Kaelin Friedenson poses for a photo at U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Charlotte, N.C.
What starts with a 10-foot plunge off a ramp in a boat, includes elements of bumper cars and snowboard cross, requires a 360-degree flip and roll and is all done on raging rapids?
A paddler’s nightmare? No, it’s extreme canoe slalom, which will become an Olympic event at the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
“It’s simple and there’s carnage, so people love watching that,” said Kaelin Friedenson, who won the men’s event recently at the U.S. Olympic and National Canoe/Kayak Slalom Team Trials. “I think it’s just more of a show.”
In C-1 and K-1 slalom, the events currently contested at the Games, athletes race separately and everyone must wait for the final results to find out who won.
Extreme canoe slalom is more spectator-friendly. Four athletes tip off a ramp at the same time and whoever gets to the bottom of the course first - usually in about a minute - is the winner.
“It’s intense,” said Ria Sribar, 18, who won the women’s competition at the Trials in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s different than slalom. It’s much more aggressive. Slalom is more like dancing on the water. Extreme is…extreme.”
Instead of light carbon boats, competitors race in plastic creek boats that are heavier.
“They’re also stronger, so they won’t really break,” said Friedenson.
Competitors use a kayak paddle with two blades and at the start hold them vertically like knights waiting to joust.
“It’s a mess going off at the beginning,” Friedenson said. “There are people everywhere and you land and you can’t really see what’s happening. And then you just have to figure out where you are and you’re fighting it out to get the right position.”
Evy Leibfarth said that being a bit scared of heights just adds a surge of adrenaline off the ramp. “It helps for the rest of your run, because you’re really pumped for it,” she said.
As the athletes make their way down the course, spectators run along the banks, cheering them on.
The top two finishers in each heat advance to the next round.
Leibfarth, who just qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, won the silver medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in extreme canoe slalom along with the gold in K-1. She competed only in the extreme time trial at the Trials, which was enough to make her eligible to compete in world cups later this season.
“It is a completely different ballgame than slalom,” said Leibfarth, 17. “You still have to go around gates, but they’re big and fluffy - they’re padded – and it’s fun.”
While there are usually around 20 gates in a C-1 or K-1 race, with at least six upstream, there are far fewer in extreme canoe slalom.
In the final at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, Friedenson said, “There were four downstream poles and two sets of upstream gates. You can choose either to go left or right. You see who’s in front of you, who’s behind you and then pick one and try not to get muscled out when you’re going in it.”
Athletes can be disqualified for failing to go around a pole, and it often gets crowded in the current.
“The point is to try and knock people out of the way – you just have to hit their boat,” said Leibfarth, “but, of course, not hurt them. It’s against the rules to hit anyone’s body, so everyone kind of has to play nice.
“But when you’re in a kayak and you’re going through waves it’s hard to keep control the whole time. I have been hit, but not on purpose.”
Athletes can be DQed for “dangerous paddling.”
“You’re definitely bumping,” Friedenson said. “Luckily, I haven’t really taken any injuries. I haven’t gotten hit in the face or the body, but you’re definitely making contact with each other’s boats. You’re supposed to keep both hands on the paddle during the whole race and we keep our paddles pretty parallel, so we don’t take each other out.”
While athletes scrupulously try to avoid capsizing during their C-1 and K-1 runs, the inventors of extreme canoe slalom had a mischievous streak: They put in a compulsory eskimo roll, or 360-degree flip, which must be executed within a certain zone.
“It’s totally a different animal,” said Michal Smolen, 27, a 2016 Olympian in K-1 who has medaled at a world cup medal in extreme. “I think they were just trying to come up with creative ways to make it more exciting, because if you just go straight down without any gates or without any things you have to do, it’s not very exciting.”
As the Olympic Games evolve, extreme canoe slalom is the wave of the future. After making its first world cup appearance in 2015, the event’s head-to-head format attracted strong television ratings that helped lead to its acceptance into the Olympic Games program in 2024.
As Sribar summed up, “It’s a good time.”