Brothers Alex and Chris Introne of Orono have been canoeing and fishing with their father, Doug, for most of their lives, but they didn’t start paddling competitively until two years ago when they joined Orono High School’s GoActive Club, run by teacher Jeff Owen.
Now the Introne brothers, and fellow Orono student Laurie Hamilton are national caliber paddlers, which became evident at the American Canoe Association Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver National Championships on the Deerfield River in Charlemont, Mass., last week when they took first place in their respective divisions in the two-person men’s and women’s races.
“It was a pretty cool experience; a nice course. Racing with more experienced paddlers really helps, and you learn a lot from them,” said Hamilton, who started paddling competitively three years ago with GoActive, and has national-level experience from competing in the national race at the Dead River in West Forks in 2009.
The ACA Whitewater Nationals featured three days of racing, starting with a practice day on July 13, and moved on to the solo women’s and two-person men’s races the next day, the latter the race that the Intrones — who were in the 16-18 age group — took home their national championship.
July 15 was a day of sprint races, which funneled down a 1.5-mile course through Deerfield’s Zoar Gap, one of the biggest whitewater spots on the river
Tandem women’s and solo men’s races were held on July 14, and the field finished up Sunday with mixed races, or what is referred to by the paddling community as junior/senior races, where a paddler 16 years or under is matched up with one 25 years and over. Hamilton won the tandem women’s race with Laurie Stearns of Brunswick, and competed in the junior/senior race with Clayton Cole of Corinth.
“These kids know whitewater, and this was the first thing they’ve traveled to, so I was thrilled by all accounts ” said Owen, who was also impressed with his students performance since it was their first time on the Deerfield River.
The students competed at a national level that featured paddlers from as far as Michigan, west, and North Carolina, south, while there were roughly a dozen paddlers from Maine out of a field of approximately 35, which Owen attributes to Maine being a hotbed for whitewater canoe racing with a busy schedule of spring and summer races.
“I think you’ll find it’s typical to see several Mainers at nationals every year,” he said.
All three racers acknowledged that they wouldn’t be successful in paddling if it weren’t for the help that Owen and GoActive provide.
Owen and the members of GoActive practice twice a week after school, working through obstacles to help master steering, engaging in speed and technique workouts, and practicing to keep the boats upright, which is essential when they first begin workouts in March on frigid Pushaw Stream. Once the ice melts for good, Owen and his students take to the Stillwater River, where they train and prepare for the region’s many races.
Owen also competed in the tandem men’s national championship race, finishing with the best overall time with his partner Steve Woodward, according to Alex Introne.
“I mean, we’re learning from one of the best paddlers in the country, so you definitely listen to what he has to say, and it’s just been great,” Alex Introne said.
“Our speed and technique workouts help, and Mr. Owen encourages us to get in as many races as possible, so it’s nice to have that motivation there,” she said.
Nothing can be more encouraging than a friendly environment, which is exactly what the paddling community offers, even at its highest levels. Both the Introne brothers and Hamilton noted that the community’s support, and how their motivating, and intense work ethic are a driving force that creates fun and excitement within the sport.
Along with paddling, GoActive offers several other outdoor oriented activities that kids can participate in their entire life, something that both the Intrones and Hamilton plan to take full advantage of.
“There are elite paddlers in their 60s and 70s, so it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to enjoying for awhile,” said Alex Introne, who just graduated from Orono High School this past spring.
Hamilton says it depends on where nationals are next year, but if she can find a way to get there, she will go.
Even though the whitewater season is over, Alex and Chris Introne — who still has another year at Orono High — are planning on competing in flatwater races later this summer, but for now they’re enjoying their win.
“We’re bros and we’re national champions,” Alex said. “That’s a pretty cool accomplishment.”