Joel McCune is in the zone.
The only sounds at Finger Lakes State Park this late morning are the geese and the ripples McCune makes as he glides his small boat through the water.
Suddenly, McCune, with his heavy breath now audible also, pivots the 22-pound kayak through the brisk breeze with a swift movement of his lone paddle. The boat dips down in the water and does an about-face.
“It’s what I know,” McCune said later. “It’s part of who I am.”
Later, McCune will sit down and work on his master’s thesis based on Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, which roughly means being completely absorbed in something, or, as McCune puts it, being in “the zone.”
McCune was in the zone on Feb. 19-20, enough to qualify for the U.S. Team Trials in white-water slalom. He placed in the top three in both Canadian singles, or C1, and doubles, or C2, at the Midwest Team Trials Qualifier in New Braunfels, Texas.
White-water slalom is a race in a four-meter-long boat through rapids. But speed isn’t everything. Racers must pass through about 25 gates during a race, downstream through a green-tagged gate, or upstream through a red-tagged one.
If McCune can finish in the top six of 30 competitors in either singles or doubles at the national trials on June 18-19 in Durango, Colo., he will become a member of the U.S. National Team for 2005.
“My chances in C1 are probably pretty slim,” McCune said. “This year, I’m going more for the experience. However, five C2 teams have retired this year or something like that, so … (he and partner Ben Kvanli) might have a pretty good shot at the U.S. team in C2.”
That would be quite an accomplishment, considering the closest place to Columbia for white-water practice is somewhere between two to four hours away, depending on who you ask.
“As far as actual white water, if I was going to go out and paddle someplace, it’d be the St. Francis,” McCune said, “and that’s about three and a half hours, so it’s a weekend.”
Because he’s often too busy to take a weekend to train, McCune, an MU graduate student majoring in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, has to practice at Finger Lakes four to five times a week.
“Flatwater training is going to be part of any slalom racer’s rapport,” he said. “It’s a good place to work on technique. However, the timing and certain skills, you have to have moving water…
“It’s something I’m very aware of. I know that my weakness is that I can’t get out on moving water every day. Some of these guys live on a river, so I’m definitely at a disadvantage.”
But as McCune turns circles in the water or talks about the gates he has set up in one of the secluded Finger Lakes, it’s easy to see there are ways to deal with that disadvantage.
“There’s certain ways you can hopefully counteract that,” he said. “For instance, when I go to a race, I like to get there a week ahead of time, so that I can just sort of spend some time getting sharp.”
Another way is taking every chance to train on white water. Over spring break, that means a trip to North Carolina or Maryland and a possible training session with Davey Hearn, a two-time world champion and three-time Olympian.
McCune also ran the mile for MU’s track team as an undergraduate and then went into the Navy before coming back to school, so he has another advantage.
“One thing that I can bring to the table is that I can have my level of fitness higher than anybody else out there,” McCune said. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to win because they have a whole lot better skills, but it’s not going to be because I’m not in good shape.”
Another way for McCune to overcome a flat-water locale is to draw on experience. His parents got him into boating when he was young and he has plenty of experience.
“I’ll put it this way: Tell me the first time you were in a car,” McCune said as the breeze at Finger Lakes started to lose its bite.
“Can you remember it? I’m the same way with boats. I can never remember not being in a boat.”