Evy Leibfarth competes at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 4, 2019 in Lunahuana, Peru.
Evy Leibfarth entered her first slalom race on the spur of the moment.
En route to a family river run on the Nantahala near their home in Bryson City, North Carolina, young Evy spotted a race going on.
“She insisted on trying to do the race,” said her father, Lee. “At the time she was only 6 or 7 and she had this tiny, little pink kayak. I had to follow her down the racecourse.”
The little girl in the little pink kayak made the podium in the junior class.
“Oh, boy, she really does enjoy doing this,” her father recalled thinking. “That was the first inkling of it.”
Flash forward to today and Leibfarth, who turned 17 in January, is favored in the U.S. Olympic and National Canoe/Kayak Slalom Team Trials Monday through Wednesday at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Leibfarth is a double dipper, paddling in both K1 and C1, the discipline in which women will be eligible to compete for the first time at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She’ll also race in extreme slalom K1, which will join the Olympic program in Paris in 2024.
Considering that Leibfarth wasn’t even eligible to compete on the senior circuit until her 15th birthday in 2019, her rise to the top echelon of world slalom (previously called whitewater slalom) has been faster than a boat in a swift current.
“I’d never competed at that level before so I didn’t really have any expectations,” said Leibfarth who began competing internationally in junior events when she was 12.
Upon making the finals in her first two senior world cups, “I was like, ‘Whoa, I guess that maybe I can do this pretty well.’”
Leibfarth became the youngest woman to medal at a senior world cup when she won a bronze medal in C1 in Slovenia and was the first U.S. woman to make the podium in the event. About three weeks later, she took the bronze in K1 at the junior and U23 world championships in Poland.
In August 2019, Leibfarth won her first major international gold medal at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, claiming the K1 crown by a 10-second margin after a clean final run. She also won the Pan Am silver medal in extreme slalom, in which four boats race at the same time.
About two months later, Leibfarth paddled in her first world championships at La Seu d’Urgell, Spain, the 1992 Olympic venue. She placed fourth in C1 to secure a quota spot for Team USA at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“That was just crazy,” Leibfarth said. “It was one of my big goals, but it was a little bit unexpected for me still – and then I’ve just been pushing towards getting that Olympic spot.”
Qualification for Team USA is based on the Olympic Trials combined with results from a World Cup event in Prague on June 11-13. If Leibfarth qualifies for the sole berth in C1, she will also be allowed to race in K1 at the Olympics. (Actually, Leibfarth earned a quota spot in K1 as well as C1 at the 2019 worlds, but athletes were only allowed to keep one spot. She chose C1, in which she is ranked higher.)
Paddling All in the Family
While Leibfarth has worked hard for her success, she was practically born with whitewater running through her veins. Her mother, Jean Folger, is a former raft guide and kayak instructor who paddled while pregnant with Evy. She took some of the action photos on her daughter’s website.
Lee is a former national whitewater slalom team member and U.S. Junior National Team Coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s before Evy was born.
“When I was probably 3 and 4, I’d sit in his lap and he’d take me down easy rivers,” Leibfarth said.
She would scream when the water hit her and she got wet – but Leibfarth was loving every minute of it.
“I liked it so much that I begged for my own kayak,” she said.
Enter that little pink kayak when Leibfarth was 4.
“She really just took to paddling pretty naturally,” said Lee, who became her coach. “ I didn’t have to push that hard and I tried not to push that hard.”
Leibfarth was a competitive gymnast from age 6 to 10, traveling to meets, and also enjoys surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, skateboarding and trail running. Still, she kept coming back to the churning water.
Leibfarth now paddles sleek competition canoes and kayaks, though some things haven’t changed from those introductory trips down the river.
“When I go through the gates, if I really get close to one of them, I always let out a scream,” she said. “I have since I was little. My coaches hate it, but I can’t really help it.”
Her father has learned to live with it.
“Sometimes when we do a video review you hear her shrieking in the background,” Lee said. “It’s something that we always laugh about. It’s usually when she’s a little bit off balance, and just has to catch her edge for a second.
“We sometimes say, ‘If something bad’s happening, don’t let everyone know. Keep it hidden for just a second.’”
Leibfarth said she’s never been in any really dangerous situations on the water. The worst was a move at the Nantahala Falls years ago.
“It’s called ‘boofing over a hole,’” she said. “It’s basically taking a big stroke beforehand and kind of jumping your boat over it. I didn’t know what that was, and I was too scared to ask the older girls. I was pretty young and so I ended up just falling into the hole without taking any strokes and I swam out of my kayak.
“It was more embarrassing than it was scary.”
The next time Leibfarth knew what to do do. “I figured it out pretty fast,” she said.
Rules of the River
In slalom races, paddlers must negotiate 18 to 24 gates, with 6 to 8 positioned upstream. They must be fast, but also clean, with penalty time added for mistakes around the gates.
“I love the adrenaline that I feel, and how that just evaporates when I start my run and I just kind of go off of muscle memory,” said Leibfarth. “It’s just me and the water.”
Athletes don’t get a practice run, so they walk the course to study the gates and visualize what strokes they will use.
“I do all my thinking before my run,” Leibfarth said.
Lee said Evy is part of the first generation of female paddlers to train in both canoe and kayak. “We looked into the crystal ball a little bit,” he said. “Even before canoeing was admitted into the Olympic program, we saw that it had that possibility.”
At first, they would simply pull the seat out of a kayak so Leibfarth could kneel in it as if it were a canoe.
She said she loves both disciplines equally, but spends more time training in a kayak because the skills cross over to the canoe.
“In C1, you’re on your knees and you have one paddle blade, so it’s lot more unstable,” Leibfarth said. “It’s harder to balance, but the one blade is bigger, so it’s easier to push over the whitewater.”
In K1, athletes sit and use a paddle with two blades. “In kayak, I just feel like I’m going as hard as I can, just sprinting the whole time,” said Leibfarth. “I push more in kayak and I try to use the water more in C1 and be a little bit more patient in my paddling.”
She has to change paddles and boats in between runs - and it gets a little confusing sometimes.
“I have ended up with the wrong bib and I had to frantically run back and get my coach to grab my other one,” Leibfarth said.
Now, that got the adrenaline going. “I had a good race,” she said, “so maybe the adrenaline is a good thing.”
Have Paddle, Will Travel
Slalom races can be contested on rivers or on artificial courses. The course in Charlotte is man-made. So is the one in Tokyo, where Leibfarth competed in the test event in October 2019 and made the final in K1 as the only female Team USA participant.
“You can use the water a lot, especially in Charlotte,” she said. “There are waves that can take you into the gates. You really have to know how to use it, what strokes you put in, but when you figure that out, it’s really cool because the water helps you get where you need to go.”
Leibfarth is partial to artificial courses, but it has nothing to do with the water.
“There’s a conveyor belt to bring you back up so you don’t have to get out and walk your boat up, which I think is very cool,” she said. “They’re very light boats and it’s not that difficult, but it’s very nice to just paddle onto a conveyor belt and sit in your kayak and it brings you up. It’s one of my favorite things.”
Leibfarth was in her favorite place to travel, Australia, when the original Olympic year – 2020 – arrived. It was Leibfarth’s third straight winter training on the 2000 Sydney Olympic course.
“There are so many Olympians training there,” she said. “It’s just crazy to be on the water with so many of my idols.”
Leibfarth opened the 2020 season with third-place finishes in both C1 and K1 in a world cup in Slovenia. She was second in both events in the U18 division at the Australian Open and won both events in U18 at the Oceania Championships.
Then the pandemic hit. The Olympic postponement gave Leibfarth time to hit the gym to work on her strength and hone her technique. She graduated from the K12 International Academy, an online school, in December, and just learned that she has been accepted into Davidson College, which is close to home so she can still train and compete. Leibfarth plans a pre-med path after at least one gap year.
No Team USA athlete has medaled in canoe or kayak – flatwater or slalom – since Rebecca Giddens in 2004 in K1 slalom.
Lee said the course in Tokyo at the Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre suits his daughter. “She likes faster water,” he said. “She tends to paddle well when it’s on more difficult courses. She doesn’t back off for the difficult whitewater moves. She’s rarely intimidated by them and really just takes it as a challenge. She thrives on the trickier moves.”
But she might scream a little bit.