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Kayakers Zach “Bug” Lokken, wearing No. 47, of Durango, Colo., and Liam Jegon, wearing No. 79, of Ireland, carry their kayaks during Friday afternoon practice at Whitewater Park in downtown Wausau. / T’xer Zhon Kha/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

Countries represented in competition

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, United States, Venezuela

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Traffic in downtown Wausau will be crowded during the next week, but it won't be road traffic -- 300 of the world's top young canoers and kayakers are sharing Wausau's waterways for the 2012 Canoe Slalom World Championships.

But the competitors aren't the only ones filling the grounds at Wausau's Whitewater Park. Friday saw coaches, spectators and event volunteers milling around the stands throughout the day.

Caroline Queen, a member of the U.S. under-23 team, said the atmosphere in the days leading up to a competition is usually friendly, and Wausau is no different.

"It never hurts to be around the course atmosphere," she said. "You can see what others are trying, what's working for them and what's not."

In whitewater slalom, paddlers navigate a course made up of numbered gates, which are one or two poles hanging from wires, and they must pass through the gates going either downstream -- the green gates -- or upstream -- the red gates. Paddlers incur time penalties if they touch the poles or go through gates the wrong way. Competitors run the course twice, and the combined times make up their qualifying time. The fastest paddlers make it through to the next round.

Qualification and semifinal rounds run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and finals run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The event is free to attend.

Each competitor gets one hour each day to practice the course, with between 33 and 36 paddlers participating in each session.

That number is higher than Queen, 20, usually sees, but she said the course is large enough that crowding hasn't been an issue.

Aaron Mann, assistant coach for the U.S. junior and under-23 teams, said the training strategy is to start broad and get more specific with each day. That means paddlers will spend their first day getting used to the water, the second doing speed trials, the third going through a full course simulation and so on.

"It's all about trying to learn the water more so than the course," he said. "We don't know the gates until the day of, so we have to be prepared for anything."

But even daily practice can't make perfect, said Brodie Crawford of Perth, Australia. Learning the course isn't rote memorization, he said, as the water and the course can shift with each passing day; paddlers just have to learn all the possible combinations of moves for each feature on the course.

"That's what the sport is," Brodie, 16, said. "It's about who can fix their mistakes quickest."

Brodie and his teammate Daniel Watkins, of Hobart, Australia, are staying with a Wausau family for their two-week visit. They did the same last summer, Daniel, 16, said, and they enjoy coming to Wausau.

"We've already been out to Rib Mountain and went to some watering holes," he said. "We just get to see more and more of it every day."

Queen, who will compete in the Olympics later this summer, said she's glad to be in Wausau, where she can catch up with some of the younger athletes.

"It feels like home," she said. "At least, I'll consider it home for now."

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