Freestyle kayaking was called rodeo when Eric Jackson, a 29-year-old Olympic slalom paddler, piloted a Dagger Transition through a series of flat spins, enders and pirouettes to win the 1993 world championships at Hell Hole on Tennesee’s Ocoee River. Looking back, the event was pivotal in redefining whitewater. Manufacturers like Dagger, Perception, Prijon, Pyranha and Eskimo created new, rodeo-specific designs specifically for the competition, launching the evolution of playboats; Jackson became a legend; and freestyle was born. “We can credit the growth of whitewater kayaking in the U.S. to the 1993 Worlds to a large degree,” says Jackson.
Jackson expects another inflection point this September when the world’s best freestyle kayakers and canoeists finally return to U.S. soil for the International Canoe Federation’s Freestyle World Championships at Bryson City, in North Carolina’s Nantahala Gorge, September 2 to 8. More than 250 of the top boaters from around the world are expected to compete on a $195,000, custom- built feature called the 2013 Wave.
The weeklong event will showcase the harmony of athleticism and freeform creativity that defines freestyle paddling. The field of competitors is astoundingly deep in both men’s and women’s K1 divisions, as well as open canoe. After preliminary rounds and semi-finals, the world’s best will have three 45-second rides to score points in the finals.
In men’s K1, 2009 world champion Nick Troutman says a routine involving “at least McNasties left and right, phonix monkeys left and right, a couple of either loops or space godzillas and a couple of tricky woos and lunar orbits will be linked at minimum” to win. On the women’s side, defending world champion Claire O’Hara expects to perform a basic routine of loops, felixes and cartwheels, “with McNasties, phonixes, space godzillas and split combos now being the crux moves.” Similarly in OC-1, aerial tricks and combinations such as McNasties, phonixes and maybe even a loop will crown the world champion.
More important than the athletes’ performances, insists Jackson, is the legacy of the 2013 competition. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since the Ocoee rodeo, and harder still to realize that not one biannual world championship
has been held on U.S. soil since. In the meantime, a Jackson dynasty has emerged, freestyle kayak design has morphed and hole- and wave-riding tricks have evolved from rough-edged maneuvers to polished acrobatics. The southeastern U.S. has emerged as a global hotbed of kayak manufacturing and its legion of paddlers is whitewater’s stronghold. “The impact of the world championship being held in North Carolina is going to be huge,” says Jackson. “We, as paddlers, will be better off as the companies focus their energies on making better boats and truly connecting with the sport out on the river again.”
Perennial favorites at any freestyle event, Jackson Kayaks factory team athletes Eric and Dane Jackson, as well as their in-law, Troutman, could parlay home turf advantage into owning the 2013 men’s K1 podium at Nantahala. Dane enters his first senior world championships having dominated the junior division at the 2011 event with scores that would’ve earned him a top spot amongst the seniors. The diminutive 20-year-old has been likened to a miniature version of his father, Eric, for his innate paddling skills—his ability to throw explosive aerials and link tricks creatively on the fly, while exuding the Jacksons’ trademark competitive spirit. “He’s got more skills than balls,” says Troutman.
Veteran Jackson athlete Stephen Wright, who narrowly missed the cut at the U.S. team trials in late April, says Dane and 2009 world champ Troutman are the obvious paddlers to watch amongst senior men. Troutman, 25, says he’s working on developing the mental fortitude to perform under pressure and is dedicating the summer to getting to know the intricacies of the 2013 Wave. But Wright says don’t discount EJ, 49, who’s looking to win his fifth world championship crown. “EJ always has a chance to win,” says Wright. “He can make magic happen in a lot of situations that people wouldn’t expect. He can focus like nobody else, and he’s really driven by competition.”
On the women’s side, despite a valiant effort, Emily Jackson, then seven months pregnant, failed to make the U.S. team. That means Canadian Ruth Gordon Ebens will anchor Jackson Kayaks’ women’s roster. Gordon Ebens, 32, is a force to be reckoned with—she was runner-up at the 2011 Worlds and turned heads at the 2012 World Cup, scoring an impressive 495-point ride in the finals before finishing fourth overall. “She has the big moves and really performs consistently well at big events,” notes O’Hara, who will be defending her title.
When British paddlers James Bebbington and O’Hara climbed to the top of the podium in the men’s and women’s K1 competition, respectively, at the 2011 World Championships in Plattling, Germany, it heralded a significant change in the psyche of elite freestyle paddlers. Both brought an Olympic athlete’s formal, highly ritualized training approach to freestyle kayak, as opposed to the freeform, laissez-faire mindset that’s more pervasive in North American paddlers. O’Hara, for instance, spent four years working with a volunteer support crew including two coaches, three video analysis experts, physiotherapists and a masseuse, sports psychologist, personal trainer, and a strength and conditioning trainer. “It used to be you just had to be a boater,” said O’Hara in an interview after her 2011 gold medal performance. “Now you have to be an athlete.”
O’Hara has kept up her rigorous programming and with her main rival, Emily Jackson, out of the competition, she’s a shoe-in to continue her dominance on the women’s side. O’Hara spent the winter and spring training around the world, including Great Britain, Africa, New Zealand and Australia. “She used the past year to travel and paddle, paddle, paddle,” says Gordon Ebens, “and she knows what it takes to be on top.”
O’Hara, 31, put on a clinic at the final 2012 World Cup event at Nantahala, adds Gordon Ebens, hitting high-scoring McNasties and phonixes, notching big-air bonuses and linking moves in combination for a record-setting high score of 633. “I think the key thing is that I need to be ready,” says O’Hara. “I need to get my training in early so that I feel happy with the feature and with my moves and then I can just go out and throw down and enjoy the event.”
Another veteran European, Slovakia’s Nina Csonkova, will challenge O’Hara and Gordon Ebens. Csonkova, who consistently makes the finals of most international events, finished third in the 2012 World Cup, and has been training hard this year, notes O’Hara. “Nina now has the competition experience and knows what it takes to win,” adds Gordon Ebens. “She has the tricks.”
European men tend to focus on precise angles and verticality, compared to the North American tendency to favor big air and linking moves, according to Wright. Besides Bebbington, a big-air threat who finished a disappointing seventh in last year’s World Cup, speedy Spaniard Joaquim Fontane and Pole sharp-shooter Tomasz Czaplicki are contenders on the men’s side. Perhaps the greatest European contender is Slovakian powerhouse Peter Csonka, the defending World Cup champion and Plattling runner-up, who appears poised to take a run at world championship glory. “He’s like a machine,” says Wright. “He’s physically stronger than anyone else and he can wing almost any tricks through strength alone.”
According to Troutman, the growing number of freestyle paddlers from the other side of the pond has made for an excess of medal contenders. “To try to list the top 10 paddlers is impossible now,” he says. “The top contenders are so close to each other, even making semi-finals is becoming a big deal.”
Back for another kick at the can is 39-year-old Ottawa River local Billy Harris, a stalwart on the Canadian freestyle team who has placed as high as second in four previous world championships. “He knows what it takes, how hard you need to train and all the mind games that come with competition,” says Troutman. “But Billy brings more to the team than just experience and age. He has an amazing ability to teach kids…he was one of my biggest mentors.” Another dark horse is all-around boater Jason Craig, who bounced back from a major spinal cord injury to finish a solid third in the final stage of the 2012 World Cup. Craig placed fourth in the highly competitive U.S. team trials in April. And though he’s best known as a video boater with Demshitz, Wright says Mike Patterson showed well at the U.S. team trials and could turn heads in September.
American hopes in the women’s competition will rest with self-proclaimed “paddling nomad” Haley Mills, who parked her RV in North Carolina last winter and demonstrated her mastery of the 2013 Wave by winning the U.S. team trials in less than optimal high-water conditions. Mills finished fifth in 2011 in Plattling. “She’s learning the competitive ways,” says Gordon Ebens, “and this solid winter of training might be what she needed to get on top.”
UP AND COMERS
Future stars like Canadian Adam Chappell, Briton Bren Orton, and Ireland’s Billy Brett and David McClure will make their first appearances in the senior K1 division this year. Chappell impressed in last year’s Canadian team trials, says Troutman, but he’ll need to demonstrate his outstanding skills consistently and under pressure through multiple rounds of competition. The same goes for Orton, whom Wright describes as a prodigy with the ability to come up with high-scoring combinations off the cuff.
Two French paddlers could make waves in the women’s competition. Marlene Devillez is the defending European champion and is known for throwing huge tricks when the chips are down. Whitewater Grand Prix 2012 champ and former junior freestyle gold medalist, Nouria Newman’s “raw paddling talent” makes her a threat in any kayaking discipline, according to O’Hara. More of a long shot, young Japanese boater Hitomi Takaku could also turn heads.
Even the top athletes will admit that OC-1 freestyle is largely a crapshoot, with huge potential for dark-horse boaters coming out of the woodwork and putting up big rides. “OC-1 has more of an element of randomness than the decked boats,” says veteran competitor and game-changing Blackfly Canoes designer Jeremy Laucks, “so it can really be anyone’s game.”This bodes well for Canadians Matt Cuccaro and Vincent Dupont.
With only two spots on the U.S. team up for grabs, Laucks and 2012 World Cup champ Seth Chappelle were unseeded by Dane Jackson and Jordan Poffenberger. Laucks says Poffenberger has been at the forefront of OC-1’s rapid progression by hitting tough, high-scoring moves like McNasties, and Jackson won the 2011 junior world championships. Meanwhile, Laucks expects Spain and Germany to field powerhouse teams (Spaniards Adria Bosch and Odei Areta won gold and silver in 2011), and perhaps a few well-established C-1 boaters to make a crossover.
Conor Mihell has been chasing the world championships for Rapid since 2009.
This article first appeared in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here