By Guy Dresser, Photography: Andrew Trender
Four and a half decades is a lifetime in any environment but particularly so in sport, as Swiss canoeist Heinz Wyss will testify. Back in 1973 as a young upcoming paddler in the Swiss wildwater canoeing team, he competed in the World Championships on home waters in Muotathal, canton Schwyz, a remote and beautiful part of mountainous central Switzerland.
Today, the wizened, mustachioed Swiss is an older statesman in the sport, proud to be playing a leading role in the organizing team of the 2018 World Wildwater Championships, the first to be staged in Switzerland in the subsequent 45 years.
“It’s a great day for us,” reflects Wyss. “Canoeing is a popular sport here, we’ve been major participants in wildwater for years, and we have had our successes in other disciplines too. But it’s wonderful to see World Championship action back on the Muota.”
Wyss is part of a 350-strong team of volunteers drawn from all over Switzerland. The organizers’ success in attracting helpers reflected the widespread interest in staging the World Championships. After a promising World Cup event in Muotathal in 2017 which tested venue and organizers alike, the team had some confidence it was on track for a successful Championships.
Chief organizer Peter Lüthi, himself a former international competitor at marathon, sprint and wildwater, said the Swiss passion for the outdoors was one important factor behind the successful recruitment of volunteers.
“In today’s climate, it’s not always easy to attract sponsors with deep pockets. We’ve been fortunate to have had wide-ranging support, and our ability to attract volunteers has really helped keep costs down.”
Swiss recruitment giant Job3000 and global mining business Glencore, based in nearby Zug, stepped in as the event’s main sponsors. And with a score of other Swiss companies coming forward to provide financial and practical support, the scene was set for a successful World Championship return to the Muota River.
While the Swiss may have hoped that home advantage would favour their canoeists, several of the 24 countries represented in Muotathal had other ideas. There were remarkable performances, particularly by the Czech Republic, France, and Slovenia.
The Slovenes achieved a remarkable clean sweep in the men’s kayak sprint, Nejc Znidarcic picking up the gold ahead of his fellow countrymen Vid Debeljak and Anze Urankar who finished in second and third place, respectively.
Blaz Cof won the men’s canoe sprint ahead of Czechs Marke Rygel and Ondrej Rolenc. It was a particularly successful Worlds for Rolenc, who as a three-time wildwater sprint World Champion also took his first classic world title.
He picked up a further gold medal after leading Mark Rygel and Antonin Hales to first place in the men’s C1 team competition.
There was further Czech success in the women’s races as Martina Satkova completed a remarkable golden double in the classic races, winning both the K1 and C1 titles. France’s Manon Hostens, often seen racing in the Olympic flatwater discipline these days, picked up silver in a closely-fought final. The positions were reversed in the sprint discipline as Hostens took gold, just 0.79 seconds ahead of Satkova, and Claire Bren pushed into third place. More, however, was to come for Satkova as she scooped yet another win in the women’s C1 team with Anezka Paloudova and Marie Nemcova ahead of Italy and France, and a further gold in the K1 team, again ahead of France’s Hostens, paddling this time with Bren and Charlène Le Corvaisier.
There was some scope for local cheer as Switzerland won a bronze in the women’s classic team competition. The Swiss trio included 50 year old Sabine Eichenberger, competing in C1 in her final World Championships before retirement, and youngster Hannah Müller in just her first senior year. The third member of the team was the illustrious Melanie Mathys, who has more than 15 medals to her name at World and European Championships at both junior and senior level, and had already scored a bronze medal in the women’s K1 classic race. A much hoped-for sprint medal was not to be – she finished in what for Mathys was to be a somewhat disappointing seventh place.
France, hosts of last year’s combined Wildwater and Slalom Championships, picked up a crop of medals, including a clean sweep in the men’s C2 classic race with Stéphane Santamaria and Quentin Dazeur winning gold ahead of Ancelin Gourjult and Pazat Lucas, with Tony Debray and Louis Lapointe in bronze-medal position.
As the sun set in the Muota valley, a relieved Peter Lüthi allowed himself a wide smile. “It’s been an epic few days,” he reflected. “We’ve had some exciting racing and some amazing performances. Off the water, it’s been a lot of work – but hopefully it won’t be another 45 years before we next stage a World Championships here in Switzerland.”