Photo by John Rathwell


If you run into Max Karlsson at home on the streets of Boulder, Colo., you will find him to be a polite and unassuming teenager with just a hint of a Swedish accent. At a lanky 135 pounds, you probably won't guess that Max is an elite athlete and fierce competitor.


Read about Karlsson’s wilderness rite of passage on the long way in to Colorado’s legendary Big South Fork of the Cache la Poudre River, in the recent C&K Digital Feature FINDING THE SOURCE. Photo by Evan Stafford.

But looks can be deceiving. At age 18, Max has already proven that he can hang with — and beat — the very best kayakers in the world. Paddling since he was 9, Max's diverse training in slalom, freestyle, and squirt-boating has turned him into a true force to be reckoned with. In 2014, Max dominated every event he entered, winning all of the Freestyle World Cup events one after another in the Junior class (as well as the overall title), and also claiming the overall Men's Squirt title. 2015 marked his entrance into the Men's Pro class, and he stunned crowds at the 2015 World Championships on the Ottawa River’s thrashing Garberator Wave (seen below) with his explosive and calculated style.

In spite of Max's meteoric rise in the sport, he lacks any sense of entitlement. Max humbly puts his head down and works relentlessly toward goals without feeling the need to broadcast the moments when he achieves them. He doesn't concern himself with social media self-promotion, and always defers credit to his mentors as a way of ducking compliments. And once you take a look at these mentors, it's easy to see why Max has turned into the superstar that he has.

Photo by John Rathwell

“(Max) caught me off guard,” says C&K Contributor John Rathwell, who snapped this shot of Karlsson during his coverage of the recent 2015 ICF Freestyle World Championships. “Had no clue who he was. He might be one of the most promising kids on the water.”

Max got his start on Boulder Creek paddling alongside his father, Magnus, and then attended a Downstream Edge paddling camp at age 11. In 2010, he met U.S. slalom hero Scott Shipley, who helped him create an incredible slalom foundation. Canadian paddling legend Tyler Curtis ignited Max’s freestyle fire in 2012, and after developing a mentor relationship with elite U.S. freestyle competitor Dustin Urban, he hit his competition stride. Urban couldn't attend the 2013 freestyle worlds in North Carolina, so he tuned into the livestream broadcast and, via Magnus, coached Max in real-time.

When asked about his explosive and progressive paddling, Max credits the coaching and says that he views his style as, “a culmination of all the people who taught me how to paddle.

“I've learned something different from each of them, whether it was a random pointer in the pool when I as young, or the intense mental coaching by Dustin. Their lessons have brought me to where I am today."

Keep an eye out for this kid … he is just getting started!

— Read the rest of C&K’s FREESTYLE FOCUS series, with profiles on Alec Voorhees, Sage Donnelly, and Adriene Levknecht.

— Check out Gragtmans’s previous correspondence, highlighting rescue lessons learned from a tense pin situation caught on video on New York’s Raquette River.