Yesterday, the American Canoe Association announced that their members voted to become the new National Governing Body for Olympic, Paralympic and World Championship paddlesports. The decision is the culmination of years of partnership between the Fredericksburg, Va.-based nonprofit and USA Canoe/Kayak, which had acted as paddlesports’ National Governing Body.
Weeks ago things heated up. While the globe’s premier paddlesports athletes toiled away at this September's slalom and wildwater world championships in France, the future of the sport entered tumultuous waters back home in the U.S. as the ACA board of directors moved to amend its bylaws.
"Vote ACA to Be the Next NGB!" read a banner on the ACA website, touting the board’s recommendation for members to revise the ACA bylaws to comply with requirements from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. The compliance revisions would allow the ACA to become the National Governing Body (NGB) for the U.S. Olympic sports of Slalom and Sprint and the Paralympic sport of Paracanoe, as recognized by the USOC and the International Canoe Federation(ICF).
"The ACA is currently conducting a vote of the membership to revise our bylaws to become the sport's National Governing Body," says ACA Chief Operating Officer Christopher Stec. "Upon ratification of NGB status by the USOC and the ACA membership, we'll set up a new Competition Council to develop and promote athletic competition in paddlesports at the local, regional, national and international levels. This will enable U.S. athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence in Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American, Parapan American Games and other international competition; and grow recreational paddlesports competition in the U.S."
Maybe. And that's all said and fine, and what the competitive side of the sport desperately needs. But the move also isn't without some murky waters, especially involving its leadership and funding going forward. USA Canoe/Kayak has served as the sport’s NGB.
"I'm a strong proponent of transferring NGB status to the ACA," says former USACK board member Rok Sribar, who voted for the transfer and whose daughter competes on the U.S. National Team. "The ACA represents the broader paddling community, and as such it has the potential to a strong governing body. It's the right place for it. But it all boils down to the leadership going forward."
Others involved in the association agree. "The transfer of NGB status is in the best interest of all canoe and kayak sports in the U.S.," says Adam Van Grack, chairman and slalom sport director. "When USACK split off decades ago, it was because the NGB as a stand-alone could support all the sports. Now it appears that having NGB within a broader entity like the ACA is in the sport's better interest."
The reason is the sport's recreational appeal. "While a lot of sports still have a stand-alone NGB, such as swimming and figure skating, having it housed within a recreation-based organization makes more sense for a sport like paddling," Van Grack says. "It's not just an economies-of-scale issue. The degree of influence and access to resources the ACA brings to the table is important. It may cause more people to take an interest in paddling and even contribute to the cause."
Indeed, rec groups far and wide see the benefit of the transfer. “As an organization that already works with the nation’s youth and veterans and engages all aspects of paddling from elite skills to grassroots local communities, the ACA is well suited to assume the role of National Governing Body,” says Robert Gates, former president of the Boy Scouts of America.
Which brings up the primary concern moving forward: funding. Until the ACA officially takes over, NGB status still falls under the umbrella of USACK, whose funds are severely lacking with no throw-rope on the horizon.
"We have two coaches on the payroll, but they haven't been paid since the beginning of June," says Sribar, who resigned his board position in July because of what he terms "improprieties I didn't want to be part of." Mismanagement and a lack of financial reporting, he says, have led to the USACK to being "un-auditable," affecting the ability to attract corporate donations. The organization also abruptly laid off its office staff due to its lack of funds.
"We need to figure out how we're going to pay the coaches," says Sribar, adding over the past three years his family has been USACK's largest financial contributor outside the IOC. "If the ACA thinks they're going to get full funding from USOC, they're smoking dope. I'm not concerned with USOC not supporting it — my concern is where is the money going to come from?"
"The financial situation of USACK isn't great — we need additional funding from USOC just to keep it afloat," admits Van Grack. "Even the bare minimum we have now isn't nearly enough."
Another concern, adds Sribar, is the High Performance Plan, an annual funding request and program outline that each NGB has to submit to the USOC, recently put together by the ACA. "They didn't really listen to the coaches when putting it together," he says. "They're not doing all the due diligence we need."
For the U.S. to capitalize on its top athletes Michal Smolen, currently ranked 9th in the world, and three-time C-boat Olympian Casey Eichfeld, ranked 14th, making a strong showing in Tokyo in 2020, a lot needs to happen. Slovenia, says Sribar, brought seven coaches and several doctors to the World Championships in France, for a ratio of 1.2 athletes per coach. The U.S. had two unpaid coaches helping seven athletes, for a ratio of nearly four athletes per coach. "That's not how you win medals or grow the sport," he says. "It's a very tough sport that needs the support structure to succeed."
And the horizon line is coming up quickly. The U.S. first has to qualify itself as a country to earn an Olympic spot in the discipline, which happens next year, and then the athletes have to qualify the number of spots they earn on the team for any given discipline. While our chances are decent with the likes of Smolen, C-boaters Eichfeld and Zach Lokken, and French transplant Fabien Lefevre, the women's side, says Sribar, is wide open — which is why he's investing time in his daughter.
And the move, and future of the sport's competitive side, is near and dear to many. "Anytime you do a significant transfer of an NGB, there's going to be issues with how it's done," says Van Grack. "Paddlesports is important to a lot of people in the U.S., whether it's freestyle, slalom, downriver or sprint. And a lot of people are emotional about it. But casting stones won't help matters; you have to make sure you don't miss the forest for the trees."
"There are a lot of things to still resolve — including how they address High Performance funding and support. But there aren't many people who disagree that we need to have this kind of transfer."
Included in this camp are athletes, administrators and more. “It's wonderful to see the sport brought back together," says 1988 Olympic gold medalist and former USOC COO Norman Bellingham. "Reconnecting the base and heart of the sport with those who have a passion to pursue Olympic dreams can only lead to a richer future for all.”
The nation's cadre of paddling instructors are also pleased with the possible transfer, and what it spells for the sport's future and competitive pipeline. "As an ACA Instructor Trainer Educator and producer of paddling instruction videos, it's rewarding to teach young people paddling skills and exciting that the ACA instructor corps can play a role in discovering the next generation of Olympians,” says SEIC Instructor Trainer Educator, and national slalom and world champion Kent Ford.
Still, like just starting out on an unknown waterway, there's plenty of work ahead.
"The transfer is not a panacea," admits Van Grack. "It doesn't fix all the sport's problems and financial troubles. But the way things are now, with a stand-alone NGB with barebones staffing and infrastructure, isn't working. Transferring the NGB status is a way forward if we want to grow the sport, and what these sports need to flourish like they have in the past."
How It Came About
February, 2015: The ACA and USACK Board of Directors announce a joint partnership; ACA Executive Director Wade Blackwood named Chief Executive Officer of USACK and tasked with leading both organizations.
October, 2015: USACK Board passes following motion: "Be it resolved that the USACK board approves ACA applying for NGB status for sprint, slalom and Paracanoe to the United States Olympic Committee’s Board of Directors." ACA Board passes following motion: "ACA will apply to become the National Governing Body for Olympic Paddlesport in the United States."
November, 2015: USACK offers insurance programs for athletes, clubs, coaches and officials through the ACA.
January, 2016: USACK Board of Directors ends partnership with the ACA; cancels joint administrative services.
February, 2016: USACK and ACA boards restart partnership and move forward with merger plans. ACA agrees to offer membership, database, insurance, website, and financial services to USACK, as well all matters related to USOC compliance.
April, 2016: Letter from USACK Board President Bob Lally ends merger again.
Late April, 2016: Wade Blackwood remains USACK CEO; ACA staff continues to provide administrative services to USACK. Both organizations agree to focus on the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brazil.
March, 2017: USACK board submits letter to USOC supporting the ACA’s bid to become the new NGB; ACA board passes motion to submit application to USOC to apply for NGB status for paddlesports.
August, 2017: After discussions with USOC attorneys, USOC workgroup tasked with reviewing the ACA’s NGB application expresses support of NGB transfer.
September, 2017: ACA board approves motion to amend bylaws to comply with USOC regulations to become sport's new NGB; presents motion to membership for vote.
October 22, 2017: Voting concludes at ACA Annual Membership Meeting with ACA Board of Directors voting in favor of becoming the new NGB.
Find more info here: www.americancanoe.org/Olympics