There are plenty of whitewater paddlers who talk big, but former-Olympian Jeff Larimer isn’t one of them. Quiet and unassuming, he lets his paddle do the talking.
The U.S. Olympic Committee was listening because it selected Larimer, who now lives in Moscow, Idaho, for the whitewater slalom team at the 2012 Games in London. Only five paddlers were chosen for the American squad: two kayakers, a solo canoeist – and Larimer and his longtime friend, Eric Hurd, in a tandem canoe.
Paddling a boat that looks like a skimpy, two-hole kayak, Larimer and Hurd faced the world’s best slalom racers in London. They charged downriver, dodging hydraulic holes, squirming past slalom gates, always accelerating, always digging for more power and speed.
They didn’t win a medal, but they competed in the Olympic Games. They were, as Teddy Roosevelt memorably put it, in the arena.
“Our confidence was at an all-time high,” Larimer says wistfully, “but that course in London was a little too much for us.” The whitewater venue in Lee Valley, near London, “was probably the hardest course we’d ever paddled. There were no landmarks, and it was really pushing our limits.”
For his part, Hurd has nothing but praise for his partner in the back of the boat.
“Jeff’s a wizard, that’s for sure,” says Hurd, who lives in Gastonia, North Carolina. “He just has that intuition for the water. He always picks a line that makes us flow really well and he can sure put the boat where he wants it.
“There’s some people who just make it look easy and Jeff is one of them.”
Even casual boaters recognize Larimer’s ability. Tyler Nash, owner of the White Pine Gear Exchange in Moscow, paddled the wilderness section of the Selway River with him. The river was thumping and Nash was a little edgy, so Larimer led the way and pointed out the safest line through every rapid.
“I felt really safe with him out front, that’s for sure,” Nash says. “He’s insanely skilled.”
In the Olympics? Really?
Larimer, now 33, does not look like an Olympic athlete. At 6 feet 2 inches and 170 pounds, he cuts a rangy, rather than athletic figure. Instead of bulging arms and chiseled shoulders, he has a shaggy head of hair and a full beard. A dangerous intellectual, maybe. But a world-class athlete? Probably not.
Thanks to his appearance, Larimer blends in easily at the University of Idaho, where he just completed a master’s degree and is now pursuing a doctorate in fluvial geomorphology – the study of how streams and rivers change the landscapes through which they flow.
He and his girlfriend, Caroline Miller, live a few blocks from campus and generally walk or ride their bikes around town. There’s a stack of boats leaning up against the fence in their backyard, but they go unused most of the year.
Larimer’s racing days, and the total commitment they demand, are behind him now – and he knows it. Asked if he misses barnstorming around the race circuit in North America and Europe, he says, “Yeah, part of me does, but there were times when I was doing it that I wished I was doing something else.”
In the beginning
Like most of America’s top slalom racers, Larimer grew up in the southeastern United States; his hometown of Marietta, Georgia is 20 miles north of Atlanta, not far from the wonderfully-named Chattahoochee River. Larimer must have inherited some talent from his father, Mike Larimer, who came within a whisker of qualifying for the whitewater team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The senior Larimer went on to coach the U.S. national team during the 1990s – including the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
“My Dad started kayaking with his buddies after they saw the movie “Deliverance,” Larimer says with a grin, adding that his father got serious about slalom racing in the late 1970s. In fact, Larimer’s father and Hurd’s father occasionally paddled together on the Chattahoochee long before their sons joined forces.
There must be something in the water down there because the southeast produced four of the five Americans on the 2012 Olympic team; the fifth hails from Washington, D.C.
“The southeast gets a lot more rain and you can paddle year-round. There’s a lot more paddling opportunities,” Larimer explains. “Here in Idaho, I pretty much have to wait for late spring snowmelt to paddle anywhere nearby.”
Growing up, Larimer played a lot of soccer before getting serious about whitewater at age 15.
“At the time, there was a pretty good group of kids my age in the Atlanta area,” he says, “so every day, we’d drive down to the river and my Dad would coach us.”
The gang consisted of about a dozen kids in their early teens, Larimer says, “and out of that group, three of us went on to become Olympians.”
Thanks to years of rigorous training and racing on the World Cup circuit in Europe, Larimer has been one of America’s elite slalom canoeists for a long time. The timeline is a little ragged, but he was on the U.S. national team from 1999-2008, from 2011-2012, and again in 2014.
In 2004, he and his then-partner almost qualified for the tandem canoe (C2) spot at the Olympic Games in Athens; shortly afterward, his partner retired from competitive paddling. So Larimer jumped into a solo canoe (C1) and was narrowly edged out by a childhood friend for the lone C1 berth at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“At that point, I thought I was pretty much done” with competitive paddling, he admits. He enrolled at Georgia State University in Atlanta and began working towards a bachelor’s degree in geology.
But Larimer couldn’t quench the competitive fires within. He enrolled for classes in fall semester only, and then every spring, it was off to Europe to train with the U.S. national team.
After college graduation in 2011, “Eric and I figured we’d jump in the C2 and see how well we’d do together,” Larimer says.
Turns out they did pretty well. With his short, powerful build, Hurd was the perfect complement to Larimer’s long, lean physique. The fact that they were longtime friends didn’t hurt, either.
“We know each other so well that it’s basically silence (during a race), and we just read each other’s movements,” Hurd says. “He can pick up on where I’m trying to lead the boat, and it all comes down to reading the water and reading your partner.”
Shortly after joining forces, Larimer and Hurd won the U.S. National Championships. After that, they campaigned their C2 on the World Cup circuit in Europe.
It was exciting, but the commitment was all-consuming and left time for little else. Their hard work was rewarded with a steady rise in the rankings and, in their first season together, they raced in the World Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia.
They were good and getting better, Larimer says, “So at that point, our goal was the Olympics.”
With their eyes firmly on the prize, Larimer and Hurd opted not to go to Europe in the spring of 2012. Instead, they focused on three critical races.
The first was in March, 2012 at the Pan American Games in Brazil. The venue was near one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls – Iguazu Falls.
“We won there,” Larimer says, clearly savoring the memory. “That was probably my best race ever. It really clicked there.”
In addition to boosting their ranking, Larimer and Hurd’s gold medal at the Pan American Games caught the attention of the International Canoe Federation. Their victory qualified the U.S. to enter a C2 boat in the 2012 London Olympics.
At that point, the question became: Who would be in that boat?
With a C2 berth guaranteed in London, a long-time American team came out of retirement and began to turn up the heat. “These were guys I’d always looked up to,” Larimer says. “They’re a few years older than me, some of my best friends, but they made us a little bit nervous.”
The next big race was in April, 2012 at the U.S. National Championships in Charlotte, North Carolina. Larimer and Hurd won that race, too, which gave them a formidable lead on points and made them clear favorites for the Olympic berth.
But there was one more race, in June, in Cardiff, Wales. It was the opening fixture on the World Cup calendar and two other American boats were in the field, hoping Larimer and Hurd would stumble.
“There was a lot of tension in the air,” Larimer says, “because in these races, we’re only beating each other by a second.” One slip, even a gentle nudge on one of the slalom gates, and their Olympic dream could sink like a stone.
“The way they (USA Canoe/Kayak officials) set up the points system, it all came down to Wales,” he says. All three US boats qualified for the semifinals, separated by mere fractions of a second.
Larimer and Hurd finished 9th in the semifinals, which put them into the 10-boat final heat. More significantly, neither of their American rivals qualified for the final – so Larimer and Hurd were guaranteed a higher finish.
“That was a pretty surreal moment,” Larimer says, “knowing we were going to London.”
No more Top Ramen
“At that point, we were on the Olympic train,” Larimer says with a gleam in his eye. For the first time in his paddling career, money wasn’t an issue. At that point, Larimer was living like an aquatic rockstar.
“So we basically spent that summer in Europe, just to train.”
When they finally arrived at the Lee Valley White Water Centre, just outside London, Larimer and Hurd were staggered by the biggest crowd they’d ever seen at a slalom race. The pressure was intense, and Larimer struggled to maintain his composure in the starting gate.
They were a little shaky through the first couple of gates but settled into a smooth rhythm and ran the crux section cleanly.
“That first run felt really smooth, really decent, but they (the judges) said we had three touches,” Larimer says, adding, “We only remember one touch.” Slalom judges assess a 2-second penalty every time a boat, paddle or paddler bumps into a gate, so a few inadvertent touches can torpedo a winning run.
U.S. officials appealed the judges’ decision, but the appeal was denied.
Two hours later, on their second run, Larimer and Hurd were hesitant and a little slower on the top third of the course. They had a touch in the crux section, Larimer says, “and it didn’t feel great at the finish.”
In the end, Larimer and Hurd finished 12th in their qualifying heat, which wasn’t enough to reach the final. Paddling on their home course, British boats finished 1-2, while the bronze went to a pair of Slovakian brothers who collected winner’s medals in 2000, 2004, and 2008.
Larimer and Hurd didn’t win Olympic gold in 2012, but they left with heads held high. Unlike the rest of us, they were in the arena.
“We were only together for two seasons,” Hurd says, his words laced with melancholy, “and two seasons is not that long in the C2.
“If we could’ve stayed together, we’d just be getting better and better.”
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