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Columbia Missourian

Wentz eager for thrills of racing in whitewater

March 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST

A freshman at MU, she will compete in the state kayaking championships.

Emilee Wentz loves to slice through fast-running rivers in her kayak.

For Wentz, an MU freshman, it’s a unique environment.

“You’re out there on the river, and you’ve got the adrenaline and the relaxation at the same time,” Emilee Wentz said. “Which, combined, make for one of the most amazing experiences ever.

“All you’re focused on is the river. It’s all about you and the boat, the river, your buddies. It’s a really good time.”

Wentz will be traveling to the St. Francis River near Fredericktown on Saturday and Sunday for the Missouri Whitewater Championships. Her father, Frank Wentz, got her involved in kayaking less than three years ago. She says the main reason she loves it is the thrill she gets from whitewater.

Wentz comes from a family of kayaking enthusiasts. Her father has kayaked for more than two decades. Her mother, Ellen Wentz, organizes kayaking events. Family vacations have taken her across the U.S. on various hiking trails and float trips. She watched her father make his way downstream as she followed on the river bank before she was old enough to join him.

Her father was a convinient resource when she first began. She first tried maneuvering her dad’s kayak in a YMCA pool. She used some of her savings to purchase a blue, slightly used, hard-plastic kayak, and took her first plunge in the St. Francis last spring.

Her father served as her instructor, because kayakers have to stay in groups in case someone flips and can’t roll back over. She followed her father the entire time, paddling thorugh the same areas he had passed through.

Frank Wentz said he used to be nervous when he kayaked. Now, he said he worries about her safety.

“I never really pushed her,” Frank Wentz said. “I kind of wished she wouldn’t, because it’s a dangerous sport.”

Rapids are one of the dangers of whitewater kayaking, but they are also one of the most exciting aspects of the sport.

“Going through rapids is like a test of your kayaking abilities,” Emilee Wentz said.

Upstream of the rapids, kayakers must sit in still water, found just downstream of rocks, to map a course through the rocks and foaming water. If the kayak rolls, it is important to get back upright as quickly as possible to see the rapids again. Also, Emilee Wentz said she has to avoid getting too close to the kayak in front of her to make sure she doesn’t cause a collision.

Racing is a different experience than recreational kayaking. As she makes her way down the turbulent river, Emilee Wentz will be timed. At the championships, kayakers get two runs down a one-mile strech of the St. Francis for each divison they are in. Divisions are divided up by age and experience.

But kayakers also have to go through narrow gates that are suspended over the water, much like slalom skiers on a hill. Emilee Wentz said the gates are slightly larger than the kayak, but that she has hold the paddle vertically to fit through. Missing the gates, or touching them with kayak, body or paddle results in a penalty of time added to the kayaker’s total.

The gates are color-coded to add extra challenge. Green gates are downstream gates that kayakers go through on their ways down. Red gates, on the other hand, are upstream gates. Kayakers must go slightly past the red gates, turn around, paddle upstream through the gates and then turn back around to continue going downstream.

“The upstream gates are challenging,” Emilee Wentz said.

Spectators show up to watch the races. Emilee Wentz said that on days with good weather, about 200 people can turn out to watch the races from rocks on the sides of the St. Francis. For her, the spectators add more exitement and incentive to do well, but she said she doesn’t hear them yelling while she is kayaking.

She said she is excited about attending the upcoming championship, but she said she will have fun regardless.

“Competition, for me, isn’t really what boating is about,” Emilee Wentz said. “I like it, it’s fun, but at the same time ... the Missouri Whitewater Championship, for me, is about prescision and perfecting your skill and advancing your boating skills because of (the downstream and upstream gates). You learn how to turn on a dime.”

But despite the dangers of kayaking, her father had no trouble convincing her to stick with it. She loves kayaking because of the outdoors and the water. She said she didn’t fear it because she had been around it so long, but that it felt odd to be on the water instead of watching her father.