Above: Emily Jackson (USA) riding high with a big air screw on Thursday. Photo: Peter Holcombe

By James McBeath

As the sport of freestyle spreads its ICF wings, we’re seeing growth across all canoe and kayak classes, both in scoring and in the sheer number of competitors. This is a sign that development programs in the sport and the use of larger stages for elite athletes to compete on are making a difference. Whitewater kayaking, especially freestyle, has shown growth in leaps and bounds with programs at local schools as well as national paddlesports associations and internationally run programming like World Kayak. Grassroots events are popping up in rivers globally, groups like the Canadian Canoe and Kayak Federation, under the ICF are getting more and more active in supporting freestyle athletes and the number of participants is climbing continually. In 2013 the Outdoor Industry Association listed whitewater kayaking as the third fastest growing sport in the world behind SUP and hiking. The momentum continues to build as the prospect of freestyle becoming an Olympic sport looms larger and larger.

Claire O'Hara (UK) shredding Garb. Photo: Peter Holcombe

Claire O'Hara (UK) shredding Garb. Photo: Peter Holcombe

On Thursday we watched two classes who have greatly benefited from this growth, the C1 and Women's K1 classes. In the early days of freestyle competition, both these classes were short in participants with international attendance especially low. Today we’re seeing over 15 countries competing and well over 40 athletes. Again, like the men’s heats Wednesday, multiple paddling generations are being represented with names like Jesse Stone, Adriene Levknecht and Emily Jackson of the USA as well as France's Marlene Devillez a 3-time European Champion, multi-World Champ, Claire O'Hara with team mate Emily Ward, both of the UK. All combined, these ladies have many years of competition experience, making this one of the toughest classes in these Worlds. The early, pre-start, favourites were the current world champ, O'Hara, Levknecht and Emily Jackson. Jackson especially focused and trained up as she missed the last Worlds and Levknecht who looks to be in amazing shape for this event.

Forty women took to the wave this morning, many from the farthest reaches of the globe, Ukraine, Russia (including Siberian Ekaterina Kulkova), Uganda, New Zealand, Australia and Japan amongst 15 or so countries. The women go straight to semi-finals so only the top 10 move on, a huge cut at this level and no room for error. The international story lines continued with these women, none bigger than that of Amina Tayona, the Ugandan paddler, whose story of her team’s difficulty entering Canada has made the Ugandan team a crowd favourite.

Adriene Levknecht (USA) led the women's field into semi finals on Thursday. Photo: Peter Holcombe

Adriene Levknecht (USA) led the women’s field into semi finals on Thursday. Photo: Peter Holcombe

The first of four heats saw some of the strongest performances of these worlds on the Garb in the form of the incredible Adriene Levknecht. After a first ride flush, Levknecht, snapped each and every one of her moves with strength ensuring retention and big air bonuses. Her combination of Pan Ams, pistol flips and blunts spun her to the top leading by almost 500 points for a good while. New Zealand's Courtney Kerin held her own with an impressive ride each time on the wave. Many of our early competitors worked hard on the wave, a good many flushing as the Garb seemed to have a bit of 'angry' in it this morning. The second heat a majority of short rides as the curling pile on the wave kept paddlers on their toes, flushing everyone at least once. The bubble for the top 10 spots hovered around the 300 mark all day. That bubble was flirted with all day by some of our contenders and hopefuls alike. Levknecht held on to the top score all day with Emily Jackson showing strength coming only a few points behind her in second spot. Japan's Hitomi Kakatu with her spirited smiles and smooth style stands in third place, again only points behind the two leaders.

Final tally for Women's K1 Prelims:

Adriene Levknecht, USA – 950
Emily Jackson, USA – 803
Hitomi Kakatu, Japan – 501
Emily Ward, United Kingdom – 426
Rowan Stuart, USA – 410
Marlene Devillez, France – 395
Katie Kowalski, Canada – 393
Nuria Fontane Maso, Spain – 366
Claire O'Hara, United Kingdom – 360
Ekaterina Kulkova, Russia – 340

C1 sits smack dab between OC1 and K1 in the skill set, with some advantage going to the torque C1ers can get from the single blade in the water, but most going to K1 with two blades. That, however, doesn't stop some of these guys from launching routines rivaling those of their two-bladed brethren. A handful of these competitors are in K1 as well, of special mention has to be Dane Jackson our current leader in the K1 discipline and Frenchman Sebastien Devred. In the ranks of this 2-heat C1 preliminaries is the current World Champion, Jordan Poffenberger of the USA, 3-time European Champion, Lukas Cervinka of the Czech Republic and a solid Canadian contingent with returning superstars Chris McDermott and Vincent Dupont no to mention Brad McMillan of the US and Seth Chappelle; all capable of winning. With two heats of ten paddlers, this is the biggest C1 competition so far for the ICF.

Heat one had a great battle of Pan Ams, blunts and spins between current champ, Poffenberger, superstar Dane Jackson and the rest of the US contingent kept the wave busy with the a few of the European contingent nipping at their heals. The big story was the young Canadian, Zachary Zwanenburg who stepped into the C1 limelight impressing all with one of the top combined scores of both heats throwing massive blunts, Pan Ams and back stabs to a top score. The top tricks included a couple of pistol flips, a helix attempt and massive, over-vertical back Pan Ams. The dust settled on prelims with only the top 5 going on to Saturday's finals:

Dane Jackson
Zachary Zwanenberg
Seth Chapelle
Sebastien Devred
Jordan Poffenberger

–Watch a Full Replay of Thursday’s heats.