Catching my breath in the eddy alongside Mundaca on Chile’s Futaleufu River, I smile as I watch one of of my students drop in again and again for a voluntary beatdown. The crowd cheers as she flips. The bright yellow of her boat flashes as it tumbles end over end in the frothy pit. She pops up grinning behind the wave, throwing a fist in the air in celebration.
We’re at the annual freestyle competition at FutaFest. Low water levels caused event organizers to move the competition last-minute. The notorious Mundaca is a big-water class IV rapid with a busy entry full of laterals, waves and hydraulics capable of throwing even the most seasoned Futa paddlers off line and into the jaws of the nearly river-wide hole downstream.
In lieu of a traditional freestyle competition, competitors walk to the top of the rapid three times and throw their best downriver moves. After three attempts, competitors get 30 minutes to ride the feature as many times as they want. Even the local paddlers are nervous. Yet, here’s this 17-year-old American girl, grinning as she drops in—because it’s fun.
I can hardly believe that the kayaker fist pumping and chatting in Spanish is the same student who swam this rapid three days in a row last year. She had spent days on the verge of tears at any mention of Mundaca. Her fear was so intense that we spent an entire class period looking at the rapid so she could read the line more clearly…