The Real Champions of the Essex River Race

More than halfway through the Essex River Race in Massachusetts last Saturday and seemingly well in the lead in the two-man kayak division, my partner Ian Frenkel and I rounded Cross Island and prepared to cruise triumphantly to the finish line only about two miles away.

"It's in the bag," I called ahead to Ian in the bow.

Ian and I would be defending the title we won last year in one of the most popular open-water races in New England, a 5.5-plus-mile competition attracting about 150 paddlers and rowers in a wide variety of vessels, including Banks dories, multi-oars gigs, sliding- and fixed-seat shells, single and double kayaks, surfskis and paddle boards.

Suddenly I heard splashing and grunting behind me – another boat not only was closing in but actually had maneuvered into our slipstream, conserving energy by drafting.

I turned around and saw a familiar face in the stern cockpit, jaw set and just the hint of a grin.

"Phil, you dog!" I cried.

Phil Warner, my old friend and foe, had stealthily crept up on us, a shark preparing to attack. Having raced with and against Phil for years, I'm all too aware of his crafty navigational skills, sinewy power and relentless determination.

"Let's make a race of it," Phil yelled as he pulled alongside.

"Come on, Ian!" I shouted. "We can't let him get ahead!"

Even though Phil and his partner, Ricardo Corral, were in a different division and therefore not technically competing against us for a medal, we couldn't let their challenge go unanswered.

Ian and I dug our paddles in and quickened the tempo. I watched the global positioning system screen balanced on the combing in front of me surge from 6 mph to 6.8 – almost hull speed for our 22-foot fiberglass vessel.

Phil and Ricardo matched us stroke for stroke, and then inched ahead.

"Punch it, Ian!" I gasped.

We pulled even, but started running out of gas and drifted slightly behind.

A mile to go.

"Let's go! All or nothing!"

I realized I had only one chance: Slip behind Phil and draft off his boat, saving ourselves for a kamikaze finish in which I hoped we would slingshot into the lead.

One problem: Ian is 6 feet 11 inches tall, and I could no sooner see over him than I could peer over Mount Everest. Pulling your bow to within inches of another's stern is tricky enough in a single kayak when you can see what you're doing; flying blind in a tandem is just plain crazy.

The last thing I wanted to do is slam into Phil's boat, so I soon abandoned that tack.

We continued to fade and with a hundred yards to go I realized we were toast.

Phil and Ricardo finished a few boat lengths and seven seconds ahead.

After crossing the finish line Ian and I paddled up to congratulate them.

"Good going guys," I said. "Phil, don't you ever give up?"

He chuckled.

"You guys were pretty tough, too," Phil replied.

I checked my stopwatch. Our time of 54 minutes and 15 seconds was nearly two minutes faster than the time Ian and I recorded last year.

"You really pushed us," Ian said.

Later, at the awards ceremony, the four of us cheered for each other when we collected our medals at an awards ceremony.

Ian and I took first place in the tandem sea kayak division, and Phil and Ricardo won the handicapped division.

Oh, did I mention, Ricardo has only one leg?

A native of Ecuador, he wears a prosthesis and has to be helped into the kayak.

"I had polio as a kid," Ricardo told me, adding that his leg had to be amputated after a motorcycle accident.

Ricardo races under the auspices of an extraordinary organization, Achilles International, which encourages disabled athletes to compete in a variety of sports, including marathons and triathlons.

Founded in 1983 by Dick Traum, an above-the-knee amputee who became the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon, this non-profit organization now has chapters and members in more than 65 locations within the United States and abroad.

Typically, Achilles' kayakers are paired with experienced paddlers such as Phil.

"It's a great way to compete," he said.

I tip my hat to Phil, and especially to Ricardo and the other Achilles athletes.

They are the true champions.

s.fagin@theday.com

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