ALONG THE SKYKOMISH RIVER, Snohomish County — As Christian Knight scouted whitewater rapids from dry land, two women and a dog moved gingerly down a steep trail to the banks of the Skykomish River, where a roaring, frothing torrent drowned out the sound of cars whizzing by on Highway 2. They eyed a raging rapid that plunged into a whirlpool. One of them sported a belt made of blue-and-yellow NRS strap, the go-to material for tying down whitewater rafts and a sure sign of a seasoned river rat.

“You gonna run that?” one of the women asked Knight, shaking her head before her group retreated back up the trail.

Soon after, 16-year-old Eleanor Knight, of Kirkland, made her way down the embankment, shouldering a kayak and maneuvering over slick rocks in a pair of black Crocs. The so-called play kayak, so short she goes shoeless just to fit inside, was one of four that Eleanor and Christian, her father and coach, had strapped to the roof of the family van and parked at an unmarked pullout near Milepost 34 on Highway 2.

The plan that June weekday was to surf a river wave a few hundred yards downstream and practice flips and spins, the kinds of tricks that Eleanor will need when she competes in the girls junior division at the ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships in Nottingham, England, from June 27 to July 2.

But first, she had a match with an old foe. Exuding a quiet confidence, Eleanor stared down the Class IV rapid known as Boulder Drop to visualize stroke by stroke how she would navigate the rushing waters. (Whitewater rapids are ranked in terms of difficulty, with Class VI being the most extreme.) In May 2021, Eleanor tipped in the middle of running Boulder Drop and broke her front tooth when her paddle smashed into her mouth.

Leaving the play kayak tucked into the trees, Eleanor and Christian traveled a few miles upstream to a put-in near the Lake Serene trailhead. They donned drysuits, spray skirts, life jackets and helmets before shoving off into the river with their whitewater kayaks. Twenty minutes later, the Knights approached Boulder Drop. Christian went first and emerged unscathed, then turned around to watch Eleanor. She tipped once, but righted herself before plunging over the rapid and into the hole, then popped out downstream moments later.

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After running the rapid, the pair paddled over to shore. Christian grinned with the adrenaline rush. Eleanor was more stone-faced.

“It was pretty high, about the same level as when I broke my tooth, so I was definitely nervous for it,” Eleanor said while sitting in a camping chair in her dripping wet kayak gear.

Soon after, she switched over to her play kayak. Fun time was over. Practice had begun.

Engineered for competition

Eleanor’s practice session that day, one of three to four per week for the Lake Washington High School student during the spring and early-summer peak of whitewater season, is a far cry from the venue where she will compete against the world’s best 15- to 18-year-old female kayakers. Nottingham’s National Water Sports Centre is an engineered setting, where an artificial channel can be turned from flat water to whitewater with the flick of a switch.

That level of control is ideal for competition, ensuring fair play with reliably consistent conditions in a sport determined by judges. For Eleanor, however, environmental conditions like snowmelt and recent rainfall govern where she can practice. The father-daughter team checks river levels daily before setting out for a weekday afternoon at Green River Gorge in Southeast King County, the Middle Fork Snoqualmie outside North Bend, or the Skykomish near Index. On weekends, they head for the region’s most consistent whitewater on the Wenatchee River between Leavenworth and Cashmere in Chelan County. This year’s cool spring delayed whitewater training on the west side of the Cascades, only for a late May deluge to send rivers surging.

For Eleanor, that means she trains in stunning natural settings — rock-walled canyons, emerald riverbanks, deep pools of glacier-fed water. The wild Cascades make for a stark contrast with the multimillion-dollar human-made venues that host the highest level of the sport, like RIVERSPORT Rapids in Oklahoma City, where she competed in the USA National Team Trials in March.

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“It’s weird because there are no rivers,” she said. “The water just turns on at 10 a.m., the wave is there for a few hours, and then it turns off.”

But the strangeness of the experience was no deterrent for Eleanor, who signed up for the trials at the last minute, having never previously competed in freestyle kayaking. (She has competed in whitewater racing since she was 12.)

She spent half a day at the Oklahoma City facility figuring out how to nail a forward flip known as “the loop,” then headed straight into competition. She placed third of six, good enough to make the national team, much to her surprise.

“I felt like everyone else had been training for years for this one thing and I had not trained a single time,” she said. “My only goal was to learn how to do the loop.”

Natural-born paddler

If anyone were to waltz into a national kayaking competition as a first-timer and paddle away with a podium spot, it would be a Knight. Eleanor’s dad, Christian, is a pioneering Cascades whitewater kayaker who has notched at least 20 first descents, many on tributaries of the Skykomish. As a longtime volunteer with American Whitewater, he’s also a steward of and advocate for public river access — including the fight to designate the Skykomish as a Wild and Scenic River.

There are family photos of a 1-year-old Eleanor sitting in her father’s lap in his kayak. At 5, she got her first kayak — a Jackson Sidekick — and father and daughter began paddling Sammamish Slough. (Eleanor is the oldest of three.) From that age, she said, “I knew that kayaking was going to be part of my life.”

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At 6, she began paddling whitewater with laps on Big Eddy, a Class II rapid on the Skykomish near Gold Bar. Once she perfected her roll — the ability to right after tipping without getting out of the boat — she began surfing river waves at age 8. She started doing tricks at 10. By 12, she had become the youngest woman to kayak all the named rapids in the Grand Canyon.

That kind of elite experience gives her a unique perspective on the carefully delineated world of competitive kayaking, with freestyle’s cousin canoe slalom now an Olympic sport — and some backers think freestyle isn’t far behind.

“When it’s engineered, it’s all competition,” she said. “One of the reasons I love kayaking is because I can go down a canyon that you can only access by a kayak — if you’re good enough. An engineered feature, it’s not the same.”

With that kind of attitude, young Eleanor harkens to an older era of the sport — her father’s era, when freestyle tricks were a playful diversion from the more extreme, and potentially dangerous, pursuit of pushing whitewater kayaking’s limits by going after ever-steeper waterfalls. After a handful of fatalities in the early 2000s, freestyle kayaking emerged as a much safer alternative.

Despite her success, Eleanor still feels the call of the wild. She has her sights set on winning the North Fork Championship, a race down a rowdy Class V rapid on Idaho’s Payette River.

“Freestyle and racing is the competitive outlet. The full experience is running wild rivers,” Christian said. “That’s what she loves most of all.”

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But for the latter half of June, as Cascade whitewater season entered its prime, Eleanor spent her days practicing on the artificial course in Nottingham, which has been dogged by water-quality concerns, Christian said. After heavy rains, Team USA advised its athletes to wash their gear after every training session and practice scrupulous hand hygiene before eating. The River Trent, which feeds the kayak center channel, is a far cry from the Skykomish.

When Eleanor is in the boat in England, however, her strategy is simple: imaginary competition.

“I pretend my friend Judah got 10 flat spins and I need to get 11,” she said.

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That dogged determination carries over to her wild river approach. She returned to Boulder Drop last year a few weeks after her busted tooth incident and tackled the rapid again with a full face helmet.

“I need to ace this line,” she said of her attitude at the time. “Whenever I mess something up in any sport, I usually just do it over and over again until it’s perfect.”

Before heading to her play kayak on that early June day along the Skykomish, Eleanor reflected on her future freestyle prospects after the world junior championship.

“I think I’ll want to continue to compete,” she said. But looking back at Boulder Drop, she added, “I’ll always like this kind of kayaking better.”