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Evy Leibfarth Draws On River Of Emotions To Earn Tokyo Berth In Slalom

By Karen Rosen | April 14, 2021, 5:58 p.m. (ET)

Evy Leibfarth competes in the women's kayak (K1) at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 4, 2019 in Lima, Peru. 

 

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When Evy Leibfarth feels stress, she’ll draw, journal or bake. 

Leibfarth brought a sketchbook to the first two days of the U.S. Olympic and National Canoe/Kayak Slalom Team Trials and sequestered herself in the bathroom at the U.S. National Whitewater Center drawing portraits from memory.

“I was able to calm down and get prepared for my run,” she said.

Then on Wednesday, Leibfarth forgot her sketchbook. Not to worry - she drew on her experience.

Leibfarth, 17, put down solid runs to qualify for Team USA at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She beat all other Trials contenders for the third straight day in women’s C-1 - the event in which she technically qualified for an Olympic quota spot - and was also the top overall woman in K-1. Due to a quirk in the rules, Leibfarth will race both events at the Olympics.

“I’m really happy with my runs and super psyched for what’s coming up,” said Leibfarth, who earned three points for the Trials win for an insurmountable lead in a very convoluted selection process. She already had four points from placing fourth at the 2019 world championships, which earned the quota spot for Team USA.

Leibfarth’s second C-1 run was the fastest of the day with a time of 105.87 seconds, marred only by a touch on the 21st and final gate that added 2 seconds.

Coming into the event, she said, “I had a lot of emotions, but mostly I was excited. I’ve been really happy with how my training’s going and I just wanted to go out here and push myself and see what runs I could do.”

Women’s C-1 is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo as men and women have the same number of slalom events for the first time at the Games.

“It’s such a historical moment,” said Leibfarth, who is from Bryson City, North Carolina. “I’m so happy to be part of it.”

Like the course in Charlotte, the Tokyo Olympic venue is man-made. “There are a lot of really tricky water moves, or rapids, but that’s the type of course that I do really well on,” she said, “so I’m really excited. It’s definitely one of my favorite courses in the world.”

Leibfarth is going into Tokyo with no expectations – except to make sure she brings her sketchbook. 

“For me racing is about what I can do, not about what other people do,” Leibfarth said. “I want to put down runs I’m really happy with. I want to have fun and cheer on all of my friends and be a part of this incredible experience, but when it comes down to it, I’m racing for me and I just want to have fun there.”

While Leibfarth can now concentrate on preparing for the Games, several male paddlers are still vying for the chance to make Team USA in C-1 and K-1.

Zach Lokken overcame a disastrous first run Wednesday from start – a touch on the first gate – to finish - he completely missed the last gate - to edge three-time Olympian Casey Eichfeld in the men’s canoe competition. His second run was just 1.07 seconds behind to give him the overall Trials victory.

In men’s kayak, Michal Smolen, a 2016 Olympian, again put down the two fastest runs to defeat Tyler Westfall and Joshua Joseph and win the Trials.

All are still in the mix for the final qualifier which will be June 11-13 at a world cup in Prague.

“It’s been really tight,” said Lokken, 27, the 2019 Pan American Games C-1 champion. “Casey won today and I won the first two days. I’ve been competing with him all my life, so I know I can beat him on my good days and I finally have been able to get more good days. I really feel like this year’s my year to go to the Olympics.”

Smolen had no penalties on his first run, which was the fastest of the day at 82.01 seconds, and included a tough final section in which Gates 19 and 20 are upstream.

“At that point I knew that everyone else had to paddle really fast in order to get ahead of me,” Smolen said, “but I still tried to keep my composure and just focus on that second run, because you never know what can happen.”

In the mathematical analysis that will determine Team USA, each winner earned three points, while second-place finishers collected two points and third-place finishers got one point.

They will now compete for additional points in Prague, where a podium finish earns five points and 4th through 10th place garners four points. In C-1, finishers from 11th through 15th place get three points, while in K-1, competitors from 11th through 20th place get three points.

If they are involved in ties after Prague, Eichfeld and Smolen have a tiebreaker for earning the Team USA quota spot.

All in all, Smolen said he had fun during the Trials, but earning those three points took a lot out of him.

“It is a lot of work,” he said, “Definitely used a lot of energy. Lost a lot of sleep. I had the potential of having another run like I did this morning, but unfortunately I was a bit too tired and just ready to be finished with the race. It’s a hard three days for sure.”

But Lokken, whose nickname is Bug, complete with a symbol of a bug on his boat, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I want a challenge,” he said, “because I know that I can beat Casey and that means I can beat other top paddlers in the world. It’s not just going to the Olympics. That’s not the goal - it’s to actually do well at the Olympics. I don’t want to just come here, float down the course and make the Olympic team. I want to have a tight race. It’s more fun that way, too.”

Eichfeld, 31, finally felt more like himself in winning the first run handily on Wednesday and then holding off Lokken on the second run.

“I’ve been struggling a little bit,” Eichfeld said. “I had the fun of getting my first shoulder injury last Friday.”

How did he do that? Maneuvering around a gate? Banging his paddle on the bank?

“Honestly, I just leaned over on the couch on my shoulder and was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel very nice,” Eichfeld said.

He missed the final two days of training before the Trials began and had to work with a therapist on his left shoulder. That’s his top arm when holding the paddle, “where a lot of action’s happening,” Eichfeld said. “It was a little nerve-wracking. It was a new mindgame for me to have to learn to play.”

Luckily, he was able to race without pain. Eichfeld will have a few weeks to finish his therapy before Prague, and then even if he doesn’t make the Olympic team, he won’t retire. 

“Nope, I got at least one more in me, I think, maybe two, much to my wife’s chagrin,” he said. 

But Eichfeld’s wife, Sarah, has been very accommodating and they don’t have any kids. “It’s honestly as long as the wife is going to allow for it these days,” he said. “I still have so much fun and so much fire to be out here.”

Eichfeld’s best Olympic finish in C-1 was seventh in Rio, and he has also made Olympic teams in C-2, an event that has been discontinued as the sport reached gender parity.

While Eichfeld said he understands the reason behind eliminating the event, “it just hurts my soul a little bit,” he said.

Because of the travel restrictions due to the pandemic, Eichfeld spent an entire year without leaving the United States for the first time since he was 14. He even took up a new job building custom furniture, which he may turn into a career after he finishes racing.

“You sort of wonder after every Olympics,” Eichfeld said, “’What’s in the future for me? What am I going to do, how am I going to feel? What do I want?' And that answer just keeps coming back that I still want more.”

Karen Rosen

Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.

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Evy Leibfarth