The film “Chasing Niagara” will run in German theaters until the end of August. It follows Mexican Rafa Ortiz in his daring plan to plunge down the Niagara Falls with a kayak – and shows why Ortiz pulled out at the last moment. ISPO.com spoke with the Mexican athlete about the project.
ISPO.com: Mr. Ortiz, you planned out the project for three years, prepared with visits to huge waterfalls in Mexico, Brazil, Oregon, and Washington – and yet the night before the final jump, decided against becoming the first person to plunge down the 53-meter high Niagara Falls. What has happened since then?
Rafa Ortiz: First, I had a serious hangover, for a couple of years in fact. A year ago the motivation to advance my paddling career came back. At the moment, I’m more motivated than ever before. We invested so much time and commitment into this project that everything then seemed like “what came after.” Since then, I’ve practically begun a new career.
We had shot three years, withheld all of the footage for the film, didn’t post any of it on Facebook or Instagram. And now when I visit a crazy waterfall, I can finally do it again, can talk about it, swap ideas with others.
On D-Day, you shared your decision with the 15-person crew. Difficult, right?
Sure, it was damn hard. The closer D-Day came, the more the pressure rose. The last month was really difficult, the last week was almost unbearable. My whole life flashed in front of my eyes those last few days. I no longer have any idea what I did in the month afterward. I went home to Mexico and tried to chill out a bit.
I’m sure your parents were relieved...
My father, yeah, my mother never knew anything about it.
You didn’t tell her anything?
Not a word. She would have suffered too much. I did definitely go to the Niagara Falls ten or 20 times, and each time I lied to her and told her that I had to go to meetings in Toronto or paddle around somewhere with friends.
And your father had to keep quiet...
Exactly. But my mother was the first person I called after the cancellation: “Mom, you don’t know anything about it, but I wanted to go down the Niagara Falls...” She said, “I knew that you were planning something crazy!”
The film is dedicated to Juanito and Lou. Who are they?
Close friends from Peru and New Zealand who recently died kayaking. Even though our sport is so extreme, the casualty figures are relatively low. It’s a relatively safe sport, compared to base jumpers or mountain bikers. I’ve been paddling for 15 years, and the two of them were the first friends that I’ve lost.
It was also close in the film: Your Spanish teammate was only able to be resuscitated at the very last second...
That was the first time that I thought, ‘Wow, now it’s time.’ You always think about it, know that it can happen, practice it countless times on a plastic dummy. But when I saw him lying there on the rocks so lifeless...We were damn lucky that he came back, after four minutes. At some point I didn’t care if I were to break his ribs. And then he suddenly takes a deep breath – it was like a miracle.
The images from his GoPro camera from when he drifted lifelessly underwater are grim.
Crazy, right? We shortened the clip for the film. The complete recording is ten minutes long, and if you watch all the way through it’ll make your blood run cold. You empathize with what he’s going through, see his motionless hand in the water for minutes, a little leaf that slowly floats by, everything in a horrible silence.
When we then resuscitated him, we pulled off his helmet along with the camera – and in our panic put it down in such a way that we documented the fight for survival. That was by far the craziest day of my life.
Did that moment influence your decision not to travel the Niagara Falls?
Not really, maybe together with several other experiences, on the Sahalie Falls for example. My heaviest near-death experience. Ice-cold, very fast-moving water that takes the energy out of your body in seconds. I almost lost that fight against the river.
It was all part of this life-changing journey, the maturing process that I went through during those three years. In the end, it’s not really about traveling the Niagara Falls, but about learning something about life – and about friendship.
What do you mean by that?
Me at 22, there, and at 25: those were two completely different people. I still believe that you can successfully travel the Niagara Falls in a kayak. I didn’t back out because it’s impossible, but rather because something in me changed. The waterfall doesn’t change, but I do. At first it was an egocentric Rafa project, and it lasted until I realized that there were still other people involved.
To what extent?
It was clear that the whole thing would be illegal. I needed two guys at the foot of the Falls to spring me out – they would dead certain have been arrested. If I were to have died in the attempt, both of them would probably have gone to jail for the rest of their lives for criminal negligence.
One week before D-Day, I once again made it clear to them that they could become criminals because of me, and they just said, “Cool, man. We’re with you.” That was the point that made me rethink things. Made me realize that it wasn’t just about me.
In the end, you at first seem like an anti-hero who didn’t make it happen, but ultimately like a hero, in another sense. How did your main sponsor react?
I’ve been a Red Bull athlete for seven or eight years, their reaction was unbelievable. Red Bull is a brand, it’s about the business, sure. But I as an athlete negotiate with individuals, with people. When I called them up there was a very warm response, “Relax!” Even beforehand, it was always, “Rafa, up to the very last minute: it’s your decision.”
Many people always think that Red Bull encouraged us to this these crazy things. But it’s my idea, which I would also to happy to pursue without Red Bull.
The film also appeared without the final climax; you’re still a Red Bull athlete...
Yes, I had already pictured my success scenario to myself. That I would come back as a hero. I had to digest that for a while. After that, my message to the next generation was a different one. Although I wasn’t successful, I was definitely successful – just in a different way than I had imagined. If you pursue a goal so obsessively, you don’t realize lots of other things at all.
Nevertheless, you don’t have the Felix Baumgartner problem: He can’t top his jump out of the stratosphere. What are your next projects?
Oh, there are so many! For several years I’ve only dedicated myself to one project, but now I have an absurd number of other ideas: Developing technology, discovering new places, snow kayaking in Washington, traveling the flooded streets of Barranquilla, kayaking the Jaws waves in Hawaii, an underground canyon in China, and I have to finally try out kite kayaking. I’m eager to see if it will work at all.
Your life philosophy?
Die exhausted! So, better to die tired than bored. That’s the biggest fear in my life. Why sit at home and stare at the TV when you can go out into nature and do incredible things!
The 29-year-old is not just considered a kayaking legend in South America. In the Atlantic city of Veracruz, Ortiz learned to paddle – in Canada, he perfected his skills and in 2005 became the first Mexican to participate in a kayak freestyle world championship. In 2012, the Red Bull athlete was the second person (after Tyler Brandt) to overcome the 57-meter-high Palouse Waterfall in the USA – a world record!