounds of what turned out to be a nail-biting competition.
In the Pro Men’s category last year the moves to make were the “Diablo,” the “Spock 540,” and the “Worm Burner,” and it was then relative newcomer Nathan Merchon who wowed the crowd by working his way out of the loser’s bracket and into a double-elimination sail-off to upset local favorite Mitch Gingrich for the title. One year later the plot was strikingly similar, but this time, it was Gingrich who played the underdog, working all day to finally unseat freestyle king Web Pedrick—with moves like a one-handed push-loop, Dark Flip, and Pedrick’s own creation: The Swayze (a.k.a. Flaka).
During the competition, Pedrick, like Gingrich last year, cruised through the winner’s bracket into the finals early in the day, then had to wait hours for his final heat against whoever survived the melee of sail-offs in the “one-loss” rounds. Although this arguably put Pedrick at an advantage, Gingrich didn’t see it that way.
“The way I sail in the day is I just go, go, go, and sail all day long. The way I look at it is that I got to keep sailing while Web had to sit around and wait. Last year I had to sit around and wait, and you see what happened. This year a friend told me that I had him right where I wanted him, and when I thought about it, I realized he was right.”
SEEING STARS: Pedrick saw more than just his star-shaped sail logo in the days preceding the event. After taking a smack on the head during practice, the former king admittedly was still not 100% on competition day.
All of the new moves in freestyle this year were well beyond what was even imaginable a couple of years ago. Visiting Shaper/designer and would-be contestant Sean Ordonez was amazed by his first visit to the Hatchery during the Games. “I had no idea of the level these guys are taking it to,” said the veteran extreme wave sailor. “The moves have become so technical, so precise. The level of competition is incredible—it’s really amazing to watch this.”
The drama for the Men’s Pro final had almost the billing of an Ali/Frazier “thrilla”. When it was learned days before the contest that Pedrick would stay in Hood River to compete in the Gorge Games instead of traveling to the contest in Pozo, everyone predicted a Pedrick/Gingrich showdown for the title.
“At least here I had a chance to win SOME money,” said Pedrick, “Pozo would have been blasting high-wind port-tack, I wouldn’t have had a chance. My sponsors said it was okay to stay and do the Gorge Games just so long as I won it.”
SHOVING IT and loving it, Gingrich turned up the heat in the final while Pedrick (background) seemed to lose focus. The two super-stylers hashed it out head to head, back to back, in the heart-pounding double elimination final.
In one of the early rounds, what many thought would be a foreshadowing of the end result proved untrue as the two titans of trickery met in a preliminary heat. After a battle that was almost too close to call, the judges gave the nod to Pedrick—who coasted from there into the finals bracket without a loss.
“In the first heat against Web I was extremely underpowered,” said Gingrich. “I mean I was having a hard time just getting upwind, and I couldn’t get a jump—I was kind of worried about that.”
Gingrich, with his back against the wall with one loss, had his work cut out for him as he faced veterans like Sean Aiken and Pascal Hardy, as well as no-name rookies like 19-year old Tyson Poor from the Bay Area (who finished second behind Pedrick a month earlier in the King of the Bay contest in San Francisco), and a 15-year old kid from Maui named Riley Koon.
Koon’s story itself almost upstaged the main event, as the high-school freshman ripped clean, high forward loops, Grubbys, and Spock 540s to advance continually through the rounds. The upset of the day came when Koon, who only learned to sail 3 years ago, defeated ‘00 champion and windsurfing icon Sean Aiken.
LOW LEVEL LOOP, by Royn Bartholdi (left) was one of many moves that won “Windy Boy” the master’s title. On right, the Pro Men (top to bottom): Nathan Merchon, Sean Aiken, Pascal Hardy, Riley Koon, Fredrick Steineck, Jesse Brown.
“I never expected to sail like this, to get this far!” exclaimed the young grom. “I thought maybe if I was lucky I could advance one round. That would have been enough to make me happy, this is unbelievable!”
The kid had the crowd on his side as he sailed probably better than he had in his whole life, often taking advantage of his light bodyweight in some of the lighter air heats. Koon was eventually eliminated by Gingrich, but he managed a heroic fourth place in the overall standings when Chris Audsley from England defeated fellow Sailworks teammate Pascal Hardy. Hardy ended up a frustrating fifth after sailing extremely well but did not get the really strong winds that might have placed the big Canadian nearer the top.
When it all came down to the final against Pedrick, Gingrich was in the unenviable position of having to win the first heat to force a second—double elimination—which he also had to win in order to take the title.
“I was pretty nervous leading into the contest, the anxiety was building up the night before, the weekend before was really hard to get through,” said Gingrich. “One thing that helped was that I had a couple of friends who called me and said it didn’t matter if I won—’you’re a good person and even if you don’t win you’re a good sailor’, stuff like that. That really made things easier for me, because I’d rather be that guy who’s nice to everybody and helps people on the beach and makes people feel better–than be the guy who wins. In the final I just got on a roll and was able to keep it going.”
SUDDEN SPOTLIGHT: Juniors Riley Koon and Nick Warmuth (upper left) went from total obscurity to the object of everyone’s attention overnight. Koon kept it cool for the cameras, handling this TV interview like a seasoned pro. This is the stuff 15 year-olds dream about.
Unknown to most of the crowd, Pedrick had suffered a blow to the head during practice days before the event. Although a CT-scan cleared the King for competition, he did suffer some temporary amnesia and slight dementia after the injury.
“I’m not taking anything away from Mitch—he sailed great,” said Pedrick, “but I am still not 100% there, I’m still kind of out of it, and I think it (the injury) was a factor.”
To take the victory Gingrich pulled every trick out of his immense bag—Spock, Swayze, Diablo, Grubby, back loop—and stuck them all. The nail in Pedrick’s coffin came seconds before the gun in the final heat as Gingrich busted out his trademarked “Dark Flip”—a kind of half back loop/air tack—and landed it perfectly just as the horn sounded to end the competition.
Meanwhile, Pedrick’s sailing was off from earlier in the day, as several times he came into the transition zone looking almost confused as if he couldn’t decide what move to pull. A double-forward attempt on the outside might have scored huge points if he had landed it, but the second rotation came well short as Pedrick hit the water hard.
“When I saw Web go for the double, I said, yep, you just keep on doing that,” said Gingrich. “Although I have to give it to him—he made it around enough to land on his back—it was closer than it probably looked from shore.” Close wasn’t close enough, however, as the judges awarded a unanimous decision to Gingrich.
CHICKS WHO RIP – Probably the most notable thing about the women’s competition this year was how much the level of performance had stepped up in such a short time. The women were pulling many of what were considered the top moves last year, and landing them. Pro Women Nori Hubbs (above) Anick Violette (right) Temira Wagonfeld (center inset) and Jen Henderson (lower left) put on a big show for the cheering crowd.
“The second heat against Web, it was pretty windy, about perfect,” said Gingrich. “I think Web sailed as well as he normally sails at the Hatchery. Had we been coming in on starboard, I couldn’t have beaten him. I train for the Hatchery, not for anywhere else. To tell you the truth, this was the worst I’ve sailed in weeks, I can’t remember the last time I missed a Grubby, today I missed two!”
Ironically Gingrich and Pedrick have been friends for years, they met when Gingrich sold Pedrick his first quiver of sails—when Gingrich was 13. Over the following ten years the two became friends sailing and according to Gingrich, playing video games.
Gingrich’s plans for next year?
“I’m going to start training more. In my opinion it was much too close this year, and I don’t want to have to deal with a close heat like that again. Next year, ideally, I would like to have a bunch of moves down consistently, that no one else can do.”
Oh yeah, when not making up new moves, the 23-year old Gingrich will be working on his master’s degree in International Relations and Political Theory.
On the women’s side, ‘01 champ and odds-on favorite Jen Henderson seemed a bit startled as she ran smack into a field of women that had, over the winter, raised the playing field a few miles over last year’s watermark. It became obvious fairly early on that it was going to take more than a splash-down forward and few carving 360s to walk with the cash this year. After sailing well in a few elimination heats, Henderson came head to head with semi-local Temira Wagonfeld. Wagonfeld, who had been training for a year for this very moment, busted out Vulcans, forwards, Raileys, some sail spinning maneuvers, and nearly landed a Spock while Henderson sailed well, but just didn’t have the ammunition to answer.
“I can’t believe how well we all sailed this year” exclaimed an exuberant Wagonfeld. “The level of competition in the women’s has come up SO much! Nobody is laughing at us anymore.” Wagonfeld, however, went into the final from the “one loss” bracket due to a very close heat that she lost to Nori Hubbs earlier in the day.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE with moves like this air-railey, Wagonfeld has led the charge to more athletic and aggressive moves. Other women have followed suit, adding finesse for a complete package of power, balance, and grace.
“In the first heat against Nori, I felt like I sailed pretty well,” said Wagonfeld. I knew that I could beat her in the final if I just sailed like I know I can sail.”
Hubbs herself watched in disbelief as she advanced through the rounds without a single loss on the day.
“The day of the event, I was so nervous that I woke up at four in the morning,” claimed the Ottawa-born Maui transplant. “As I kept winning, I kept getting more and more nervous.”
But in the final round, it was Wagonfeld who felt the pressure, as she missed moves and spent precious time in the water. Hubbs, for her part, popped a high and nearly-dry forward, a Vulcan on the outside, and a nice carving 360/hoss tack-it combination on the inside that just had the perfect execution and poise to take the win.
“Today was really cool,” said Hubbs when we caught up with her later over “two too many” celebration beers. “I thought if I finished in the top four, I’d be really happy. If I finished in the top three, I’d be ecstatic. When the TV cameras were doing the interviews after the contest I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a rock-star!”
Hubbs was quick with praise for Wagonfeld.
“She charges, she has a really good heart, I think next year she’s going to win it. Winning this year is just a really cool feeling, next year I want someone else to have that feeling, but I’m still going to try my best to repeat.”
In the Junior’s competition, Riley Koon’s loss to his friend and training partner, fellow Kanaha Kid Nick Warmuth, was as much a surprise as Koon’s fourth-place finish was in the Men’s pro division. Held after he had been eliminated from Men’s Pro, Koon looked a little spent as Warmuth, fresh from sitting on the rocks most of the day, busted out some killer moves with an unmatched energy level that got him the win.
With last year’s Master’s champion Kenny Hartz cheering from the sidelines, this year’s masters fought a spirited battle in one of the windiest heats of the day. In contrast to the pro men’s heats, where the top sailors attempted a fairly fixed set of advanced moves, the masters displayed a wide variety of tricks, making for a difficult decision by the judges.
Open Men: 1. Mitch Gingrich
Master Men: 1. Royn Bartholdi
3.Doug Beaman, Carl Martineau
Junior Men: 1. Nick Warmuth
Open Women: 1. Nori Hubbs
British Columbia’s Carl Martineau put on a show with port tack forwards and a Wymaroo, Doug Beaman equaled him for a third place tie with vulcans and spocks, and Randy Strome, whose year-round practice paid off, clinched second with his unique switch-stance tricks, booming forward loops, and his signature air-tack. In the end, though, Royn “Windy Boy” Bartholdi’s Maui winters delivered as he took the gold with an impressive variety of moves, including clean forwards, the only cowboy in the event, a dark flip, and his hard-won willy skipper.
Talking after the event, Bartholdi and Strome were both impressed by the depth of talent in the masters field. “These guys have really upped the level of competition since last year. They spend as much time on the water as anyone else, and it really shows. In addition, they’ve got great attitudes; they’re always helping each other learn new tricks,” said Bartholdi, who probably spends more time on the water than anyone else in the Gorge. “The variety and creativity of the maneuvers are impressive,” Strome agreed, “and it’s great to see the ‘old guys’ doing many of the same moves as the pro men.”
Although the wind conditions had been relatively consistent throughout the day, even allowing the Pro Men to compete on 4.7s in the final rounds (compared to 5.7s last year), as nature would have it, soon as the gun sounded to end competition the Hatchery lit up with a blasting wind that even knocked over one of the TV towers. Windsurfing Magazine photographer Eric Sanford luckily escaped what could have been a deadly encounter with only a bruised and scraped knee.
That didn’t stop many spectators, however, who, inspired by the days events, quickly rigged and took to the water–sailing until sunset the as the iconoclastic Hatchery logged yet another historic day.