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The Future of Whitewater Freestyle

The Future of Whitewater Freestyle
There have been many discussions on the future of whitewater freestyle ever since the first competitions. The fact that freestyle is still with us proves the early sceptics wrong, and the sport has come a long way: shorter boats, more professional paddlers, bigger features, highly developed rules, ICF organization and composite boats. But is more always better?

In this version of Playak Insiders, I asked a couple of key people where they think Whitewater Freestyle is going.

David Hughes
Director, New River Academy

Freestyle experience from Huge Experiences

From my 12-13 year observation freestyle is not going away or that would already have happened. It's actually making a resurgance with the whitewater parks. Still yet, it's a grassroots event held locally with a handful of kayakers travelling to events.

Will it be olympic? I don't know. I used to hope it would but it costs a lot to have a whitewater park and not all cities are willing to fund this project needed for an olympic freestyle venue.

Rodeo or freestyle is rodeo or freestyle, and that will always be the same. Like cycling there can exist several formats: road races, mountain biking, freestyle, x-games, downhill, velodrome, cyclecross... People will naturally compete to be national and world champions. That is what freestyle does... it allows persons to compete with an established judging system designed to separate the field. There may be other forms of kayaking that become more popular like boatercross, but freestyle will always exist.

Everyone should note that this is not a new subject. There have been several anti-rodeo campaigns over the years: LVM ran the "Rodeo is Dead" campaign, Epicocity began videos called "Bigger than Rodeo," and now Tribe is working to create a more entertaining venue.

Personally, I'd like to see an entertaining venue for kayaking but do not care for it when any of these entities choose to bash freestyle. No one has to be a part of it. It's great that they want to do something to progress kayaking, but that is a life committing undertaking. According to history freestyle has outlived each group that attacked it.

I was a collegiate wrestler which is a boring sport for spectators to watch. Wrestling has always had the same hopes of the sport becoming more entertaining but the reality is only those who wrestle truly enjoy watching it. Wrestling found its media venue with ultimate fighting where wrestlers progress after the olympics and become seen by the world's top media. This bigger media only helps wrestling. Surfing too is boring to watch. But video and photos are great. Still yet athletes will compete for a world champ title.

Freestyle is fun. Many many kayakers love freestyle kayaking. It's more readily available to the masses with WW parks. I paddle freestyle and extreme. I love progressing in freestyle - it gives me a superior work out. I too love running waterfalls.

So, freestyle is not dead. As the director of a high school for kayakers I'm seeing a resurgance. We had five students sign for our school this year to train for world championships with one runner-up world champ, NZ's Courtney Kerin. Swain County NC's Nantahala just won a $1.8 million grant to make a wave for 2012 World Cup and 2013 World Championships. In the USA the National Point Series is back, and whitewater parks are promoting bigger freestyle events.

In the 90's I remember 70 experts/event trying to qualify for the pro class. Those days are gone, but there is an apparent resurgance.

Simon Westgarth
Owner, Gene17

Freestyle is heading to the Olympics and on to bigger features, but not necessarily at the same time or with the same competitors.

The ICF involvement should take Freestyle to the Olympics, all the right noises and actions are being made and done. This for the structured NGB, is probably the way forward, IOC recognition, central funding and athletic programmes. Currently the paddlesport industry has quite an involvement in Freestyle, with boat and gear development for new products and sponsosrship of paddlers to market these. Once the funding is from the NGB's, like slalom, paddlesports industry involvement, will lessen. A few boat manufactures will remain, and mainly developing site specific boats to win specific competitions, again like the direction slalom has gone.

Big wave or hole competitions in remote locations, as we saw in the Grand Prix, I hope we see more of this, it's at the core of white water paddling, high adventure whilst challenging oneself against the elements. Of course freestyle will become more elitist, it has done so, year on year for some time now, yet there is something more appealing about big tricks on huge waves, than a freestyle routine for the most points. There will be paddlers that do both, and some that specialise in one or the other, the paddlesport industry can market a paddler performing amazing tricks, as well as the current World Champion, still at some point, there will be a drift between the two positions, and this is almost certainly when freestyle finally arrives at the Olympics.

Too think back to a 1980's edition of the BCU Handbook, where it mocked an ender, as hot dogging, stating that this one day would have it's own discipline, show just how far we have come, along way baby, and it's just as cool now as it was then, to pop a trick in your boat, ride a big wave and push for something different. Good luck to them all future Olympians and big wave riders alike.

Earl Richmond
Owner, CKS

Freestyle is not dead....

Freestyle kayaking will never die, as a genre of paddling. It is way too fun for too many paddlers. Freestyle offers those adjacent to the abundant play features a great and super accessibility outlet to paddle and blow off some steam. But I do expect competitive Freestyle to change soon. It will be forced to.

The public's interest is just not where it was. What has happened to the hay days we saw 10 years ago. A time where everyone was talking about it and super excited to watch Freestyle comps. What happened to all the support, the sponsors and maybe most important factor, the money? Those are some big questions, and I only have a little input.

It seems like the public is having a hard time focusing on the comps. It is a sport that is super hard (looks super hard) for many to even fathom that they can even try in a lifetime. The scoring can be confusing to many. The events are very long and can be drawn out. Many venues are not very spectator friendly and do not offer alternative activities to keep people around. Sponsor dollars have gone to other sports that get more exposure and draw to a larger audience, like the ski, snowboard, bike, moto, and other extreme sports.

Would I like to see it succeed? Yes. How can we all make it succeed? We may need to start over. 1. Do not stop making Freestyle kayaks. Competition between manufactures is a healthy thing. When there is one big player in a market and many companies that have "thrown in the towell" the public notices that. 2. Have and host more fun and easy comps. Make Freestyle more obtainable to more people. 3. Simplify the scoring system and make it easier to understand. 4. Support the athletes on a local and global level. 5. New blood should be injected into the Freestyle scene with new characters. We have all seen the handful of people dominate the circuit for past 5 years now. It was a lot more fun to watch events when you did not know the outcome before it started. 6. Host Freestyle events in conjunction with music, beer, and other outdoor pursuits that we all love to be a part of.

Let's work on this together. There would be nothing greater than to see Freestyle kayaking be more successful and with more international exposure. And nothing worse than seeing it dissapear foreever. It's future is in all our hands, not just one set of hands.

John Weld
Owner, Immersion Research

Freestyle & Surfing- fun sports with boring competitons

Freestyle kayaking competitions have a lot of the same issues surrounding a typical ASP surfing event. The venue may or may not be the most exciting, conditions may or may not be that great, and the competitors are basing their routines on what will earn them the highest score, not on the most interesting moves. Competitions tend to be long, and extremely repetitive. Furthermore, in freestyle- even more so than surfing- luck has a lot to do with victory. These are not the ingredients for a great spectator event.

This is not to say that freestyle competitions are always boring, nor that there is no place for them, or that they don't add to the overall sport of kayaking. To the contrary, freestyle competitions- like ASP tour events- help drive the sport forwards in many ways. They just need to be run without expectations of huge, engaged crowds.

In regards to Olympic potential. Above and beyond the issue of medal counts and other political obstacles of actually getting a sport into the games, freestylers should beware of the lure of the olympics. Imagine a sport where 1 (one) male competitor and 1 (one) female competitor from your country get to go the premiere event. A look at what happened in slalom in the US following the 1992 games suggests that a lot of people wont even try to compete with those kind of odds. Today, US slalom is a mere shadow of what it was pre-olympics.

Mathieu Dumoulin
French Freestyle Champion

We need to find our own way

I think we have to find out what makes freestyle a very fun and attractive sport and find the way to promote it. Trying to change it to make it stick to the olympic mold is probably a bad idea. It would totally change the sport we all felt in love with, take some of us far away from it and attract some new people who are only in it for competing and making money.

Why do we have to change to find the success? Isn't it cheating? I'm sure that it's more about finding the right way to bring it to the public. I agree with making freestyle kayaking an olympic sport, but I hope that if it happens, the Olympics will not become the main event on our calendar. I hope it will be like in half pipe snowboarding, where the Olympics are one more week on the schedule, but the very fun X game is still the big thing.

I would say that the future of freestyle competition is the white water Grand prix: All white water skills asked to win, media friendly, rules and judges not too important, go big or go home.

Patrick Camblin
Creator/Director at Whitewater Grand Prix

Different Directions

Freestyle is going forward in different directions. The depth of talent at the ICF Freestyle Championships continues to grow deeper and the level of technical ability amongst those at the top is truly impressive. While these small holes are certainly far from the most exciting whitewater/freestyle features in the world, the paddlers at the top continue to put on an impressive display of technical ability. These small-feature events are the norm simply because that is what most people have available to paddle on, and for that reason they will continue... They are healthy for freestyle and kayaking in general as they are a good/safe starting point and give young kayakers something to train towards... Spending time on these features also gives incredible edge control / quick rolling ability and generally lays a strong foundation for those wanting to take their skills onto harder whitewater.

From my perspective the problem starts coming in when these small-featured events are given the most emphasis/time/money in a manner that makes it seem that they are the pinnacle of whitewater. Kayaking is a diverse activity with many styles and all levels of difficulty available, and when these small-featured events are put out to the broader world as being the most exciting thing our sport has to offer, it greatly undersells what we have.

To get back to the question of where freestyle is going... competition wise, it will continue on the path it's on, very technical, small-featured events. Since it is clear that these competitions are the focus of our sports largest organization, the ICF must at least make an effort to improve their systems... They can improve the current format with a more easily understood scoring system for spectators (/100 like most other freestyle sports), a much higher emphasis on style (fluidity/amplitude/speed/power) and a concerted effort to speed up the amount of time between competitors. They also need to look into how other sports cover their events and try to replicate that, as they have continued to fall short in that regard.

Freestyle will also continue in other directions, from the annual big wave Stakeout in Quebec, to events like the Grand Prix that try to highlight freestyle's potential on bigger features. There will continue to be other initiatives taken to drive and motivate all these talented young freestylers to get out and find/surf/document bigger features... These are the videos/photos/imagery that have the ability to inspire non-kayakers to get into the sport and it's certainly been the direction our crew has been pushing for some time now.

Clay Wright
Team / RnD at Jackson Kayak
Clay Coaching potential Olympians

Long after the '90s Boom' - Freestyle still strong, getting more serious

Freestyle is going strong but also branched out quite a bit. There are downriver freestylers, squirtboaters, big-wave-only freestylers, video stars and video competition formats, professional competition circuit boaters, and thousands of weekenders who surf, spin, and might enter a World Kayak 'hometown throwdown' for a chance to win Smith's, Mt. Khaki's or just drink beer afterwards with friends. Not everyone goes to 'the rodeo' anymore, even those who like to compete have many, many options.

While the 'boom' of the 90's passed with $1.50 gas and the open-ended job market, the boats, tricks, and participants continue to evolve rapidly, but like every other sport on a smaller scale. Few can afford to paddle every weekend and fewer can afford to drive to where the water is even once a month. Luckily the artificial play-park boom is bringing freestyle closer to home than ever - no mountains or gradient required - let's hope this trend continues to bring whitewater fun into mainstream population centers.

As for ICF / Olympic Potential: The ICF has taken the reigns of one chunk of competitive Freestyle and we've sacrificed some spontaneity, creativity and participation in hopes of gaining Olympic status and the resources that come with that. Already several European Teams have athlete sponsorship, coaching, even training facilities. Top-seated Olympic Committee officials flew into Germany for the recent World Championships that haven't seen a slalom event in years, so we are definitely being watched carefully. It has always seemed impossible but now I think there is a real chance Dane or Emily Jackson will get the chance to wear those 5 rings just like their dad - and without having to run gates. Sure the fun-filled World Champs of 1993-2005 were a bit 'lighter' in tone but it's kinda cool our little niche in the whitewater world is being taken so seriously. It's a cool new development, but like slalom will never fill the needs or desires of the creative kayakers across the globe. For them there is everything else in the world to try and plenty of young new kayakers to participate.

James Bebbington
Freestyle World Champion
Stage 5 of the Whitewater Grand Prix

I think it's growing, just branching into a few different styles

My view is that freestyle is very very strong right now - their are tons of juniors coming up into the sport largely due to the variety of events, perfect boats for all sizes and abilities and the shear amount of good quality videos and reports going up all over the net etc.

I just think it's starting to branch off into a few separate types of format. Freestyle needs all its areas to flourish and I think it's growing right now.

We have the existing ICF events like the Worlds just gone, which is the more olympic side of freestyle, it's super technical kayaking fought very closely with the top athletes training hard full time.

You have the events like the Tribe Whitewater Grand Prix which was all about showcasing kayaking on the biggest waves (and creeks) out there, it was all about grouping together some of the world's top kayakers and getting out trying to push each other on to go as big as possible on spectacular waves. I think there will be more and more of these kind of events after the success of the WWGP.

Then you have the fun and youth events which are all about having fun, getting young paddlers into competitions with a bit of a looser format of judging.

My feeling is we need all these areas to keep progressing to reach freestyle's potential.

Seeing how many talented freestylers there are around the world now and how many juniors are coming up along with the new developments of the various carbon boats and new interest from the main plastic manufacturers to start working on new freestyle designs tells me that it must be growing again. I think we are at the beginning of a new boom.

As for the Olympics, I think that it could well be a part of that and that would be great for the sport but then it would also need more of the WW GP style events to showcase the really spectacular environments it can be done in.

Vive La Freestyle!


Some links to related sites and articles:

• ICF: Freestyle Worlds 2011 Website.
• Whitewater Grand Prix: WWGP Website.
• Rapid Magazine: Does Freestyle need fixing and is this how to do it?
• CKS Blog: Freestyle Controversy. Dane and EJ Discuss Competition.

Feel free to use the forms below to add your own opinions.



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