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River tests even the top paddlers in Phatwater Challenge

John and Karen Wellens paddle past the Mississippi River bridge as they near the finish line Saturday afternoon for the 11th annual Phatwater Kayak Challenge. The Wellens placed seventh overall. (Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — The might of the Mississippi River tested even the most seasoned paddlers Saturday morning during the 11th Phatwater Kayak Challenge.

Even veterans like 12-time world champion, and South Africa native, Oscar Chalupsky, who made his first trip to Natchez, had to fight the river for even a solid finish. Chalupsky competed with rowing-partner Eric Wyble, and the two were the first team to cross the finish line.

“I was very happy, we did well and won the tandem,” Chalupsky said about his performance with the man he met just before the competition. “This event is very well organized, and Natchez is a lovely place to come to paddle.”

Chalupsky competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and most recently won the master division of the Molokai World Championships and finished second overall.

Wyble, a plastic surgeon from Pass Christian, earned the opportunity to share the tandem craft with Chalupsky by winning a bid, and the four-time Phatwater competitor said it was his best one yet.

“It was incredible,” Wyble said. “It was 42 miles of paddling experience with the master. This one was my most memorable (Phatwater).”

Wyble called Chalupsky his “engine” Saturday morning.

Austin Kieffer splashes himself after being the first to cross the finish line Saturday afternoon during the Phatwater Kayak Challenge. Kieffer kayaked the 42-mile race in four hours and 21 minutes. (Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

Wyble and Chalupsky beat almost all the other Phatwater contestants to Natchez Under the Hill Saturday, but 23-year-old Austin Kieffer beat everyone to the finish line.

“It was a great feeling (to win),” the Asheville, N.C., native said. “The top competitors were in good form, and it was a great race that I was fortunate enough to have a good bit of gas at the end and push to the finish.”

Kieffer, who has been competiting with the U.S. National Whitewater Slalom team, said he started his training for distance competitions this summer, and Phatwater was a great experience for him.

“The challenge was the distance and the heat,” he said. “It was an amazing race, but it’s long and coming into the finish it was hot and humid.”

Kieffer, who finished with a time of four hours, 21 minutes and 54 seconds, said there were some serene moments as well that made the effort memorable.

“It’s beautiful, and the river is so big,” he said. “What really struck me most was the size and shear volume of the water in the river. It was incredibly beautiful at dawn when the water was really still, and you saw the river going for miles.”

Erik Borgnes finished second at 4:24:13, and event-veteran Joe Glickman finished third with a time of 4:24:31.

Event organizer Keith Benoist said he knew the conditions Saturday were challenging for all the paddlers.

“(The river) is eating them alive,” he said.

Paddlers faced approximately 25-mph winds the last half of the race, and Benoist said the high winds, more than the low river level, were making things difficult for the contestants.

Florida resident, and Australia-native, Gary Wise thanked Benoist for inviting him just after he finished the 42-mile trek, but then also cursed him for getting him involved in a competition that took so much out of him.

“This is definitely an event people should put down on their paddle bucket list,” Wise said. “It’s something I wanted to have a go at, but I wish there had been less wind.”

Benoist said the Phatwater is starting to see more competitive paddlers like Chalupsky and Kieffer, but the event still draws a community of long-time participants.

“It’s people doing things outdoors without hook and bullet,” he said. “I love to hunt and fish, but with this it’s great exercise, and the river is so vast it gets a grip (on the paddlers).”

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