An introduction to the sport of canoe and kayak slalom. This is the third in a series that will explore some of the less well-known sports that are going on in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Editor’s note: With the Olympics in full swing, we asked Seattle Times reporting intern Kristen Gowdy to get the full experience on some of the sports being played in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Previous installments in our include equestrian eventing, which you can read about here, and rugby sevens, which you can check out here. Next up in our series: canoe and kayak slalom…
Rules: Eighteen slalom gates, 300 meters of whitewater and obstacles dotted throughout set the stage for the canoe and kayak slalom event. Athletes must navigate the gates in a specific order — passing down through green gates and against the current on red gates.
Those are the basic rules, but slalom racing is much more complicated. The course changes throughout competition — athletes who make it past the heat races into the semifinals will face a different course. This makes the sport much more reactionary.
Slalom events will be one of the only water sports in Rio where the water quality is not a concern because the course is artificial. Obstacles such as artificial boulders are mobile along with the gates, so that a course can completely change between rounds.
“It’s a very strong current,” Jennie Goldberg, director of the League of Northwest Whitewater Racers, said. “You have no idea where the gates final position will be for the competition. You need to have a lot of experience, you need to be able to respond very quickly.”
Penalties are accrued based on several different violations. If a paddler hits a gate with their boat, paddle or body, he or she receives a two-second penalty. Missing a gate, going out of order, or going through a gate the wrong way gets a 50-second penalty. Because runs generally last between 80-120 seconds depending on the course length, the 50-second penalty essentially eliminates athletes from competition.
There are several classes in slalom racing: men’s and women’s single kayak; men’s single canoe; and double men’s canoe. Canoe involves single oars and kneeling in the boat whereas kayak is double-sided oars and sitting in the boat.
Team USA and Canoe/Kayak Slalom in the Olympics: The whitewater slalom events made their Olympic debut in Munich in 1972, but were not part of the program again until 1992. They have since been a regular part of the Games.
Goldberg said European countries have generally had the most success in the sport.
“Historically, Europe has provided way more support for whitewater sports than the U.S. has ever done,” she said. “Clubs in Europe are very popular. Thousands of people come watch races. Here it’s really hard to get funding, it’s a very small organization. Since slalom became an Olympic sport, slowly a couple of artificial courses have been built in the United States.”
In the history of whitewater slalom at the Olympics, the United States has won five medals, three on the women’s side and two on the men’s. The most recent of these was in 2004 in Athens, where Rebecca Giddens took silver in kayak.
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The United States qualified four athletes to Rio. Casey Eichfeld, the only returning Olympian, will compete in both single and double canoe. He finished 11th in double in London and 14th in single in Beijing in 2008. This will be the first Olympic Games that he competes in both.
Devin McEwan will serve as his partner in the doubles competition, while Michael Smolen will compete in the single kayak event. Ashley Nee, the only female qualifier from the United States, will also compete in single kayak.
Training/feasibility of the sport:
The hardest part about getting into whitewater slalom racing is the availability of resources in the United States, but Goldberg said the sports have been growing in the country over the past few years.
After finding a club or team, it’s a relatively easy sport to get into. Racing boats are rather costly, starting at around $1,000, but once the gear has been purchased, there are few other costs.
Core and upper body training are crucial in whitewater slalom due to the need to control the boat, but Goldberg said she has seen children as young as 9 competing.
“You need to be old enough to have the strength to pull off your spray skirt by yourself,” she said. “It’s like any sport, you can start really young.”
My experience: Because we did not have a boat that was the right size for my height, I was not able to participate in the kayak slalom that Goldberg demonstrated on Cedar River.