Durango’s paddling powers

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald

Zach “Bug” Lokken and Cully Brown are making waves in the canoe and kayak racing community nationally. Lokken has a chance this weekend to qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and both will compete at the IFC Junior and U23 World Championships next month in Wisconsin.

By Ryan Owens Herald staff writer

Durango’s been home to all sorts of world-class athletes.

There’s been Olympic beach volleyball players and cyclists, cycling hall of famers, triathletes and college athletes in all kinds of sports.

If the trajectory of their youth careers is any indication, canoe racer Zach “Bug” Lokken and kayaker Cully Brown soon may add their names to that list.

Lokken, in fact, could make quite the impact this year with a high enough finish at the International Canoe Federation Slalom World Cup. One that would take him to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London as the lone American representative in the C-1 canoeing category.

To do that, he’ll need to finish ahead of the other two U.S. senior team members this weekend in Cardiff, Wales.

“It’s really hard to imagine getting to go to the Olympics and how close I am. I’m just going to race my best,” said Lokken, son of Eric and Angela Lokken.

“It’s totally possible. There’s been races where you’ve beat both those guys (Benn Fraker and Casey Eighfeld),” Brown said to Lokken.

It’s enough to make anyone nervous. But Lokken’s experience in various events at the senior level, including two appearances at the senior world championships, has exposed him to similar pressure.

Just nailing down a spot on this year’s senior team was nerve-wracking enough.

The top three finishers at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April earned spots on the team and the trip to Wales, and the final run of the weekend would determine his fate. After finishing fifth and fourth, respectively, after the first two days, Lokken seized the opportunity, grabbing third on the final day.

“I kind of didn’t think about ‘I need to do well,’” Lokken said of his final run. “I just felt like, ‘I know I can do this.’ I just need to put down a normal run.”

Brown, meanwhile, is on his way to the ICF Junior and U23 Canoe Slalom World Championships for the second time, only this time in another discipline.

The 16-year-old’s last appearance came as a member of the U.S. junior wildwater team, and he’ll appear this time in the K-1 kayak slalom event after finishing third at the junior trials. The junior worlds will be held July 11-15 in Wasau, Wis., and Lokken also will compete, planning to use the event to prep for more senior races later in the season.

“I’m trying to be the best I can at both when I have the time, so this year was an opportunity for slalom junior worlds. ... It was a good opportunity,” said Brown, son of Brent and Lynn Brown.

Brown is versatile on the water, riding not only in the wildwater and kayak slalom disciplines, but also rodeo kayaking, which is based on tricks similar to those performed by snowboarders and surfers as opposed to downwater competition.

Regardless of discipline, both got their start rolling down the Animas River, much like the average weekend warrior. Except Lokken and Brown started out in elementary school and only have gotten better since, thanks to their skills, active families, a vibrant on-water community and coaches such as Cathy Hearn, Rafal Smolen and Scott Shipley.

“Durango’s just a paddling community,” Brown said.

Since those days on the Animas, the duo has had the chance to see places most kids only dream of seeing by the time their high school careers are up – France, Wales, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, among others.

However, given the schedules at particular races, they don’t get to do a lot of the touristy-type things, but it’s still a chance to measure themselves against not just the best in the region – as most high school athletes have to do – but the nation and the world.

“I feel like racing with the world gives you a better understanding of how well you are, and if you’re just competing in a town or region, you only know how ... well you do against Farmington or Ignacio,” Lokken said.

“When you compete in junior worlds, you kind of know how you compare to the world.”

Still, after all those years of travel, shuttling from event to event to event, it’d be easy to get burned out. Not to mention all the schoolwork to make up – Lokken finished his graduation requirements at Durango High School two trimesters early to rid himself of that issue. Neither, however, are anywhere near burned out.

“It’s a completely different thing than a ball or net, or whatever. There’s a sliding surface under you,” Brown said. “There’s so many variables with the water, and it’s always changing.”

That’s a good thing for two presumably bright futures. Paddle on.

rowens@durangoherald.com

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