History of the Worlds

1991: Bitches Tidal Bore, Wales, England

Conception: The first World Rodeo Championship is the brainchild of Andy Middleton, who sketches out the event on a road trip across Northern Europe to paddle in the first Fast Water Festival on the Sweden-Finland border.

The Bitches: The Bitches are well known to playboaters and sea kayakers as some of the best whitewater in Britain. At high tide the water is channelled between Ramsey Island and the Welsh mainland and rushes over a shallow reef in the channel. They are called The Bitches because of the shipwrecks they have caused.The Bitches are a half-mile off shore and difficult to predict accurately, so paddlers camp on the island and paddle in the morning and evening to catch The Bitches at their best.

RSVP: There were two selection events held in the UK but most other competitors, including paddlers from Germany, USA, Finland and New Zealand, arrive as invitees. 

All in the Same Boat: Competition includes whitewater sprint, rodeo, squirt, wave and extreme slalom complete with committing seal launch. Competitors all used the same model of boat for each discipline. Scores are weighted and totalled.

An Offer He Can’t Refuse: Germany’s Jan Kellner, nicknamed the “Godfather of Rodeo” becomes the first world freestyle champion and is still considered the most successful rodeo paddler in Europe. Kellner goes on to design the revolutionary Diablo for Eskimo. 

Stunt Boating: The event was called the World Stunt Boat Championships. “We’d been calling events ‘rodeos,’ and figured that it would confuse anyone who wasn’t familiar with kayaking,” says Middleton. One of stunt boating’s big moves is to stand up and sit down while front surfing. 

While You Were Sleeping: Although billed as the first international freestyle event, many still don’t consider The Bitches to be the first Worlds, mostly because the world didn’t hear about it until it was over.

Tequila: The Bitches event continues for seven years, culminating in a Jose Curervo party at which 140 boaters drink 10 cases of tequila in two days. 

1993: Hell Hole, Ocoee River, Tennessee USA

This is the Tail of the Hurricane: In 1993, the Prijon Hurricane is the boat to beat. The Perception Super Sport and Dagger Transition are designed and built in composite and revealed just days before for this event, marking the first time in history kayakers design boats for freestyle…and manufacturers build them.

Now That’s Funny: The 10-foot, 62-gallon Transition is considered by many to be too close to a squirt boat and is almost banned from the competition. 

Technically Speaking: A meeting with international paddlers results in a technical score being added to the style score just before the event. Totally vertical ends are worth three points, elevated ends are worth two and flat spins worth one.

Combined Event: Competition includes both hole riding in Hell Hole and freestyle through a rapid at Entrance Rapids. Freestyle through a rapid requires that competitors establish surfs and do various other rock moves and tricks while moving down the river. Only a few competitors complete the entire course; slalom paddlers excel in this event. 

You’re Cut Off: Moments before finals, using river knives, open canoeists hack deck plates off their MohawkViper 11s to achieve bigger enders and pirouettes, the winning OC moves.

Splitting Heirs: Eric Jackson says he created the split wheel two days before the event and uses it to beat American slalom paddler Scott Shipley in the hole-riding event taking gold overall. The split wheel scored the same technical score as cartwheels but more style. Scott Shipley comes second and Shane Benedict third.

Birth: The very first Ocoee rodeos were held at Double Trouble, then by ’83 they were held at Second Helping. The Hell Hole and the ’93 World Championships are considered the birth of whitewater freestyle as we know it. 

1995: Augsburg, Germany

Lucky Lederhosen: Augsburg’s Eiskanal was the slalom course for the 1972 Munich Olympics, is Germany’s only artificial whitewater course and is home of the play hole, Washing Machine. The event is sponsored by Mercedes and the most organized to date. The opening ceremonies involve a guy in lederhosen cracking huge whips. Cool.

Hometown Favourite: Linking a cartwheel has become the norm. Ollie Grau of Germany wins with a 10-pointer in a Dagger Blast. Corran Addison is second in a prototype Fury, a boat he says is the first planing hull design, and Donald Calder from New Zealand is third. 

Less Style: The style score is lowered to lessen the subjective aspect of the score; so now based more on objective scoring.

No Kidding: The 9.5-foot Blast is the first in a long line of kids’ or small paddlers’ boats used by big adults to win freestyle events. Recommended paddler weight range: 50–135 lbs; high performance rodeo use range: 50–200 lbs. 

Sisterhood Falls: A group of American women try to make a pact that no female shall try cartwheels, because they consider it a “power thing and really only for men.” Jamie Simon tells them to shove it and throws a cartwheel to win gold.

Cut Down Ocoees: The art of cutting open canoes in half begins. Uwe Fischer lands the first open boat cartwheel in a world competition in a cut down Ocoee to win the event. 

1997: Horseshoe, Ottawa River, Ontario Canada

Bling-Bling: Height of pro team support. Team Perception rolls up in a pimped-out white stretched limo complete with RV support/party vehicle.

Local Hero: Ken Whiting walks out the front door of his rented cabin at McCoy’s Rapid and wins the Worlds in a Perception 3-D with 35 vertical ends, beating Eric Jackson’s 34 ends. Kenny Mutton takes third paddling very differently—everyone else is throwing ends from the top of the foam pile, Mutton hucks from everywhere.

Rules Overruled: There are three features to use, including two holes and a wave. The event organizers Mark Scriver and Corran Addison propose rule changes that would double the scoring for moves done on a wave, for example, a spin would score one in a hole but two points on a wave. Team leaders meet and vote down the proposed changes only a week before the event. 

In Protest: Instead of competing when his big number is called, Corran Addison floats into the current holding a banner high overhead protesting the decision to not change the rules. He announces to television cameras that until the International Freestyle Committee reverses its rule-change decision, he will never again compete in another IFC-sanctioned rodeo.

New Groove: Paul Danks, paddling a revolutionary Massive Groove C1, allegedly doubles the score of kayakers but was banned from competing.Turns out he hadn’t qualified to compete in C1 only OC1 and the bit about score is true if the IFC had accepted the proposed rule changes. 

Juniors Debut: Brad Ludden wins junior men’s division. First time juniors competed at the Worlds; no junior women competed until 2001 in Sort, Spain.

No Bull: Soon after the 1997 World Rodeo Championships an international paddling event in Switzerland sees a vendor selling western wear, hats and boots, complete with a mechanical bull. Event organizers agree that rodeo is the wrong term and begin switching to freestyle that they also feel reflects the current state of the sport – less hanging on for dear life and more controlled tricks. 

1999: Full James, Waikato River, New Zealand

The Little Prince: Eric Southwick was the sleeper that scraped into each round and just kept plugging away until his last ride, in which he wins with the best variety, including aerial blunts in his Wave Sport ForePlay.

Back to the Hole: The water levels fluctuate, dropping so low for semi-finals that the foam pile almost disappears catching many competitors off guard. This was the first time the Worlds is on a wave. The IFC votes to return to a hole competition site next year in Spain while North American pro freestyle athletes keep searching for larger and larger waves.

Wave Hogs: When officials discover the river will run at the right level for 24 hours, they set up lights to allow for night training.Teams are allotted one-and-a-half hours of training time.The Swiss team files a formal complaint against the U.S. team, who it claims stayed on the wave 10 minutes past their deadline.

Half Baked: At the 1998 Pre-Worlds, paddlers are heating boats with camp stoves then parking trucks on the ends to squash them for more slice.

Multiplier Effect: Introduced at the Pre-Worlds in ’98, the new scoring system includes a multiplier encouraging different moves while still getting technical points for spins and cartwheels.

XXX Controversy: Not what you might think, the Wave Sport XXX controversy is that Dan Gavere enters his plastic planing hull boat in the squirt boat competition. He is able to throw huge moves on top of the wave that no one else can in squirts, but is unable to mystery move. Normally this would rule out the XXX as a contender, except at the ’99 site most people feel the huge eddylines and whirlpools are too deep and scary to mystery move after Clay Wright is held under for 35 seconds. Gavere places fifth.

Sacred River: Twenty-four-year-old Irish team member Niamh Tomkins disappears between the semi-finals and finals on Sunday while swimming without a PFD in the underestimated boils of Full James. Tomkins dies that afternoon on the banks of the Waikato River. Maori tradition says if a person dies on a river it is considered sacred until blessed and deemed safe again. Had they had chosen to not bless the river, the event would have been stopped and the semi-final results would stand. The Irish team says the event should continue in memory of their fallen comrade. Finals are held over until Monday. 

2001: Rio Roguera, Sort, Spain

Spanish Beauty: Rio Noguera flows out of the Pyrenees Mountains directly under the main street and then over a metre-high ledge fixed up with heavy machinery, creating the most spectator and media-friendly freestyle event ever.

I Need More Cowbell: The men’s semi-final is held at 11 o’clock under the lights as fans hammer cowbells and blow air horns. The venue and energy of the competitors and crowd in Sort is credited as the bestWorlds event to date.

Liquidlogic Debuts: Liquidlogic debuts at the Worlds with their first boats, the Session and Session Plus. 

Trophy Moves: New policy develops that new moves added to the scoring system need to be demonstrated for judges and competitors before the event. And the trophy move concept is introduced to the scoring system for spectacular and new moves not on the score sheet. 

Say What?: Hot moves are loops, air loops, space Godzillas, tricky woos, and the matrix. 

Real-Time Score: A Spanish IT company introduces a new score-keeping system. Scribes use Palm Pilots to record scores that feed wirelessly to a database and a large digital scoreboard. For the first time ever there is immediate feedback for the crowd and athletes about the score of the last ride.

Economics: Meanwhile the Canadian dollar sinks to new low, driving popular Dagger Ego and Super Ego manufacturer’s suggested retail price to all-time high of $1,595. 

2003: River Mur, Graz, Austria

I’ll Be Back: Terminator III on the River Mur in Graz is the nastiest, munchiest hole the Worlds has ever seen. Websites post daily swim counts. 

Inner-City Youth: The downtown venue adds to the festive feel of this year’s Worlds. Everyone stays downtown within a portage of the hole. The most popular mode of transportation for athletes is the children’s folding scooter.

Sudden Death: The men’s finals are a sudden-death shootout between five paddlers. They wait above the hole to see who had the lowest scoring ride and who is being dropped. He then floats down into the hole for one last go and a wave to the roaring crowd. Jay Kincaid, Andrew Holcombe and Steve Fisher take home the medals.

American Revolution: The stars and stripes are raised and lowered 13 times as the U.S. team sweeps more than half of the 24 medals. The winning rides are shown on giant TV screens above the award ceremonies in the city square. 

Choose Your Poison: With all athletes living within walking or scooter distance of the pubs and bistros in downtown Graz, the athlete parties are insane. Athletes blame the bacteria-filled river water for their need for beer and stiff drinks. Without mandatory drug testing, officials are unable to determine if it is the water or the medicine making paddlers sick. 

Winger Winner: Brooke Winger, 25, wins gold and becomes the paddler with more medals than anyone in the history of freestyle kayaking. The top three women are all paddling Wave Sport Transformer T1s. 

2005: Main Wave, Penrith Whitewater Stadium, Australia

Going Up: Penrith’s Olympic Stadium is a completely man-made river—essentially a concrete ditch with movable pylons to direct the water. Athletes didn’t have to get out of their boats; a conveyor belt carries them up to the top of the run.

More C1: After outstanding performances by C1 paddlers, the International Freestyle Committee decides to increase the class from two paddlers per country to three for the next Worlds.

Spice of Life: USA and Canada have eliminated technical points and go with a 100 per cent variety scoring to encourage athletes to do more difficult and different moves. Europeans refuse to vote for the rule change, so the technical scores are used one more time.

Six Pack: At the final party Billy Harris mistakenly challenges Tanya Faux to an “ab-off ” (flexing their six packs). Tanya wins and Billy loses his eyebrows as part of the bet. 

Jackson Kayaks: Eric Jackson debuts Jackson Kayak’s AllStar at its first Worlds and nudges out Billy Harris to win his third World Championship in 12 years.

Open Boats, Open Minds: In the final rounds, Paul Danks set a new OC1 record score of 65 points, almost doubling previous Worlds scores—beating out the likes of Mark Scriver (1997 World Champion), Eli Helbert (1999/2001 World Champion), Stefan Patsch (2003 World Champion) and James Weir, a finalist at the last four World Championships.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? The travel time to Australia, a disappointing feature and reduced industry support for athletes is blamed for dismal attendance. Only 23 countries and 200 athletes participate, down from Sort with 35 countries and capped registration of 300.

Olympic Hopeful: To be considered for the Olympics as early as 2012, the International Freestyle Committee votes to create a World Cup series to replace its biannual Pre-Worlds. The IFC—formed sometime after the first World Championships in 1991—dissolves and becomes a technical subcommittee of the International Canoe Federation and will continue as their source of recommendations for event locations and rule updates. This move is another step toward IFC’s Olympic dream. 

2007: Mini-Bus, Ottawa River, Canada

Welcome Back: Ten years after the first World Freestyle Championships were held at McCoy’s Rapid on the Ottawa River, the Worlds return, this time downriver at the Lorne Rapids in the Bus Eater—a huge river-wide hole that 10 years ago was the scariest thing anyone had ever seen.Wilderness Tours and the Ottawa Kayak School are the hosts of the event, which will see the Ottawa River become the first river to host the Worlds more than once.

Taking the Worlds By Storm: There is much debate among Ottawa River locals as to whether there will be water for the ideal wave for the Worlds. Event organizers are optimistic, they say that water levels are about 70-80 per cent certain—record rain and warm temperatures well into January have left upstream res- ervoirs full of water.

Idyllic Thinking: The preferred location is Mini-Bus, the river left wave in Bus Eater. Higher water will see the event move to the right for Big Bus or further downstream to a wave known as Gladiator.With co-operation from Mother Nature, Quebec Hydro and Ontario Hydro, athletes hope this to be the best Worlds ever.

I’ve Got My Mini-Bus: The river left side of Bus Eater is Mini-Bus.This is considered the perfect location for the Worlds for a number of reasons. Entry into Mini-Bus is a stationary ski towrope, which enables paddlers to get back in without getting out of their boats.

Too Much Big Bus: When Mini-Bus floods out, Big Bus loses some of its violence and offers great big wave boating. The drawback for boaters is a carry back up the riverbank to get back in. Spectators are further from the action. 

Not on Board: Canada’s national airline, Air Canada, has denied Worlds’ organizers petitions to allow kayaks as checked baggage. Air Canada allows skis, surfboards, snowboards and golf clubs but not kayaks. Some paddlers report success in trying to fly in with kayaks—depending on check-in staff. Kayak shopping tip: For great deals, hang out at the Ottawa Airport check-in counter on May 6 with a wad of cash.

The Peanut Gallery: The construction of the judges’ stand and grandstand seating on the island river left of the Lorne was completed last fall. Spectators will be shuttled by motorized raft across the river to the island.More grandstands are scheduled to be built on river right this spring once the final location is determined.

Athlete Village: The 2007 Worlds will have a paddlers’ village featuring an open-air dining pavilion, hot showers, campfire amphitheatre, beautiful beach and cozy cabins. There is no official word if the standard Olympic-sized quantity of 50 condoms will be issued upon arrival. 

Cost of Living: Competitor camping rate is $5 per night; fancy and dry cedar cabins are $50 per night; meal plan is $25 per day; shuttle from the Ottawa Airport is $75 each way; competitor registration, $195; awards banquet dinner, $20 per person; receiving the gold medal that night—priceless. 

Screen Shot 2015 12 22 at 11.54.35 AMThis article first appeared in the Early Summer 2007 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here


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