Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pan Am Games at the Whitewater


One of the first attractions I discovered after moving to the Highlands 8 years ago was the Minden WildWater Preserve. A project spearheaded by Claudia van Wijk, and Heinz and Dieter Poenn over a decade ago has transformed this part of the Gull River into something virtually unique in the world, a natural waterway made suitable for Olympic-class whitewater canoeing and kayaking. All of the other venues in the world are constructed of cement and plastic and don’t have a trace of the natural beauty of the Gull River.

Dieter, Heinz and Claudia: the people responsible for making the MWP happen. Whitewater Ontario actually owns the property on the East side of the river.

 I always love to spend time there, sometimes watching the kayakers on the water, other times alone by the riverside, just drinking in its majesty, the waters crashing by just a few feet away even in winter. I’ve even brought my 93-year old mother there and stood back as she sat lost in its emotional tranquility. I’ve attended, and photographed almost every event on the waters since then. 

So when I heard that the Pan Am Games were to be held there, I knew I had to find a way to be part of it. One of my first thoughts was to wonder what they were going to do to accommodate the slew of people who would participate in, organize, manage and view the event. The parking lot on the west side of the river could only hold about 8 cars!

Note: all of the action images here and in the gallery follow journalistic rules: cropping, exposure adjustment and dodge/burn were the only tools I used.

I knew that getting permission to shoot the event would not be easy so I set out to take the steps to get the necessary accreditation as a press photographer. It was quite a journey.

You can look at the way this event was carried out in a couple of ways. I decided to be a “glass-half-full” kind of guy so I let myself understand why some things were the way they were. Inconvenience, road closures, stringent security… these were things that were necessary in these times. But not once did I meet anyone – management, staff, police, security, volunteers, coaches, athletes – who did not have a smile on his or her face or a good reason for their decisions. Bravo, TO 2015 Pan Am team!

Tania Fernandez, second from the left was in charge of the entire site. She's Portuguese but hails from England and was brought in to manage the event due to her international experience. 

The Whitewater Rescue Team comprised mostly highly trained firefighters.  

Here’s an example: when I showed up on the first day of practice, some areas were still designated as construction sites, so I couldn’t go in. The site manager herself (Tania, above) took me on a tour and let me in areas that would eventually be restricted (athletes only) later in the week. Another: partway through the training week, a security supervisor told me I was not allowed to cross the ribbon barrier onto the rocks near the river. I pointed out that I was press accredited and that those were designated photographer areas. He checked, found out I was right, but expressed concern for my safety. Right action. Eventually they made me wear a life vest. They were right to do that (wouldn’t let me keep it, though! It was actually big enough and said “Rescue” on the back!).

Me, on the rocks at the start line, with the life vest they insisted I wear!
The grey vest underneath was the one I had to trek all the way down to the CNE to pick up.

Sure, there were some glitches. For instance, why did they set up the media centre on the East side of the river (we could only shoot on the West), basically a 2km walk (uphill both ways, just like when I trudged to school when I was little), and no water or food for us where we were working? We adapted. No bib number cross-references during the training days, so I had to guess who was whom. And I still don’t know who the 8 or 12 “Forerunners” were who made sure the course was working (If you were one of them or related, email me. I have pictures of pretty well all of them!). And who could have predicted the crashing thunderstorm that rolled through on Sunday afternoon?

Spectators had a good view of the action, almost as good as we had. Tom and Diane Dawson from Wintergreen kept everyone fed and happy, running at high efficiency with great food at reasonable prices, unlike their big city counterparts! There were almost more staff and volunteers than spectators, but each had a role! 

Tom Dawson (red shirt) tending the BBQ that produced all that delicious food. 

Since the lunch break was short, everyone had to be fed in one massive surge! Tom was efficient, the lineup moved quickly. Meantime, Diane was feeding the athletes and officials across the river! Wintergreen rocks! 

Kudo’s to the paramedics whom I saw caring for a spectator who had succumbed to the heat. And to the whitewater rescue guys and gals – mostly highly trained firefighters who wore those suffocating life vests and wetsuits all day long. Thankfully, they had nothing to do (as far as I know), which is as it should be. Even the Police were super friendly (well there was one guy, not in uniform but with the tell-tale curly cord leading to his ear, but I’m pretty sure I know what his job was…). The Canadian Press guys (you could identify them by their special blue vests and the 100 lbs of camera gear they were carrying around) kind of looked down on us local types, but hey!

A lot of the staff and volunteers were locals. I met some great people, made some new friends, convinced one or two to come out to the camera club and keep in touch. There was Liz (“Leeez!”) a gate judge I spent the better part of the day with, from Mexico, and Jen and Ruth and Duncan in his yellow tie…

Duncan was primary judge on the middle gates (from about 7-13) on the course

Liz was on the rocky spit where I spent most of the day. She was responsible for a series of gates, as backup to Duncan. I was the one who insisted she wear a life vest, she stood precariously on the rocks, right on the edge!

Congratulations to our Canadian athletes: Jazmyne Denhollander (GOLD medal, women’s K1 kayak), Cameron Smedley (SILVER medal, men’s C1 canoe), Ben Hayward (BRONZE medal, men’s K1 kayak) and Haley Daniels (BRONZE medal, women’s C1 canoe). Also to the other Canadian athletes who did exceedingly well in the Olympic Trials held simultaneously. See you in Rio in 2016!

Jazmyne Denhollander, Gold Medal winner, K1 Women

Cameron Smedley, Silver Medal, C1 Men 

Haley Daniels, Bronze Medal, C1 Women 

Ben Hayward, Bronze Medal, K1 Men 

So kudo’s (or “Props” as the kids say today) to the organizers and everyone associated with this terrific event. Y’all did good!

Here are a few more images that I liked from the event. Enjoy!

American C2 Olympic hopefuls Tyler Smith and Ted Dennis run the Olympic Qualifier. 

Canadian K1 Women's hopeful Jessica Groeneveld "in the zone", visualizing her run in the Olympic Qualifier 

You know me! I like to shoot abstracts. This is NOT Photoshop (except the frame and signature!) it was all done in camera. 

There are 156 images currently uploaded for your viewing pleasure on my SmugMug Gallery. On SmugMug, click any picture to blow it up fullscreen. Hover your mouse over the bottom of the screen for the description. Use the arrow keys to go to the next image.

PS: here’s the thing: apparently I’m not allowed to sell any of my pictures for commercial purposes. So if you want any of my pictures, either as digital downloads or prints, we’ll have to find a way to do that for free. I’ll figure out something. Send me an email at and tell me what you’re looking for. 

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