As a competitive whitewater kayaker, Scott Shipley established himself as one of the best in the world. A three-time Olympian who competed at the Games from 1992-2000, he won three world championship silver medals and was crowned overall world cup champion three times.
Although his competitive days are behind him, Shipley remains a dynamic force in the world of whitewater canoe and kayak as the designer of world-class whitewater parks such as the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Lee Valley facility that hosted the London 2012 Olympic competition, and a brand new facility in Oklahoma City, which will make its debut this weekend with the second leg of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
With a name like Shipley, and with a father who was a ship designer, it would seem inevitable that he would use his engineering degrees from Georgia Tech to design ships for the Navy. But the lure of whitewater brought him back to the sport in a different capacity.
“I was reading about a guy who did whitewater park design right before I graduated with my master’s,” Shipley said. “I called him up and asked ‘How do I get into that?’ He said ‘I’ve heard of you, come on out and we’ll give you a job.’ I worked for five years for his company, then I started my own company, focusing on whitewater parks designed by paddlers.”
His first major project was the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a project that pulled him in like an irresistible current. It began with a few phone calls he received with questions about how he would approach such an endeavor.
“When I was in grad school they were calling and asking a lot of questions, things like ‘Does this make sense?’ or ‘How would you do that?’ so I was spending a lot of time in grad school on the phone with the guy who would eventually develop it,” Shipley recalled. “Right after I got out of grad school and started working for this guy, the project went to bid. I said ‘This is a park I know a lot about, so let’s chase after it.’ We won that project, and it was my first big project right out of college.
The guy, as it turned out, was Jeff Lyons, now CEO of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a state-of-the-art facility that provides entertainment opportunities to more than a million visitors each year. Of those, a quarter million go rafting, making NWC the largest whitewater rafting company in the world. Doing the math, one of four people who come to the NWC actually get wet, a fact that intrigued Shipley and helped shape the business model for his company, S2O Design and Engineering. The Oklahoma City venue is the latest and greatest expression of that model.
“The wet side is your anchor and your attraction,” Shipley said, his excitement evident in his rapid-fire speaking pattern, words tumbling over themselves like water through one of his venues. “But the dry side is where a lot of your public sits, so we started to look at these venues from a ‘What could you do without a paddle’ perspective. When you look at the Oklahoma City park, we’ve got a concert venue, we’ve got a restaurant venue, we’ve got conference space, we’ve got other activities like a rope line, a zip line, a kids’ play area. We try to make it so the whole family can come out and get active. It’s about healthy, active outdoor lifestyles.”
With so many opportunities to pursue an active lifestyle, Shipley believes the potential exists for the venue to develop into a lifestyle hub.
“For most people – we’ve seen this in Charlotte and we’re starting to see this in London, I’m sure we will see it in Oklahoma City – it becomes their clubhouse,” he said. “In the same way as golf communities, it becomes a place where you can go three days a week after work.”
Even more exciting to Shipley is the urban location of the Oklahoma City venue.
“From Bricktown in downtown Oklahoma City, it’s a five-to-10-minute walk to this whitewater center,” he noted, “so we’ve literally brought this healthy, active outdoor lifestyle within reach of millions of people who never have been exposed to it before. That’s a huge thing. …
“When you talk about growing the sport, when you talk about getting kids active and leading positive lifestyles and allowing them to make positive choices in lifestyles, Oklahoma City now has this venue that exposes them to a whole world they may never have known.”
Shipley understands the power that exposure to positive choices can have on people’s lives. He gained worldwide attention and received the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Jack Kelly Fair Play Award in 1996 when he contributed one of his kayaks to Samir Karabasic, a Bosnian athlete whose boat had been destroyed in the rapids of the Ocoee River just days before Olympic competition was to begin.
That led to Shipley leading an aid mission to Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with more than $40,000 in donated equipment for Karabasic’s club, which had been destroyed while the city was under siege during the Serbian conflict. Thirty young people came to a clinic Shipley held during that trip. Two men from that group, Dinko Mulic and Emir Sarganovic, developed into competitive kayakers and represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, placing 22nd and 23rd, respectively. Mulic competed at the Games again in 2012, finishing 22nd for Croatia in London.
The Oklahoma City whitewater park has the ability to adapt for the future, in part through Shipley’s patented technology, Rapidbloc, which is used to create the whitewater features in the park’s channel.
“It is a moveable obstacle system that allows you to place any rock anywhere in the channel,” Shipley explained. “It works a little bit like Legos in that you can stack them or arrange them in different ways to create different waves and different features. It stems from the idea that we want our water parks to be state of the art 10 years after they are built. This block allows us to create a channel that adapts with the sport. It’s a totally re-designable venue. People can say ‘I wish I had this’ or ‘This is my favorite thing, why can’t we have that?’ and we literally let them go build it.”
Another way the venue is ready for the future is that it is designed it include freestyle kayaking, a sport that has previously been nominated for inclusion on the Olympic program.
“If you look at the venues in Athens, Barcelona, London, Rio, they all pump a lot of water, but they never put it all in the same place,” Shipley said. “For the freestyle event, we put 1,200 cubic feet per second in the same place. We took both of our channels and combined them at the bottom. It allows us to create this mega-freestyle feature, which is super fun for people who pursue trick kayaking. They can get in and surf, they can do cartwheels, air flips — they can do all these things that are on the cutting edge of that sport as well.”
The freestyle feature is showcased in the venue’s design.
“We’ve put that feature right in the middle of the restaurant and festival area,” he said, “so there can be a concert, a beer festival, whatever you like, and right in the middle of it you’ve got this free entertainment going on in the freestyle guys out there surfing in surf kayaks or with surfboards. It creates an opportunity for lots of different kinds of entertainment.”
Early in his competitive career, Shipley was a frequent participant in the Champion International Whitewater Series, an international race series staged domestically by USA Canoe/Kayak. Not only did it give Shipley the opportunity to race against top foreign competition without having to travel overseas, it also gave him an understanding of the impact events can have on their host communities.
“When you have an Olympic Trials at the National Whitewater Center, 30,000 people come,” he said. “When you look at the economic impact of 30,000 people coming into that community, some percentage stay in hotels, all of them eat in restaurants, all of them go shopping. You start to come up with numbers that are very realistic that translate to about $3 million in economic impact from those events. When we design these venues now, we try to design them in a way that creates that positive economic impact so the next city will say ‘Hey, I want that for my town.’ If you look at Charlotte, very conservative estimates show that it has a $37 million per year impact on the local community. I would argue that it’s more like $48 to $50 million.”
Shipley is proud that his company has contributed to American whitewater canoeing success on the international stage.
“Everyone who’s made the Olympic team so far are from our Charlotte park,” he said, pointing to kayaker Michal Smolen and canoeist Casey Eichfeld, who earned their Rio Olympic spots in April at the National Whitewater Center. “That means a great deal to me. It also means a great deal that both Olympic Trials are on S2O parks. We’ve set that standard in America.”