2011 AWP Whitewater World Series from Tribe Alliance on Vimeo.

Isaac Levinson and Evan Garcia secured a win at this weekend’s Little White Salmon Race, the first stage of the Association of Whitewater Professionals' 2012 Whitewater World Series. Levinson finished No. 2 in the inaugural 2011 series' final world ranking, behind France's Eric Deguil, who competed in all six events. The AWP series is an international six-stage point series of rotating events, founded in 2010 by Canadian pro kayaker and event organizer Patrick Camblin, and overseen by an international board of five members.

"We're trying pick sections you'll be stoked to race, some will have money up for grabs, a bunch are the big races of the year anyway, some are more grassroots," Camblin says. "We want to stand behind the events that are being held on better whitewater, and as we do, more people will show up and we'll help grow these events, and provide more incentive for athletes to come in the future."

While there is no current incentive in terms of a cash purse for the series, the structure of a world ranking certainly gives athletes leverage to market themselves for sponsorship—and the much-needed funds travel to the event stages overseas.

"I think it will work," Levinson says. "It awards consistency … it's the future of whitewater racing for sure."

Stayed tuned to CanoeKayak.com for more photos and results from the Little White Race, plus a preview of this weekend’s North Fork Championship.

2012 AWP Whitewater World Series

Stage 1: The Little White Championship (Washington), June 3
Stage 2: The North Fork Championship (Idaho), June 8-9
Stage 3: Voss Extreme Week (Norway), June 26-28
Stage 4: Devils Extreme Race (Czech Republic), Sept. 1
Stage 5: Sickline Championships (Austria), Oct. 4-7
Stage 6: Green Race / AWP Final (North Carolina), Nov. 3

2011 AWP overall top 10 final ranking

1. Eric Deguil (FRA)
2. Isaac Levinson (US)
3. Sam Sutton (NZ)
4. Severin Haberling (CH)
5. Ron Fischer (CH)
6. Michele Ramazza (ITA)
7-T. Andrew Holcombe (US)
7-T. Filippo Brunetti (ITA)
9. Mike Dawson (NZ)
10. Jason Beakes (US)

Levinson, sixth-tenths of a second from the 2011 Sickline podium, finished seventh at the October race in Austria—the only North American in the top 20. Photos Jens Klatt

The following story originally ran in the June issue of Canoe & Kayak, now available on newsstands.

Opening the Gates:
Slalom savvy pushes Isaac Levinson to banner creek-racing year

By Dave Shively

There's no pressure in kayaking quite like starting the Green Race in pole position. It's the biggest event in downriver "extreme" kayaking, and it's held on the sport's most-hallowed ground: the steepest half-mile of North Carolina's iconic Green River Narrows.

Isaac Levinson was starting the 2011 Green Race in pole position because the 2010 champion, New Zealander Mike Dawson, was not there to defend his title. That left many competitors wondering how the curly haired 22-year-old from Atlanta, who goes all of 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, would handle the pressure.

They didn't know the half of it.

Just over a week before the November race, Levinson had suffered a freak bout with Bell's palsy, a debilitating neurological disease triggered by an ear infection.

"I had no motor skills in the right half of my face. I couldn't close my eye and had no hearing so my balance was all thrown off," Levinson says. He went from training on the Green every day to resting on his couch.

Three days before the Green Race he decided to get back on the river, Bell's palsy be damned. Levinson, who wears contacts and still couldn't blink his right eye, donned a pair of Rec Specs and ran a trial lap on the Class V gauntlet. The goggles quickly fogged up, turning his trial run into "a total fail." The next day he returned with a contact in his good eye. He paddled conservatively, yet still managed to clock a competitive 4-minute, 30-second time.

Momentum is a funny thing.

Levinson began the year in serious pursuit of his Olympic dream. He made the 2011 U.S. slalom team racing C-2 with 2008 Olympian Benn Fraker, but after finishing outside the top 20 at the ICF World Championships, he decided to renew his focus on creek racing. "I decided I needed to kayak because I like it, not because it's a job," he says.

Weeks later at the Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championship in Austria, Levinson lined up against a personal paddling hero, Czech slalom legend Vavrinec Hradilek. Levinson joked that he'd run naked through the host village if he beat the 2009 slalom kayak world champion, currently ranked No. 2 in the ICF World Cup Standings. Levinson nearly had to make good on that pledge, finishing just half a second behind Hradilek.

"With the time and experience in my creekboat, I could transfer the speed I'd gained from slalom and start being consistently competitive," Levinson says. "If you look at the top guys, they're just trying to beat themselves, to have the best run they can."

So he started to emulate the top guy in extreme kayaking: Dawson, the 25-year-old Kiwi who's molded himself as the proto-racer capable of winning in both the slalom and creek-racing worlds. Dawson is currently looking ahead to his first Olympics representing New Zealand. Except now, he's got a concern looking behind him as well.

"In the last year alone, Isaac's ability to lay down good run after good run on the creek races has improved tenfold—he's now a serious contender at every single race," Dawson says. "The more time he spends training hard in his slalom boat is helping him become increasingly competitive in his creekboat."

Case in point: the 2011 Green Race, which Levinson won despite having only one fully functional eye. And he took the momentum right into 2012, competing in four of six events in the Association of Whitewater Professionals' Whitewater World Series. Levinson finished No. 2 in the inaugural series' final world ranking, behind France's Eric Deguil, who competed in all six events.

And that original Olympic dream is still alive, as Levinson went back to glass boats and gates, living in Charlotte and training full-time for April's U.S. Olympic Team Trials. For Levinson, earning a ticket to London would be "like a scratch golfer taking 10 strokes off his score." Still, he raced well at the slalom trials, finishing ninth in the hyper-competitive K-1 class and earning a spot on the U.S. Under-23 national team. Levinson was one of many noted creek and freestyle paddlers at the trials, including Pat Keller, Jason Beakes and Eric, Dane, and Emily Jackson. "Slalom reminds you to really pay attention to the water and be super aggressive," says 2009 freestyle world champion Emily Jackson, who finished third at the trials and plans to race in the slalom World Cup this summer. Levinson also agrees the dual disciplines pay off when paddling off-piste. "It's awesome to go from slalom mode to feeling good about decisions on waterfalls and expeditions," he says.

Now Levinson's focus shifts to the Teva Mountain Games and an AWP world title, but it really boils back down to the draw of defending his title back home on the Green: "As far as crowds and energy go, there's 1,000 people, two miles from civilization, screaming their lungs off, looking for friends out there," Levinson says, "winning the Green Race was a life goal, as strong a goal as going to the Olympics."