Interview with Spanish World Champion Quim Fontane

Reigning Men's K-1 freestyle champ shares thoughts on everything from kayaking to Catalonian politics in episode 37 of the Hammer Factor, presented by C&K

Audio and transcript from John Grace’s HAMMER FACTOR ep 37 interview with Spaniard Quim Fontane, the 2017 Men’s Kayak Freestyle World Champion. Photos and video courtesy BEWOLFISH

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John Grace: Alright our special celebrity guest this week is Quim Fontane from Catalonia, Spain; the current Freestyle World Champion. How are you doing?
Quim Fontane: Well I'm still living in this cloud. Ah, let me stay up there for a few more days. I'm very happy to have accomplished this dream. Um, it's amazing, amazing, a dream come true.

Well congratulations to you on the big win. Before we get into some background on you, walk us through the event itself. Just kind of tell me when you arrive down there, how you were feeling through the heats, a little bit about the spot...
I mean it was the first [freestyle] world championships held in South America, so that was already a big novelty for us. It was just a bit different this year because you need to adapt a little bit to the culture of the country, the driving down there which is a bit dodgy, and I think the climate also played a huge role there because it was so hot since we were right in the middle of a big desert. I basically got there three weeks before the competition started. I really wanted to make sure that I really knew the feature once the competition kicked off, so I think that was one of the keys. The hole was really good.

Just a quick reminder to anyone who is listening: this was a hole competition, a hole event, unlike the last world championships on the Ottawa River. So, things were a little different. I think the contenders also a little bit different. Just a few novelties there...

As I was saying, the spot was really good. It was world class. All the tricks were possible. It was amazing, really good. Everyone was expecting to see really good rides and huge scores. The atmosphere prior to the event was great. Everyone was smiling, people was chilling there in Argentina. It was so good!

Nice. When you say the "driving was a bit dodgy", what do you mean?
I mean it is one of this... I don't know if you've been to Uganda, so it would be halfway between [driving] in Europe and Uganda. It's not as bad as Uganda but still you had to take of you and take care for the others, you know?

Yeah.
So that's what I meant.

No, no, I fully got you. So, looking at a spot like this as a competitor, what's your style for setting up a ride? Are you going for your biggest tricks first? Are you warming up and getting a few things out of the way? What's your style for putting up a big score, which you obviously did?
Well what I like to do is to get to the final. Every competition that I go to, I really want be alive to compete until the very last day. What I kind of did was to stay conservative during the prelims, quarters, and semis. I was just making sure that I was landing solid rides, maybe not my best rides just because it is so risky and the level [of competition] is so high right now that you make one mistake and you're out. I really wanted to make sure I was making it through the cuts. So, I don't know, I just wanted to go step-by-step, still have some pretty good scores. I was happy, but I don't know, I don't know... It's, it's risky as well because if you don't do very well from the very beginning, people go like "Hmm maybe he's not doing as well as he should be doing" so they kind of, I don't know... But anyway, this was my strategy. And then my style, I don't know if you've seen any rides or if people have seen any of my rides, but I think my style is about fluidity and going really fast between the tricks. I would say this is what defines me. Maybe I don't go as big as others but I go fast and score lots of moves in 45 seconds, so that is key for me.

Give me some perspectives on some of the athletes and some of the rounds. Who were you worried about, if anyone, and how was it shaping up through the week-long competition?
Of course, the guy to beat was and still is Dane Jackson. I mean, he has won three world championships in a row, one as a junior man and two as a senior, so he was definitely the guy to beat. He not only won the worlds in Ottawa on a wave, he also had won here in the US in a hole. All-around, I would say he's the best paddler out there, so I knew he was the guy to beat. And then you also had a few of the Europeans who are paddling really well these days, especially the guys from England who are training in Nottingham. Those guys are really, really strong right now. Maybe they have struggled in the past with pressure but they were really switched on this time and you could tell they would make it all the way. Then, you know, the Frenchies are always there, the Polish guys... I mean, what was different about these worlds was that so many people were ready to take them back home. So that what is made those roads exciting in my opinion because at the last [worlds], to be fair, Dane stayed in for almost all the competition. I think Nick [Troutman] may have won the quarters, I'm not too sure, but [Dane] was a long way ahead. This time, it was closer. Even in the preliminary rounds, quarters, it was slightly closer. [Dane] was in the lead for all the preliminary rounds but you could tell that something could happen.

Yeah, I definitely noticed watching that the field was deeper. You know, you'll watch and you will be like "Oh it's going to be one of those two or three guys", but here it was like everyone had a shining moment.
Yeah, I mean every time that we go to one of these competitions with the Spanish team we also do a bet on the people who is going to be in the Final for each category, for each class and we didn't manage to get a full top-5 for any of the categories. This time it was really, really to know who would make it, who would not make it, and even for the top spot it was quite hard.

Well obviously freestyle is, I would say and correct me if I'm wrong, your expertise in the sport of kayaking. What is something that our listeners may not know about freestyle kayaking?
About freestyle kayaking? I don't know, it depends on what listeners you've got ... They are probably creek boaters or... I mean it's a really technical sport and I think the people kind of don't understand is that it has evolved in the last few years. It used to be something for really technical paddlers to show off in the past. In my opinion it has gotten way more... I would not say professional but you know it kind of started to... I don't know how to say it… It took that way... I don't know how to say it

Would you say that it has gotten more athletic? It requires more athleticism?
Yeah let's say that you need to really focus on training to be able to be on top. So, it has definitely gotten more serious and then I think that is why some people are feeling like... I don't know... like they are putting some more distance between freestyle and themselves because first, I mean, kayaking has always been about having as much fun as you can and, you know, enjoying yourself and so on. I mean we still have fun but we do train really hard for it and I think that's something that... Maybe that's why in the last few some people are a bit skeptical about this way freestyle has taken. I don't know... I don't know... This is the feeling that I get as an athlete being in the freestyle scene, you know?

Well I think as long as you're stoked, in the end, that's all that matters. What other styles of paddling do you do? When I was preparing for this interview, I looked on your Facebook page and you've got a shot of you dropping into a big wave. What other kinds of paddling do you do? Where do you go?
I mean, I ... I don't consider myself to be a freestyler or like a creek boater. I'm just a kayaker and I like all the different disciplines involved with kayaking. I'm a huge fan of creeking. I love big waves. To be honest, I think there is nothing like big wave kayaking and it is the most fun you can have out there. The problem is that here in Europe, we have short seasons creeking and we don't have that many big waves. So, most of the time I'd probably be classified as a "rat-hole." You know, I am hanging out in the holes all day long... This is the only thing we have... To be fair, I honestly prefer to be in Uganda or Canada running those big waves, but man I'm not a professional. I am studying at the same time as I am kayaking. As I was telling you before, I'm studying for my masters in sports management in the UK and once you're done studying for the day you go to the closest place you've got or place you've got water and normally and likely this is going to be a whitewater park with tiny features. It's still fun and it's what we can do. I would... I would... I would rather be, you know, shredding those big waves in northern Quebec or in Uganda all year long, but I can do that during my vacations. The rest of the time is "rat hole."

I hear you. You've got to do what you've got to do. Tell me about the boats. What was everybody paddling? What kind of boat where you paddling? What materials and, like, top-10? Was everyone in composites? How did it look?
It's still 50-50 with materials. Some categories you saw lots of carbon, especially in the senior men, but for example Tom Delay, one of the best athletes I would say in this world, he won the junior category in a plastic boat. Right now, I would say that the market is pretty much divided in two brands. There's Jackson Kayak of course leading the market and then there is this little brand from southern France, which I'm actually working for, Guigui Pro. This guy only does carbon boats and basically what I'm doing for him is I help him shape the boats, I just test those boats... I know we've been working on the last shape for a whole year and I was the only one paddling the new shape: the Guigui Alex 2018. The idea behind it is that he wanted someone to prove this boat worked really well and he wanted to get a good result with that... and he's pretty stoked because he... I think he had some confidence that I would do well but probably he didn't think that I would win, so he's really stoked and I am as well because I have been working for him for a while and, I think it was in the semifinals of the K-1 men, there were like seven of these boats in the semis and only like three Jacksons. It means that the whole freestyle community and especially the top paddlers are really liking those boats, so I could not be happier about the work that I'm doing with these guys.

How do you spell that company and where can we find out more about it
Yes, Guigui: G-U-I-G-U-I again. And Pro: P-R-O. As I was telling you, it's all about carbon. It's customized. To be honest, I feel really thankful that I'm working for this guy because he is kind of a magician. He builds out of his workshop by himself and all his work is handmade, so every boat he does is like a piece of art. You know, like one of these katanas that... I don't know... I don't know... It's really cool to be able to work for him.

That is really cool. Well currently, Quim, you're sitting on the top of the world. You're the world champion but I'm sure it's not always been that way. Fill in our listeners with a low point, that point where you're like ‘Man, I got to hang up the towel and get rid of this kayak and do something else with my life ... ‘
I'm still at this point kind of. It gets a bit frustrating because you would like to make a living out of this sport and it's still hard. But I think, just like any paddler on the earth, we are doing this because we love it and that's what really counts. So, I don't know... My lowest point would be when I went to worlds in 2013 in the US. I didn't even make semis ... I didn't do well at all and I really thought about quitting because it's quite a lot of effort if you want to be at the top. You need to be traveling quite a lot all the time and everything comes out of your pocket. So there was this low point but, to be honest, I have always enjoyed it and it's not something I need to force myself to do. I go training because I love it and as long as I love it I will keep doing it.

How about that "ah ha" moment when you knew you could be the world champion? When was there a period when you hit? When you finally got that confidence?I'm still at this point kind of. It gets a bit frustrating because you would like to make a living out of this sport and it's still hard. But I think, just like any paddler on the earth, we are doing this because we love it and that's what really counts. So, I don't know... My lowest point would be when I went to worlds in 2013 in the US. I didn't even make semis... I didn't do well at all and I really thought about quitting because it's quite a lot of effort if you want to be at the top. You need to be traveling quite a lot all the time and everything comes out of your pocket. So there was this low point but, to be honest, I have always enjoyed it and it's not something I need to force myself to do. I go training because I love it and as long as I love it I will keep doing it.
I have to say that I've been quite confident that one day I would make it there. I started kayaking when I was 9, freestyle when I was 12, and with the rest of the guys in my club we always had that dream. To be fair, of course we were realistic and you see that step-by-step you kind of get closer and closer. But maybe the time when I saw it was possible was when I jumped from being a junior to being a senior. When I was 18 and on that year I won the Europeans and I think that had never happened before, that someone who just arrived to the senior category won. I have to say that I was super lucky there. There was no way I was going to win but I got super lucky to win, but it was probably there when I saw that maybe if I put in a little bit more effort... That's actually why I decided to move from Spain to the UK so I could train every day and get ready for this competition, knowing that maybe it was my last chance because from now on I finished my studies then I need to get a job. I don't know how things would go for me the next few years... I don't know if I'll have the time to continue training but I know it's done already, so I'm happy for that.

What's the best advice you've ever received about paddling? About kayaking? If you could give a little bit of advice to one aspiring paddler who's listening to this podcast, what bit of advice would you give them?
I would tell them to get rid of the ‘if.’ You know the ‘if I had done that ...’ What I mean is have no excuses. I think that the most important thing for, not becoming a world champion but for progressing with your kayaking, is to have no excuses. Go out anytime you can, get stoked.  When it rains, go out and explore. I'm a big fan of freestyle but the most exciting days here back home in Catalonia is when it rains and when I go out to find new runs in a creek boat. Those are the most exciting days of kayaking out there. I think it's about getting stoked about kayaking and finding the motivation all the time.

You can do so many things with kayaking: you can go creek boating, you can surf waves in the sea, you can do freestyle in waves and holes, you can even go sea kayaking if you want and enjoy the abuse. It's such a rich sport that I will never get bored. I think that being able to fall

In love with the sport over and over again is what will keep you progressing and will keep your fire burning for this thing that we love.

There you go. So, don't make any excuses and keep the fire burning. I like that.
Exactly.

Photo: Peter Holcombe

Alright, what has you the most fired up these days? You just got done with the world championships. I'm sure you're going to do TV interviews and you got surprise family dinners at your party, but what has you the most fired up these days?
I'm a guy who, I don't know how you say it ... I do not live in the clouds. I know that this is only going to last a few days, but after that I will be the same as ever and this will not change me at all. I'm a guy who really likes to set goals for himself and one of those goals could be... I know... I don't think anyone has ever been able to become world champion in freestyle and extreme kayaking, this is something no one has achieved yet. Maybe one of the future objectives would be to train for Sickline from now on and see if I can do well there. I'm feeling ready for a change. I would like to explore a little bit more, start to do some more expeditions, go to places that no one has been before.

In freestyle I'll train as well because these days we have been losing so many good spots. The Zambezi is going to be flooded real soon, same with the Nile. So, we need to find these new paradises that I'm sure are hiding somewhere in the globe. I'd be stoked to get a team together and start exploring a little bit more.

Okay, so most fired up about doing some exploration.
Yeah.

Super rad. Well I know that you have some stuff going on there in Catalonia. Do you have any parting thoughts or anything that you would like to share before we finish our interview here?
In that sense, I think it is quite easy to understand. Here in Catalonia we want to be able to decide about our future. We want to have a referendum as they had in Scotland. We want to be able to say if we want to keep being a part of Spain or not. As we are democrats and we love democracy, we will accept any of the results that we get. The problem right now is that we are not being allowed to vote. They are saying "no, you cannot vote, you cannot vote, you cannot decide about your future." I think this is not fair for us and that people should be able to decide, have the freedom to decide where is this country going. We only want to vote and that's it. We tried to do that and the response of the Spanish government was to come with sticks and start hitting us. The message I would like to give is that hitting people like this will never convince anyone, so let's get back to the table and talk about it. Let's try to get an agreement and let the people decide what they want to be.

Does it look like there is going to be any kind of votes or any kind of change on the front there?
Basically, what has happened now is that half of our government was put in jail and our president is now in Brussels hiding because the Spanish government wants to put him in jail as well. That's the situation right now. It's crazy that there are people in jail for their political ideas in Europe in this century. I hope that the Spanish government just goes back to the democratic way. I think this is what they should do.

I heard a quote the other day that you have to constantly maintain democracy as it can be very fragile.
It is.

We're in a crazy time here in the States too, so...
Oh yeah!

… In a way I feel you.
I'm following it and I really can't believe what's going on. I'm sure you guys will eventually put everything together and it's going to be fine for you. I'm waiting for that change and I'm hoping you can make it happen.

Well thank you for coming on the Hammer Factor and that was really good. Really good insights. Quim Fontane, am I saying that right?
Yes, you are.

Great. Alright, thank you so much and I hope to see you on the river someday. You're going to have to come and compete in the Green River Narrows Race.
That's on the wish list for sure. I'll be coming one day for sure. I'm very good friends with Eric Deguil so maybe I can join him and pop up. It would be amazing.

I organize that race, so if you come over, I'll put the red carpet out for you.
Awesome. Thank you for that. You'll have to help me down because it gets so tricky, right? There's so many lines, you really have to know where you're going or you could end up in a bad place. Maybe a couple of runs with you before the event would be good.

Oh yeah. You should come over for at least a week. Ten days is what Eric does and it works for him.
Those boats are so long for me. I'm not sure how I'd do in them … I don't know... Willing to see.

You'll figure it out quicker than you think. Thanks for coming on the Hammer Factor and have a great day.
Thanks for inviting me. I'll see you on the river.

See Quim in action in this highlight reel courtesy of BEWOLFISH:


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