By Nouria Abou-Newman

After decades without change, this year the International Canoe Federation (ICF) has introduced a new event to the slalom World Cup and World Championship program: the extreme slalom cross. Combining elements of a classic slalom race with the head-to-head, no-holds-barred style of a boater-cross featuring Eskimo rolls is what inspired the Youth Olympics race format. The extreme slalom cross attempts to infuse a more adrenaline-filled atmosphere into the traditional world of slalom.

Once the slalom part of the competition is over, athletes leave the comfort of their 350-cm composite slalom boats for the less familiar confines of sub-9-foot plastic kayaks. The race begins with four kayakers dropping off a 10- to 12-foot ramp. From there they must navigate through several inflatable gates, which eerily resemble sausages, as they battle to the finish. Unlike a traditional slalom, athletes are allowed to touch gate poles without incurring a penalty, but if a competitor misses one of these gates, they are automatically disqualified. At one point, athletes are given a tactical choice between navigating one of two upstream gates positioned on either side of the river. Somewhere along the way, buoys mark the designated area where competitors must complete their mandatory roll.

K-1 Women battling it out. Photo: Balint Vekassy (ICF)

Utilizing a bracket-style format, each heat consists of four athletes with the top two finishers advancing to the next round. The seeding for the initial heats is done through a grand prix time trial where athletes sprint straight down the course. Much like a standard boater-cross, contact is permitted as long as paddlers keep their hands on their paddle at all times and do not use their paddle to purposely whack their fellow competitors.

Thus far, opinions about this new event have been mixed. According to Vávra Hradilek, 2012 Olympic Silver Medalist and former Slalom World Champion, it's a refreshing change but there is still work left to be done. "Generally I love the fact we have another exciting event included in our racing opportunities,” Hradilek says. “People on the bank watching are close to action and immediately recognize the winners and losers. That's what they want and they also can see battles, crashes, efforts. Really, this has potential. Just ICF does not yet have a handle on the style of it. Instead of doing cool new stuff we are forced to do such things like Eskimo roll. Imagine a snowboarder forced to fall down and recover while racing a snowboard-cross event."

Vávra Hradilek, Mike Dawson, Ondřej Tunka, and Vit Přindiš celebrate after awards. Photo courtesy of Mike Dawson

Norwegian whitewater legend Mariann Sæther, who has experience competing in both slalom and extreme whitewater kayak events, doesn't quite understand the point of this new event. "I don’t really understand the purpose of it,” Sæther says. “I mean the slalom course is great for slalom but if you’re going to do a boater-cross with plastic boats, take it to the river. If it’s just to get to the Olympics they should remove both of the word ‘extreme’ and the Eskimo roll. It feels a little bit like a circus, to entertain: 'Here comes the slalom cross you know with the ramp, the roll…' Also they want to do a boater-cross in plastic boats but at the moment only slalom paddlers are doing it. It would make much more sense if whitewater paddlers could take part in the event."

With many nations still holding their best athletes out of the competition due to injury concerns and the world’s best whitewater athletes not yet involved, extreme slalom cross remains a newborn discipline whose future is hard to read. Only time will tell whether it will turn out to be a refreshing new way to showcase the skills and precision of whitewater kayaking or an anachronism.

— Nouria Abou-Newman was named the 2015 Female Paddler of the Year. Read more C&K coverage of the French standout in both slalom and steep-creek ‘extreme’ races, including the story of her historic first complete descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine.

UPDATED OCT 2: The 2017 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, which began Tuesday, Sept. 26, finished with the extreme slalom cross event yesterday (Oct. 1). Check the ICF website for full results and the video stream, including the following:
The women’s final, won by Germany’s Caroline Trompeter, followed by Brazil’s Ana Satila in second, the Czech Republic’s Amalie Hilgertova in third, and the Netherlands’ Martina Wegman in fourth.

The men’s final, won by the Czech Republic’s Vavrinec Hradilek, followed by France’s Boris Neveu in second, New Zealand’s Mike Dawson in third and the Czech Republic’s Vit Prindis in fourth.