Is Claire O’Hara Female Paddler of the Year?

By Conor Mihell

Claire O'Hara wasn't a familiar face in whitewater when she toppled the big-name likes of Emily Jackson and Ruth Gordon to win the women's K-1 title at the 2011 world freestyle kayaking championships in Prattling, Germany. But the unheralded Brit's triumph came as no surprise to those in the freestyle kayaking know. Her climb to the top of the podium culminated years of regimented training under coach Dennis Newton.

O'Hara, 31, believes this sort of intense training is the future of competitive freestyle. In a new documentary by British paddler and filmmaker Polly Green, O'Hara discusses the rapid evolution of women's freestyle. We caught up with O'Hara as she prepares to defend her K-1 and squirt titles at the 2013 world championships, set for early September on North Carolina's Nantahala River. Click HERE to watch the film in its entirety. Why do you think the 2013 freestyle world championships will be a breakout event for women boaters?
Claire O'Hara: Women's freestyle has been progressing massively in recent years with the developments in boat designs and a real passion within the women in the sport to push their limits and achieve the highest level of paddling possible. This year will be a great celebration of this movement forward and I expect we will see many talent paddlers from across the world performing high-scoring rides. With all the moves now being thrown by female paddlers and a move towards comb(inations)’s and links it's going to be a very exciting event.

How has the influx of women from outside of the U.S. influenced the freestyle scene?
Previously the US and Canadian paddlers have been leading the field and setting the bar high. What's exciting at the moment is that they are no longer alone. The standard of female paddlers from across the world has been rising fast and with it comes success. This international surge to achieve greatness has created an even healthier and more competitive scene. There are some extremely talented, determined and driven paddlers out there all pushing new limits and striving to perform the highest level tricks and routines.

This isn't the first time there has been a push from outside the U.S. Paddlers such as Deb Pinneger (GBR), Tanya Faux (AUS) and Jutta Kaiser (GER) have been instrumental in helping bringing the sport this far. What is great now is that it seems to be a push from a greater number of paddlers, across more countries and ages. At the moment it's a little like Europe versus the Americas versus the rest of the world, making for some really healthy and fun competitions.

Just how much training goes into preparation for the world championships? How long has the upcoming event at Nantahala Outdoor Center been on your mind?
As much [time and training] as you can give given your situation at the time. For me, it has been a four-year focused long-term development plan that is bringing me to this year's worlds. Four years ago my coach Dennis Newton (Sweetwater Coaching) was setting ideas and fundamentals in place that are now beginning to come together as we head into the final prep stages. At the moment I am fortunate to be able to be training full time.

What's your secret to getting in the zone to make sure you make the most of your time on the feature in a competition?
I don't really have a secret to get me into the zone. The big thing for me is to feel happy and prepared. Then directly before the event to do a warm-up and prep routine that gets me into a good tempo. After that it generally takes a flush or a power flip or a really good start move or sequence to really get me focused or into the zone. When I'm ready it just happens!

Who are your top-five women to watch at the 2013 world championships?
I think at the moment my main competition will come from Ruth Gordon (CAN), Marlene Devillez (FRA), Nina Csonkova (SVK), Haley Mills (USA) and Hitomi Takaku (JPN), but who knows what will happen when we get closer to the worlds … there are definitely plenty more women with a great chance. It could be anyone's game.

More freestyle kayaking: Check out this new video from Lee Visual’s Kelsey Thompson, artfully showcasing Wave Sport designer and U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team paddler Bryan Kirk’s passion for playboating.