Evy Leibfarth competing in the women's kayak (K1) semifinal at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 4, 2019 in Lunahuana, Peru.
The age on the registration certificates says she’s just 15, but on the world cup courses she’s navigated like someone a decade older, Evy Leibfarth has shown a level of maturity well beyond her years.
It’s taken only two world cup events for Leibfarth, the daughter of a former elite kayaker father and kayak instructor mother, to go from relative unknown to top Olympic hopeful. At her very first ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup event in Bratislava, Slovakia, last month, the teenager from North Carolina qualified for finals in both the individual women’s canoe and kayak events, finishing seventh in the former and 10th in the latter.
The splashy debut raised some eyebrows. But then Leibfarth took bronze in canoe at the world cup in Tacen, Slovenia, a week later, sharing the podium with idol Jessica Fox of Australia, a two-time Olympic medalist and four-time C1 world champion, and multiple-time world medalist Viktoria Wolffhardt of Austria, becoming the first U.S. woman to medal in canoe slalom at a world cup event. That was what made the canoe community execute a collective eskimo roll, which is a canoe-y way of saying they swooned.
“It’s hard to say what I was expecting, because I try and focus on my individual paddling rather than results and placement,” Leibfarth recounted to TeamUSA.org. “After Bratislava, I realized that if I continued focusing on my runs, I could do well though, which was a great feeling. In Tacen, I put down a series of runs I was really happy with, which led to my medal. I have trained really hard for something like this, but it was still a shock!”
Leibfarth will next compete in both kayak and the non-Olympic event of extreme kayak at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, which begin July 26.
Canoe watchers may be gaping at her accomplishment, but all this is really nothing new to Leibfarth, who has had years to get used to being the young up-and-comer racing against older and more experienced athletes. In a way, it was like that even at the beginning, near her home in Bryson City, North Carolina, when 5-year-old Evy was keen to paddle every part of the Nantahala River, especially the Class III rapid right at the end of the otherwise placid course.
When her father Lee told her she needed to master a roll before she could tackle the rapid, young Evy initially cried. Then she got determined.
“The next morning, she got up early and asked us to take her to the lake to practice her roll,” recalled Lee Leibfarth, a former U.S. team coach who now oversees his daughter’s training. “As soon as she got her roll, she begged us to take her to the river, where she had a successful run through the big rapid. That tenacity impressed me, and she still has it today.”
His daughter has never stopped asking to push to the next level, he said, and she’s certainly never believed she was too young to tackle anything.
“She loves to paddle and she loves to be challenged,” he added. “When she was younger, she always looked towards competing with much older kids and wanted me to take her kayaking on more difficult rivers. Evy is not at all afraid of bigger whitewater courses and this fearlessness certainly helps in her racing.”
For her part, Leibfarth sees her relative youth as a boon rather than something to be compensated for.
“In my head, I generally feel older,” she remarked. “Since I first started paddling, I have always been pushing myself against the older kids, and now they are who I am on the team with, so a lot of times I consider myself their age. Especially with senior events, like the world cups, it is important to stay focused and have the emotional maturity to deal with stress. But for me, because I am so young, I feel like I have an advantage because I can really focus on the fun side of the sport.”
Leibfarth, along with 2016 Olympian Ashley Nee and 18-year-old Sage Donnelly, have excelled in the exciting extreme slalom event. But with the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 a year away, that is where Leibfarth is turning her attention. Ten years after that initial challenge on the Nantahala, she continues to dream big.
"Becoming an Olympic medalist is a long-term goal of mine,” she said, noting that the first step will be earning her country an Olympic quota at this September’s ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in La Seu de’Urgell, Spain.
“No matter how I do at that event, though, I want to come out feeling happy with my performance,” she added. “Although I will be training hard for a spot, I know that I have a lot of years to make that dream happen.”
Such is the promise of youth.