Olympic spirit surfaces in Al Ain desert waterpark

Wadi Adventure in Al Ain has become the winter training home of professional canoeists from around the world.

Russian national team member Dimitri Azanovie trains at Wadi Adventure in Al Ain. Christopher Pike / The National
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Up to 10 Olympic medallists now train at Wadi Adventure in Al Ain having been drawn by the weather and the course. The next step is to attract local paddlers, Eugene Harnan reports

AL AIN // In the middle of a bone-dry desert, Olympian canoeists have found an unlikely winter training refuge at a waterpark.
On most weekdays, as many as 10 Olympic medallists from around the world can be found paddling at full tilt through the rapids at Wadi Adventure in Al Ain.

Among those training at the park this week was the French Olympian Emilie Fer, who won gold in the canoe slalom event at the London Olympics last year and took seventh place in Beijing.

“Here it is a little bit hard, which is good for training,” said Fer, 29. She is preparing for her first competition of the season, in France, in three weeks.

Fer said the course at Wadi Adventure was just as difficult as the London Olympic course.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s a long course and there is a middle part where the water goes fast. The different levels are not common on other courses.”

Also found practising at the park was veteran Czechoslovak-Czech canoeist, Stepanka Hilgertova, who won gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and in Atlanta in 1996. The 45-year-old has competed in six Olympic Games but shows no signs of slowing down.

She said she favoured the course because a section of it was similar to rivers. “It’s good for us as it’s different. The warmer water is good,” she said.

Her husband and coach, Loubos Hilgert, said the course was not their first choice for spring training but was a perfect in winter.

“It’s good because of the weather and the small time change. For us, it’s superb,” said Hilgert, who coaches the national team.

Richard Galovic, general manager of the Slovakian canoe team, agreed the course was more attractive than their usual winter haunts in Brazil and Australia.

“The last 15 years, we went to Australia and Brazil and sometimes on Athens’ Olympic course. Now we like to use this as a base from January to March as it is optimal conditions and everybody is very friendly.”

Five Olympic medallists are among his team of 17 training at Wadi Adventure. Their daily routine starts at dawn with a gym session. They then take to the water for an hour or two, depending on the schedule. After enjoying specially prepared lunches, training resumes at 3pm.

“For the first season after the Olympics it’s a little bit different. A lot of the top guys are slow to start, so it’s a big chance for the young guys and we have a lot here – new potential stars,” Galovic said.

The obstacles are the only downside to the waterpark course.

“The obstacles are concrete and we are used to plastic obstacles,” Hilgertova said. “It’s not so comfortable as other courses but if you’re careful it’s OK.”

The Wadi Adventure course has several different routes and changes regularly to suit the day’s training needs.

Fergus Coffey, the whitewater manager at Wadi Adventure, said his staff were working on removing the course’s blocks.

The next aim, he said, was to enlist more local canoeists. “The challenge is to build a community of kayakers from scratch,” he said. They plan to team up with private schools to offer canoeing as part of the GCSE syllabus.

“It is an extraordinarily frustrating sport at times because one run goes perfectly but then one mistake and you are behind the curve on one gate and your luck is down,” Mr Coffey said.

"It's extremely quick. You catch a different pulse on one ride and get the pulse on another and it's different water."


For video footage of the world champions taking on Wadi Adventure's white water, visit https://www.thenationalnews.com/multimedia