The Gorge Downwind Champs (GDC) is a festival and celebration of downwind paddling and racing. Thanks to the visionary efforts of Carter Johnson (the event creator and organizer), the GDC has become a colossal event in our sport with over 750 spots selling out within 48 hours. Athletes travel from all over the country and the globe to compete in what has become the largest downwind event on the planet.

I have raced this event every year since its debut in 2015. That first year, despite not feeling fit, managed a shocking 4th place finish. Since then, I have returned every year, fitter, faster and hungrier, hoping that I would finally finish on the podium. I finished 4th place in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Coming to the race this year, I once again hoped for something different.

Race Morning

From the moment I woke up race morning, this year felt different. Usually, the excitement and anxiety from the race defeat me before I start. In years prior, I had slept horribly the nights before the race and felt a near panic about messing up my race. This year, I slept well and awoke relaxed and refreshed. What’s more, I didn’t feel worried about making a mistake in the race, I just wanted to be out there competing. When the race finally did start at 12:45pm, I had been ready to go for hours!

Austin Kieffer & Wife
My relaxed and joyful mood was largely due to my wife and I can’t thank her enough for coming to the race!

This year, the wind wasn’t the legendary 35 knots from 2018, but with consistent 20 knot wind over the whole course, I knew we would be surfing from start to finish.

Ready, Set, GO!

As soon as the start was called, Macca Hynard fired off the line. He jumped the first wave, linked onto the second and left the field scrambling behind him. Kenny Rice, Cory Hill and I tore after him down the middle of the river. Despite his lead, Macca settled in a rhythm, giving Cory the opening to pull up even with him, Kenny and I in pursuit just behind. Shocked that no one else was around us, I realized that this might very well be the four person fight for the podium. But my assessment was premature. A quick glance to the left revealed Sam Norton absolutely flying on an inside line. This was going to be a dog fight. In years past, this frantic pace off the line was where I would lose touch with the leaders. I ramped up my pace, determined to stay in the fight.

Sam’s speed and inside line proved to be more than just an early threat. He hammered into the lead and at one point looked like he would leave us behind. Cory not wanting to let him get away, cut left and joined Sam on the inside line, leaving Macca, Kenny and I to battle up the middle. I decided to not follow them and stick with my race line. The waves weren’t massive, but they were enough to keep me from chasing Sam and Cory in the river eddy. I hoped that with over an hour left to race, surfing well and conserving some energy would pay off more than a slightly quicker line.

As we rounded the first major bend in the river, marking 4 km into the race, our lines converged. Macca, Kenny and I pushed hard around the bend and closed Sam and Cory’s lead. Suddenly, we were all back together and we weren’t just close, we were comically close. Sam was still holding onto the lead, but Cory and Kenny were surfing just one wave back, flanked by Macca and I one wave further back. The top five positions had all converged into a flying V pattern. I could practically touch everyone but Sam with my paddle.

For the next few minutes we stayed in this tight formation. Every move made by one athlete was countered by the other 4. However, because we were all so close, the others were limiting the options of where I could surf and neutralizing my biggest advantage. What’s more, with 5 athletes so close, if we stayed like this to the finish, a simple mistake could see any one of us in 5th place instead of on the podium. I decided to take a gamble. I cut left and surfed into my own water. I knew these waves and I knew I was capable of challenging the others in the surf. It was time to prove it. I put the others out of my mind and just focused on the wave patterns around me.

I settled into a trance, scanning for openings in the waves, pushing when I saw one, then immediately relaxing again after my sprint. I pushed over and over again until I pushed over one too many waves and watched my heart rate peak to 181 beats per minute (bpm). “Calm down,” I told myself, “you are not even half way!” With my lactic threshold at 178 bpm, I knew that a sustained push in the 180s could be catastrophic to my race. I gathered myself on the wave and took the opportunity to check in with my competitors. To my surprise, I was sitting in second. Kenny had come with me on the left line and we had separated ourselves from the group. Cory and Macca were still close on our heels, but we had definitively moved into the lead. What’s more we had reached the point in the race where Kenny, two time defending champion of the Gorge, had made his definitive break for the lead. If I could just hang on to him, I might be able to hold onto this second place.

Gorge Downwind Champs

I surfed over to him, pushing hard to keep in touch. With my adrenaline spiking, I managed to push onto the wave next to Kenny. My momentum kept me moving and, spotting another opening, I sprinted again. I crested over the wave and, wait … I was one wave ahead of Kenny. I looked around stunned. There was no one else around me. I WAS WINNING!!! The thought struck me like a physical blow. For the first time in my life, I was in the lead of a major international race. I almost let out a yell of excitement. It only lasted a second, however, as Kenny jumped up beside me and then skipped ahead. I shook my head to refocus. While leading a race had been a long time goal for me, there were more goals on the table and if I wanted to finally break onto the podium, the half way point was hardly the place to celebrate.

Kenny surged hard again and his one wave lead became two, then three. I looked around and Macca and Cory were right on my heels. “Ok, Austin, focus!,” I hissed to myself. I pushed Kenny from my mind. He was charging ahead to his third Gorge title and that was fine. His lead was no longer my concern. I needed to focus on surfing. And maybe, just maybe, I could hold onto this second place.

I surrendered to the pain of the race and the rhythm of the waves and gave it everything I had. Once again, I forgot my competitors and fell into the trance of downwind surfing. I pushed for every opening, giving my sprints all I had and using every ounce of speed the waves offered. I made no mistakes. I let the kilometers slip by, only registering them as lap beeps on my watch, indicating another had passed.

When I finally did look around, I couldn’t see anyone. From what I could see, none of the top guys were near me. Kenny wasn’t in sight ahead, but at the same time I couldn’t see the athletes behind me. Wait, what was that to my right? I finally spotted a black boat off to my right, “it must be Macca,” I thought and my heart sank. Though we were roughly even, he was maybe a wave ahead and having made up that much ground on me, he was clearly going to leave me behind. I looked over again to check his movement. Wait, that wasn’t Macca, it was Kenny! I had somehow reeled Kenny back in. I was still in this race for the win!

I put my head down and went back to surfing. Every few waves I would look over at Kenny, expecting him to have pulled ahead, but every time I looked he was right there. We held even for the next three kilometers. It was extremely hard to tell who was in first on such radically different lines, but with a bottleneck in the river approaching, we would soon see who was leading.

When our lines finally merged, we were dead even. Kenny looked so strong. It was obvious why he had won this race twice in a row. I was pushing my limit to stay with him, but if I could just hold on, I was less than 16 minutes away from possibly winning. The next three kilometers of racing were surreal. Kenny and I seemed to be perfectly matched. I would push hard and surf ahead, only to have him answer with a surge of his own. We traded the lead back and forth, weaving to the right and left of each other. Each one of us trying to make a move that would solidify a win, neither of us able to shake the other. It looked like we were destined to battle it out to the last seconds of the race.

Gorge Downwind Champs
Gorge Downwind Champs
Gorge Downwind Champs

And then with the race finish in sight, I made the mistake that cost me the race. The media boat that had been following our battle moved up ahead of us. I was focusing on the runs and didn’t pay attention. Kenny, who was aware of his surroundings, pushed hard catching the boat wake and jumping ahead. I had been just behind him, almost tapping his stern and suddenly he was gone. My heart sank.

Gorge Downwind Champs
I am not insinuating in any way that Kenny did the wrong thing. It is my strong belief that surfski racing is all about maximizing any wave that comes your way. I would have absolutely done the same thing in his position and if I wanted that wave, I should have been a) paying attention and b) in the lead to better maximize that wave. I even ended up surfing the media boat wake in the last fifty meters to the finish.

I pushed hard to try and catch back up, but I had run out of waves and time. The conditions flattened out in the last few minutes and Kenny’s dominance could not be denied. He held me off, despite my best effort and I finished 6 seconds back in a close 2nd place.

Though, gutted to have come so close and finish the race just feet away from my first win. I could not have been happier! I had taken the King of the Gorge to the line, held the lead of the Gorge Downwind Champs for the first time in my life, and gone wave for wave in a race battle I will always remember. A huge smile split my face and I claimed it.

Gorge Downwind Champs

Final Results:

  1. Kenny Rice
  2. Austin Kieffer
  3. Cory Hill
  4. Macca Hynard
  5. Sam Norton
  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019
    Austin's Blog

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13, 2019

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15, 2019
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    Saturday 28, Sept. 2019

The Gorge Downwind Champs (GDC) is a festival and celebration of downwind paddling and racing. Thanks to the visionary efforts of Carter Johnson (the event creator and organizer), the GDC has become a colossal event in our sport with over 750 spots selling out within 48 hours. Athletes travel from all over the country and the globe to compete in what has become the largest downwind event on the planet.

I have raced this event every year since its debut in 2015. That first year, despite not feeling fit, managed a shocking 4th place finish. Since then, I have returned every year, fitter, faster and hungrier, hoping that I would finally finish on the podium. I finished 4th place in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Coming to the race this year, I once again hoped for something different.

Race Morning

From the moment I woke up race morning, this year felt different. Usually, the excitement and anxiety from the race defeat me before I start. In years prior, I had slept horribly the nights before the race and felt a near panic about messing up my race. This year, I slept well and awoke relaxed and refreshed. What’s more, I didn’t feel worried about making a mistake in the race, I just wanted to be out there competing. When the race finally did start at 12:45pm, I had been ready to go for hours!

Austin Kieffer & Wife
My relaxed and joyful mood was largely due to my wife and I can’t thank her enough for coming to the race!

This year, the wind wasn’t the legendary 35 knots from 2018, but with consistent 20 knot wind over the whole course, I knew we would be surfing from start to finish.

Ready, Set, GO!

As soon as the start was called, Macca Hynard fired off the line. He jumped the first wave, linked onto the second and left the field scrambling behind him. Kenny Rice, Cory Hill and I tore after him down the middle of the river. Despite his lead, Macca settled in a rhythm, giving Cory the opening to pull up even with him, Kenny and I in pursuit just behind. Shocked that no one else was around us, I realized that this might very well be the four person fight for the podium. But my assessment was premature. A quick glance to the left revealed Sam Norton absolutely flying on an inside line. This was going to be a dog fight. In years past, this frantic pace off the line was where I would lose touch with the leaders. I ramped up my pace, determined to stay in the fight.

Sam’s speed and inside line proved to be more than just an early threat. He hammered into the lead and at one point looked like he would leave us behind. Cory not wanting to let him get away, cut left and joined Sam on the inside line, leaving Macca, Kenny and I to battle up the middle. I decided to not follow them and stick with my race line. The waves weren’t massive, but they were enough to keep me from chasing Sam and Cory in the river eddy. I hoped that with over an hour left to race, surfing well and conserving some energy would pay off more than a slightly quicker line.

As we rounded the first major bend in the river, marking 4 km into the race, our lines converged. Macca, Kenny and I pushed hard around the bend and closed Sam and Cory’s lead. Suddenly, we were all back together and we weren’t just close, we were comically close. Sam was still holding onto the lead, but Cory and Kenny were surfing just one wave back, flanked by Macca and I one wave further back. The top five positions had all converged into a flying V pattern. I could practically touch everyone but Sam with my paddle.

For the next few minutes we stayed in this tight formation. Every move made by one athlete was countered by the other 4. However, because we were all so close, the others were limiting the options of where I could surf and neutralizing my biggest advantage. What’s more, with 5 athletes so close, if we stayed like this to the finish, a simple mistake could see any one of us in 5th place instead of on the podium. I decided to take a gamble. I cut left and surfed into my own water. I knew these waves and I knew I was capable of challenging the others in the surf. It was time to prove it. I put the others out of my mind and just focused on the wave patterns around me.

I settled into a trance, scanning for openings in the waves, pushing when I saw one, then immediately relaxing again after my sprint. I pushed over and over again until I pushed over one too many waves and watched my heart rate peak to 181 beats per minute (bpm). “Calm down,” I told myself, “you are not even half way!” With my lactic threshold at 178 bpm, I knew that a sustained push in the 180s could be catastrophic to my race. I gathered myself on the wave and took the opportunity to check in with my competitors. To my surprise, I was sitting in second. Kenny had come with me on the left line and we had separated ourselves from the group. Cory and Macca were still close on our heels, but we had definitively moved into the lead. What’s more we had reached the point in the race where Kenny, two time defending champion of the Gorge, had made his definitive break for the lead. If I could just hang on to him, I might be able to hold onto this second place.

Gorge Downwind Champs

I surfed over to him, pushing hard to keep in touch. With my adrenaline spiking, I managed to push onto the wave next to Kenny. My momentum kept me moving and, spotting another opening, I sprinted again. I crested over the wave and, wait … I was one wave ahead of Kenny. I looked around stunned. There was no one else around me. I WAS WINNING!!! The thought struck me like a physical blow. For the first time in my life, I was in the lead of a major international race. I almost let out a yell of excitement. It only lasted a second, however, as Kenny jumped up beside me and then skipped ahead. I shook my head to refocus. While leading a race had been a long time goal for me, there were more goals on the table and if I wanted to finally break onto the podium, the half way point was hardly the place to celebrate.

Kenny surged hard again and his one wave lead became two, then three. I looked around and Macca and Cory were right on my heels. “Ok, Austin, focus!,” I hissed to myself. I pushed Kenny from my mind. He was charging ahead to his third Gorge title and that was fine. His lead was no longer my concern. I needed to focus on surfing. And maybe, just maybe, I could hold onto this second place.

I surrendered to the pain of the race and the rhythm of the waves and gave it everything I had. Once again, I forgot my competitors and fell into the trance of downwind surfing. I pushed for every opening, giving my sprints all I had and using every ounce of speed the waves offered. I made no mistakes. I let the kilometers slip by, only registering them as lap beeps on my watch, indicating another had passed.

When I finally did look around, I couldn’t see anyone. From what I could see, none of the top guys were near me. Kenny wasn’t in sight ahead, but at the same time I couldn’t see the athletes behind me. Wait, what was that to my right? I finally spotted a black boat off to my right, “it must be Macca,” I thought and my heart sank. Though we were roughly even, he was maybe a wave ahead and having made up that much ground on me, he was clearly going to leave me behind. I looked over again to check his movement. Wait, that wasn’t Macca, it was Kenny! I had somehow reeled Kenny back in. I was still in this race for the win!

I put my head down and went back to surfing. Every few waves I would look over at Kenny, expecting him to have pulled ahead, but every time I looked he was right there. We held even for the next three kilometers. It was extremely hard to tell who was in first on such radically different lines, but with a bottleneck in the river approaching, we would soon see who was leading.

When our lines finally merged, we were dead even. Kenny looked so strong. It was obvious why he had won this race twice in a row. I was pushing my limit to stay with him, but if I could just hold on, I was less than 16 minutes away from possibly winning. The next three kilometers of racing were surreal. Kenny and I seemed to be perfectly matched. I would push hard and surf ahead, only to have him answer with a surge of his own. We traded the lead back and forth, weaving to the right and left of each other. Each one of us trying to make a move that would solidify a win, neither of us able to shake the other. It looked like we were destined to battle it out to the last seconds of the race.

Gorge Downwind Champs
Gorge Downwind Champs
Gorge Downwind Champs

And then with the race finish in sight, I made the mistake that cost me the race. The media boat that had been following our battle moved up ahead of us. I was focusing on the runs and didn’t pay attention. Kenny, who was aware of his surroundings, pushed hard catching the boat wake and jumping ahead. I had been just behind him, almost tapping his stern and suddenly he was gone. My heart sank.

Gorge Downwind Champs
I am not insinuating in any way that Kenny did the wrong thing. It is my strong belief that surfski racing is all about maximizing any wave that comes your way. I would have absolutely done the same thing in his position and if I wanted that wave, I should have been a) paying attention and b) in the lead to better maximize that wave. I even ended up surfing the media boat wake in the last fifty meters to the finish.

I pushed hard to try and catch back up, but I had run out of waves and time. The conditions flattened out in the last few minutes and Kenny’s dominance could not be denied. He held me off, despite my best effort and I finished 6 seconds back in a close 2nd place.

Though, gutted to have come so close and finish the race just feet away from my first win. I could not have been happier! I had taken the King of the Gorge to the line, held the lead of the Gorge Downwind Champs for the first time in my life, and gone wave for wave in a race battle I will always remember. A huge smile split my face and I claimed it.

Gorge Downwind Champs

Final Results:

  1. Kenny Rice
  2. Austin Kieffer
  3. Cory Hill
  4. Macca Hynard
  5. Sam Norton
  • NAC Classic 2019

    Newport Beach, CA
    February 9th, 2019

  • Maui to Molokai

    April 13, 2019  - 26 miles.

  • Molokai Challenge

    May 26, 2019

  • Canadian Downwind Champs

    Squamish, BC, Canada
    July 13th

  • Gorge Downwind Champs

    Colombia River Gorge, Oregon
    July 15-20, 2019

  • Lighthouse To Lighthouse 2019

    Sept. 14 & 15
    Norwalk, CT

  • Irish Coast Paddling Champs

    TBD Fall 2019