Casey Eichfeld (back) competed in the 2008 Olympics.
Dave Hepp (back) was an Olympic Alternate in 2004.
From April 12 to 14, 2012, paddlesport athletes competing for spots on the U.S. Canoe Slalom team met at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Competitors take the center’s 300-meter whitewater channel in less than two minutes, navigating suspended poles that mark their course. The water surges and boils, and the course is lined with boulders, gates, and waterfalls. Paddling a canoe or kayak takes focused strength and endurance.
Casey Eichfeld and Dave Hepp both work at the center, which features the world’s largest man-made whitewater river. They have different perspectives influenced by their ages and paddlesport backgrounds on competition and the Olympic Games.
“I’ve been paddling my entire life,” stated Eichfeld. “My parents bought me my first C1 [single-person canoe] before I was born. I’ve been competing in C1 since I was 6 years old and on a national level since I was 7 or 8.” He’s 22 now and competed in the 2008 Olympic Games.
“Being on the Olympic team would mean everything,” continued Eichfeld. “To give you an idea, for Halloween when I was 2 years old, my dad made me a little green canoe with suspenders, and on the side it said, ‘2004 Olympics.’ It’s everything to me to go to the Olympics.”
Hepp, the paddlesports manager at the center, is 16 years older than Eichfeld and came out of retirement to give the Olympics another try.
“I attended Camp Mondamin when I was a little kid,” Hepp recounted, “age 11 to about 15 … I was introduced to the sport there. Taught us how to canoe – all the basic fundamentals. I was lucky enough to have a counselor – Fritz Haller – who was a former world champion in C2 [two-person canoe]. I just got in it and really loved it – loved the outdoor lifestyle.”
Hepp is a C2 competitor. He and his C2 partner, Scott McCleskey, competed on the national team most of the years from the mid-1990s until 2004. After making the Olympic Alternate spot for the 2004 Olympic Games, Hepp retired.
He reconsidered his retirement in 2011, after spending five years in Charlotte, North Carolina, helping to keep the sport of whitewater slalom moving forward by hosting numerous events for USA Canoe Kayak.
According to Hepp: “Last year, while hosting the nationals, we needed demo racers. We are always looking for athletes. Scott was here, and I was working on the race, so we jumped into the boat and did demos for the guys all three days. By the third day, we were actually feeling good, and we both felt excited about it.”
They found a two-person canoe and competed in the nationals in October, which they won. The trials for the Olympics at the center was the next step. “It would be awesome to go to the Olympics and race well. It feels good to be training again, especially now that my kids are old enough to come out and watch ... It would be awesome to win for them,” concluded Hepp.