The U.S. Freestyle Team Trials was an action-packed one-day event this year. Over 40 competitors showed up to North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center to test themselves against the best freestyle kayakers in the country. On the line was a chance to represent the USA in Spain later this year.
The World Championships of Freestyle Kayaking are fast approaching. They will be held this year in Sort, Spain, from June 29 to July 6. While the play-hole in Sort is still under construction, the organizers are planning for a dynamic feature.
Team Trials Play-spot
The U.S. Team Trials event was originally scheduled for Rock Island, Tenn., but the rain gods had different ideas. With swollen rivers throughout the Southeast, the Rock Island play-spot was blown out, and the only venue with semi-predictable water levels was the hole-style feature at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. The same feature was used for the 2013 Freestyle World Championships.
Sadly, the NOC feature is very inconsistent for today's top freestyle hole maneuvers, especially at higher flows. With the Nantahala River running high, this made the hole quite flushy. Few competitors were able to stay in the feature during their entire 45-second competition rides. The feature does have eddy service on both sides, so it was attainable during the competition rides.
Besides an inconsistent and flushy feature, the competitors had to deal with cold temperatures and other high-water issues. On two occasions, wood in the river halted the competition: Once a big tree got jammed in the rocks just above the play feature, and Clay Wright had to wade out into the cold water and dislodge; the second was during one of Stephen Wright's preliminary rides. He threw a massive air loop and landed on wood flowing through the hole. You could hear his composite boat smack the wood from shore, despite the roar of the river!
What It Takes To Make The US Freestyle Team
The International Canoe Federation (ICF) administers all international kayak/canoe sports and is the governing body recognized by the Olympics. The Team Trials used ICF rules in hopes of composing the best possible U.S. team to send to Worlds.
The U.S. gets to send five K-1 Men, five K-1 Women, three C-1, two OC-1, three K-1 Junior Men and three K-1 Junior Women to the world championships. Any current world champions get a free pass and don't count toward those numbers. This year that rule applied to Dane Jackson, the current C-1 World Champion. That means the U.S. will have four C-1 representatives in Spain.
There are generally four to six people in each heat, with as many rounds of prelims and finals as needed, depending on the number of competitors. Finals consist of just five competitors, no matter how the other heats conclude. This year, there were enough competitors for both preliminary and finals rounds in all but two classes, which created a tricky situation.
In the K-1 Men's and Women's classes the numbers of entrants compared with available spots meant that the prelims counted for everything. The prelims involve only two rides and both count toward the contestants qualifying score. In finals you get three rides and only your best counts. That meant that the senior K-1 competitors were fighting for a spot on the team in an inconsistent flushy feature and both their first two rides would determine the outcome. There was no room for error or bad luck in the equation.
Team Trials Competition
This year's U.S. Team Trials saw big juniors fields and relatively small adult fields. The rides by many of the juniors would have been quite competitive with the adults, which gives hope for a bright future for U.S. freestyle kayaking.
The Junior Men's class was a serious battle between the top three competitors, but Mason Hargrove put on an impressive show for the win.
In the Junior Women's class Olivia McGinnis put up a score in finals more than twice her closest rival, easily walking away with the win.
While not huge, the adult field at team trials was the cream of the crop in U.S. Freestyle. The Men's K-1 prelims saw some massive moves and massive upsets. Hunter Katich threw down a flurry of maneuvers, for 28 seconds of his 45-second first ride, in prelims, but came out of the hole with a dislocated shoulder. He was somehow able to come back and put down an impressive second ride as well. Combined, these scores put him atop the Men's field, and on the U.S. team, but his injury prevented him from competing in the finals. The always-impressive Dane Jackson won in the finals with the single largest score of the event.
The top three women also battled hard, with a determined and focused Sage Donnelly coming out on top, just ahead of Emily Jackson and Anna Bruno.
C-1 also had a good showing and truly impressive rides this year, with top competitors posting scores that would have been enough to make the K1 team. Seth Chappelle was out in front of the field all day.
OC-1 was a bit of a joke this year, as three competitors shared one boat for one ride each. A loop was thrown, some spins were had and no one swam, with that last part a big disappointment for the crowd.
The 2019 U.S. Freestyle Team may be the youngest in decades. The best example is 25-year-old Dane Jackson being the oldest member of the Men's class. Stalwart U.S. Freestyle icons like Eric Jackson, Clay Wright and Stephen Wright all just missed the cut for the team, being the first alternates this year.
The strength of family was on full display at team trials this year. Even though E.J.didn't quite make the team, he will be the first alternate. Emily and Dane both did made the team, keeping the Jackson family's U.S. freestyle domination alive. The big Kellogg family also put on a truly impressive show, managing to put a family member from three of the four K-1 classes on the U.S. Team.
As you'd expect, the Jackson Kayak Rockstar 4.0, the newest freestyle kayak design on the U.S. market, was paddled by a large majority of the competitors. There were also about five Dagger Jitsus, two Pyranha JedEyes, one prototype Liquidlogic, one GuiGui Helixer and one Wavesport Mobius in the competition. The Women's K-1 and Men's K-1 Junior classes were both swept by paddlers using Jackson Kayak Rockstars, with a mix of other boats in the other catergories.
2019 U.S. Freestyle Team
Dane Jackson 1233.33
Kenny Kellogg 786.67
Hayden Voorhees 676.67
Bennett Smith 376.67
Hunter Katich (injured)
Sage Donnelly 263.33
Emily Jackson 230
Anna Bruno 220
Jessie Stone 180
Kady Kellogg 180
Mens K-1 Junior
Mason Hargrove 706.67
Riley Frank 653.33
Dally Kellogg 650
Womens K-1 Junior
Olivia McGinnis 560
Katie Fankhouser 216.67
Abby Holcombe 155
Seth Chappelle 846.67
Jordan Poffenberger 770
Dane Jackson 390 (Current C-1 World Champion)
Tad Dennis 330
Landon Miller 70
Jordan Poffenberger 15