Ed’s note: C&K‘s 2011 Whitewater edition hits newsstands today, which coincides with the first stage of the new Whitewater Grand Prix, a winner-take-all, six-stage invitational with 25 of kayaking’s top all-around paddlers showcasing their skills across Quebec’s spring-swollen rivers. The first stage is a Freestyle Showdown on the Ottawa River’s massive Gladiator wave—only made more punishing with a deluge of rain this week. Stay tuned for Grand Prix coverage; meanwhile, here’s a sneak-peek from the freshly-minted Whitewater issue, with a look into where the Grand Prix (teaser video above) fits into broader efforts to revive and build freestyle kayaking.

Return to the Spotlight?
New concepts for freestyle competition aim to grow sport

By Kyle Dickman

We like to call it a revival. After seven years where the number of freestyle competitions remained mostly stagnant (and low, at that), as many as 60 new events have sprung up across North America in the last two years. Freestyle boaters now have their pick of nearly 200 competitions in 25 states. The trend begs the question: Can freestyle return to the top of the kayaking hierarchy, a position it held for much of the late 1990s and early 2000s? Everybody involved sure thinks so, though there are several competing ideas on how to get there.

USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body of U.S. paddlesports competition, added six events this year to its Freestyle Point Series. Now, the series connects 11 preexisting festivals and competitions in six states. At the end of the season, the points leader will be crowned national champion. "What they're really doing is taking regional events and giving them national prestige by adding them to the circuit," says Andrew Holcombe, Dagger's Team Manager and a 15-year kayak competition veteran. The hope is that the additional events will create season-long storylines for non-boaters and the media to follow—freestyle's take on the NASCAR points series.

The USACK-sanctioned events are also designed to prepare athletes for international competitions. In 2005, the International Canoe Federation made freestyle kayaking eligible to become an Olympic sport. USA Freestyle Kayaking Chair Risa Shimoda thinks we could see an Olympic gold medalist in a playboat by 2020. "That's a big reason USACK's putting more energy into freestyle," says Shimoda, noting the $7,500 purse for the series.

FIBArk's freestyle competition returns to Salida, Colo., June 16-17 as one of 11 USAFK Point Series events. Dane and Emily Jackson warming up for last year's freestyle finals / Photo Kevin Hoffman

While USACK reaches for the Olympic rings, others are focusing on the sport's grassroots. Local competitions are springing up across North America, many developed by World Kayak, a nonprofit co-founded by Jackson Kayak president Eric Jackson. The group has helped local paddlers organize some 160 amateur Hometown Throwdowns in 25 states.

Providing quality training for international competition and building the sport's base are worthy causes, but many top freestylers are looking to take the sport in another direction, says standout Canadian kayaker Ben Marr. "[Typical freestyle events] don't give boaters a big wave to play on, and the scoring system doesn't reward those that go as big as they possibly can."

Marr will be competing in a new spring event, the Whitewater Grand Prix. Organized by Tribe Riders ringleader Patrick Camblin, the mixed-discipline Grand Prix hosts 28 invitees over the first two weeks of May to crown the top overall paddler in events including Class IV/V slalom racing, big-water Class V downriver racing, and surfing on 10-foot waves. Camblin agrees that attention is key to growing freestyle, but his angle is different. "I wanted to promote kayaking outside of the sport by creating an event that showcases the best kayakers," says Camblin, justifying the site choice on the flooded rivers across Quebec, where the whitewater is massive and, most importantly, photogenic. The GP guest list—Jackson, Rush Sturges, Steve Fisher, to name a few—represents 10 nations and is flush with the world's best. The biggest surprise? There's no purse. "Everyone just wants to put on a show," Camblin says.

This May's Whitewater Grand Prix events in Quebec (Ben Marr shown here on the Ottawa's Gladiator wave) take a much different approach than the USAFK series / Photo Patrick Camblin

Ed’s Note: This story was updated on May 4 as we received the following breaking news on World Kayak’s efforts to incentivize and build the sport at the grassroots, amateur level. The press release is below:

World Kayak Debuts Point System for Freestyle Kayaking
US, Canada freestyle committees give thumbs up

Reno, Nevada — World Kayak, the online hub of the freestyle kayaking community, is launching the first-ever point series designed to create a system of amateur rankings for recreational kayakers.

The point series will be implemented at World Kayak's Hometown Throwdowns throughout the US and Canada this year. The system earned nods of approval from the freestyle committees of both countries' kayaking federations. Hometown Throwdowns are kayak competitions aimed at helping recreational boaters meet others and improve their skills in a fun environment on their home rivers. There are some 160 Hometown Throwdowns scheduled this season.

"This is a long-awaited first step in creating a logical progression for competitors from absolute beginners through to the pro ranks and national level competition," said World Kayak founder and Executive Director James McBeath. "We're also pleased that USA Freestyle Kayak is unanimous in its support of the point series, seeing it as the starting point for paddlers hoping to be the next World Champion."

Free and open to all skill levels, Hometown Throwdowns give local paddlers a chance to strut their stuff in a series of low-key competitions on their home whitewater play features. Each Throwdown series is comprised of three to six events held throughout the season, with dates varying by region. Throwdown divisions are set up to accommodate all levels of paddler skills and will rank every age bracket. The basic scoring system rewards everything from basic to advanced moves front surfs and paddle waves to more advanced moves giving all a chance at scoring points.

McBeath explained the new point system is modeled after best practice shown in a handful of more established sports such as swimming, hockey, baseball and BMX. There will be three classes within the amateur system: novice, intermediate and advanced. Each class will have local and regional rankings for all ages from 7 up to Masters (45+). Each entry into a Throwdown is worth 30 points; the top ten finishers at each event earn bonus points; point totals count toward year-end rank and overall awards. This formula allows for ranking to be based on both participation and place and will be used next year to determine ‘divisional status’ going forward, automating a paddlers amateur progression from novice to elite.

Those wishing to be ranked will be asked for a $10 contribution to help maintain the web-based point system.  The fee can be paid during online registration via  World Kayak's PayPal-enabled Registration Page

Prizes, just for participating, are donated by national sponsors Jackson Kayak, Smith Optics, Immersion Research, Mountain Khakis, Stonyboater Paddle Wax, Chaco, Astral, Shred Ready and Kokotat. Participating paddlers registering to be ranked will also be a part of a raffle for one of four Jackson Star series boats.

Throwdowns and other World Kayak special events are coordinated by a global network of regional ambassadors and championed by hundreds of bloggers on worldkayakblogs.com, one of the most robust social networks in the blogosphere. World Kayak also provides some of the best major event coverage in paddlesports media coverage in paddlesports media at their newly improved coverage portal, home to coverage and results from all 160 Throwdown events. World Kayak also hosts an online kayak teaching education portal.

World Kayak is a grassroots organization dedicated to increasing participation and growth in whitewater kayaking.
Visit WorldKayak.com for more information on local, regional and global whitewater events, instructional programs and kayakers on home or distant rivers.