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Published on avril 30th, 2014 | by Kayak Session https://www.kayaksession.com/img-current-issue/upload-your-video.png

Claire O’Hara on the Payette River Games

Claire O has been a leading force in freestyle kayaking for a number of years. Since winning her first World Championship title in 2009, she has now gone on to win 5 ICF World Championship titles and the Mystery World Championships making her the most successful female freestyle kayaker in the world. With over 20 years of experience paddling whitewater on rivers and coaching all around the World, Claire started her competitive freestyle career in 2001 and made the Great Britain team in 2006. Winning numerous national and international titles and has since become a regular face, voice and figurehead for the sport. Here she gives us the lowdown on on this summer’s Payette River Games, the Idaho event boasting the largest prize purse ($50,000) in kayaking’s history.

Kelly's Whitewater Park in Cascade Idaho.

How/why did you start going to the Payette River Games? 
I first heard about the Kelly’s Whitewater Park whilst competing in the USA on the World Cup series in 2012. I had heard rumours before of this amazing new White Water Park that had hosted the US Nationals and put up some massive prize purses but it was at this event that I really found out more about the park and the forthcoming Payette River Games. After hearing about the incredible feature and the prize purse it didn’t take much convincing for me to decide to go. So the following summer I found myself kick starting my USA tour and World Championships preparation with the PRG’s.

What is it about the Kelly White Water Park and the PRG’s that makes you want to go back? From the moment I arrived at the park last year I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. With the great scenery, clean clear blue water and world class features, I knew instantly I would have to go back. The whole place had such a great feel and the event well that was super fun. There was so much going on and such a great vibe the whole weekend. There were so many spectators and competitors and different sports going on at the park. I only had one week there but wished I had longer as it was the perfect place to compete and to train. I’m super excited to be heading back for much longer this summer, I will be able to stay and train after the event and coach the local kids.

Kelly's Whitewater Park in Cascade Idaho

You came second last year, how was that? Last year the standard was very high and I was really pleased to finish 2nd in both the freestyle event and the sprint and boater X event. I would have loved to have won them both but I got beaten by exceptional performances by Emily Jackson and Adrienne Levchnekt so I was very happy with my results. Not only that by finishing in 2nd in both I won $6,000. Which is a huge amount of money, especially in the kayaking world. This was my biggest win ever and by a long way. It set me up really well financially for the next 6 months and was a huge help in helping me prepare for the 2013 World Championships. I remember finding Mark and Kristina Pickard (the couple that built the park and put on the PRG’s) after the finals had finished to say a massive thank you as not only had they put on a fantastic event and built an incredible park but they had now become my biggest sponsor.

With such a big prize purse ($50,000) available again this year what do you think the competitions going to be like? With such a big purse up for grabs there is definitely going to be a big turn up with some of the biggest names in the sport already confirmed as going to this years event. The standard last year was already ridiculously high and I think this years going to be even bigger again. I know the organisers are drafting in some of the worlds top judge to ensure its a fair competition and everyones already talking about how they are going to prepare for the event. I’m already making plans to get their early to train so that i’m ready. It such a great feature and such a big prize purse that its really going to pay to be ready and prepared and able to put down the best possible rides that weekend.

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Theres a lot of kayak events happening over the weekend how are you going to balance it out? Theres 4 different Kayak Pro events happening over the 3 days of the event as well as numerous Stand Up Paddle Board, River Surf and other races and competitions. In total theres over $105,000 up for grabs so theres definitely a lot of opportunities to win cash prizes from the event. The key for me this year was to be selective and think sensibly about how I would best perform in each event and which ones meant the most to me. As I feel it would be easy to do to much at the event. Last year I saw a lot of paddlers enter everything they could and by the finals at the end of day 3 they had really began to burn out. I’m going to be focusing mostly on freestyle as thats my main event and I will be doing the Boater X. I have also signed up for the 8 ball, but i’m not sure if I will race in it yet, I’ll see how i’m feeling with that one on the weekend. If I do enter all 3 and make it through to finals that is going to be a lot of rounds of full on racing and competing. Its going to be a very big weekend.

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Do you think people will be surprised with how physical the Boater Cross and 8 Ball can get? Yes. These events can be pretty full on. They’re great fun and impressive to race in but even more fun to watch. From the second they start till the the very end its a head to head battle with everyone going full out. in the 8 ball, that battle is made even more full on by the 8 Ballers who’s role in the race is to stop you and who won’t care how big the impact or hit. Obviously were all friends so if something goes wrong out there we’ll help each other out but everyone knows how the games work and will be prepared for it. I’ve got my elbow pads, body armour and full face helmet ready. So that if I do take a big hit from an 8 ball or competitor during the race i’ll just be able to shake it off and keep going. There not going to be races for the lighthearted, thats for sure.

What’s your goal this year? Where do you want to finish?
 I would really like to win this years freestyle event and I would love to finish top 3 in the Boater X event. However I know with the caliber of paddlers that are coming that its going to be a tough event. At the end of the day i’m going to train the best I can up until the day of the event. Then once the competition comes i’m just going to go out there, have fun and give it my best shot. If someone beats me on the day, as Emily and Adrienne did last year then fair play. I’ll be stoaked for them as I’ll know that they will have earn it and paddled well to win it. However, I’ll be going out there for the win 🙂

If it isn’t you, then who?
 Emily Jackson is one of my strongest competitors in the freestyle and will be back to defend her win from last year. But she won’t be the only one, theres rumours that Hitomi from Japan might be coming and she’s paddling super strong after winning silver at the World Championships. Then the other big threat is young US super star Sage Donnelly she’s not even old enough to compete on the National team yet but has the potential to knock us all of the podium if she keeps progressing and paddling as well as she has been the last few years. In the 8 Ball it could be anyones games. It helps to be fast but theres definitely a massive amount of luck. Then in the Boater X last years winner Adrienne Levknecht is going to be fast and strong. As are some of the European and International paddlers. It will all depend on who shows up. Theres another big race on the Payette the weekend before so we could have some very strong racers turn up.

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You’ve mentioned that your staying after the event to coach the kids. Whats your plans with this? As part of the Kellys White Water Park legacy Mark and Kristina Pickard have set up an Academy program for local kids. This year I will be staying on at the park for a month after the event and teaching kayaking to the local kids. Its a free programme designed to help promote kayaking and allow the kids to have opportunity to get involved in the sport and make use of this amazing park. I’ll be working alongside a local kayakers and young coaches Troy Wilson and Alec Voorhees as well as White Water Legend and top coach Clay Wright. There will also be Stand Up Paddle Board and River Surf coaching from Pro athletes Nicki Gregg and Eli Mack. Its going to be a great few weeks and is an incredible opportunity for the kids.

With all these youngsters learning to paddle will there be any kids taking part in the event?
 Yes, as well as the Pro events theres also a number of junior and cadet events happening over the weekend. Some of the under 18’s will be competing in the Pro event but a lot, especially the younger ones will have their own event. The cadets and juniors are the future of our sport so its great to see them have the chance to compete at the PRG’s. Over the weekend they not only get to paddle on these awesome waves, having fun and winning loads of prizes. They also get to meet, paddle with and hang out with all their Hero’s and Idols, the Pro’s in the sport. It will also give the local kids the opportunity to see what they can work towards through the Kellys Academy and hopefully as time progress they will be able to compete too. There are already a few local youngsters who will be taking part in the event.

Thanks Claire and good luck this season and for the Payette River Games!

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