Evy Leibfarth competes during the Women's Canoe Slalom at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 28, 2021 in Tokyo.
The first couple of times Evy Leibfarth competed in extreme slalom she was disqualified for forgetting to do the obligatory eskimo roll.
After all, Leibfarth was used to paddling down the course as fast as possible and staying upright helps.
“Now they have a buoy that hangs just above the river to make sure you know exactly where to roll,” she said. “It’s kind of hard because you’re so out of breath when you get there. Then you’re going upside down and you have to roll up and react to who’s around you and immediately start paddling even if you’re a little bit disoriented.”
Leibfarth, 17, has certainly got her bearings in the event these days. She won her first medal of any kind at worlds when she captured the bronze in extreme slalom at the 2021 World Slalom Championships in Bratislava, Slovakia. Leibfarth became the youngest medalist in the event. Her previous best at worlds was a fourth-place finish in C-1 (canoe slalom) in 2019.
Now more people are taking notice of extreme slalom, which will make its Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Paris 2024. After its first world cup appearance in 2015, extreme slalom’s head-to-head format, similar to snowboard cross and motocross, attracted strong television ratings that helped lead to its Olympic inclusion.
“It’s really something that people can get into,” Leibfarth said. “I remember watching motocross on the TV and I’d be choosing someone to root for based on whoever’s color bike I liked best. With extreme, you don’t have to really know the athletes or know the sport that well. It’s just super exciting to watch, and it’s really easy to cheer people on.”
Four paddlers race at the same time – unlike the usual canoe and kayak slalom events with athletes going one at a time – and they start by plunging several feet off a ramp. For the next minute, they navigate around six gates, which are padded. There’s no penalty for hitting the gates or the other boats, which are plastic creek boats to withstand the pummeling compared to the longer and lighter carbon boats used in C-1 and K-1.
However, it is against the rules to hit another athlete’s body.
“It’s such a contact sport,” Leibfarth said. “You’re always trying to knock the other people out of the way or you’re getting knocked out of the way. The whole run down is kind of a battle between you and three other people.”
The winner is clear, so there’s no waiting for everyone to compete separately before compiling the final results.
Leibfarth said that in normal slalom, which has about 20 gates, she’ll visualize her run about 10 times before she does it, making a plan and then sticking to it.
“Extreme slalom is a completely different animal because there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen,” said Leibfarth, who won the silver medal in the event at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 to go along with her Pan Am gold in K-1. “It’s all about reacting.”
Since Leibfarth is a little afraid of heights, just being on the ramp is enough to get her adrenaline going.
“When you’re on the start line, they start playing this heartbeat super loud, and it gets everyone super pumped,” she said, “but also your heart’s beating so fast and it’s just really exciting going off with so many other people not knowing what’s going to happen.”
After making her way through the heats and semifinals, Leibfarth hit the water in the final and had to play catch-up. She passed Naemi Brandle of Switzerland and then was neck-and-neck with Elena Apel of Germany, the world champ in women’s C-1.
“We both rolled at the same time, and then just at the last second she snuck in front of me to take the silver,” said Leibfarth.
Jessica Fox, the Olympic C-1 champion from Australia, won her eighth individual world title and first gold in extreme slalom.
“It was really a fight till the end, and I think I didn’t stop shaking until hours after the runs,” Leibfarth posted on Instagram, “but had so much fun.”
Leibfarth was also pleased with her 11th-place finish in K-1, an improvement over 21st place n 2019, although she was disappointed to miss the final by only one spot.
In canoe, though, Leibfarth hit a rough patch.
“I ended up making a really big mistake where I had to loop back around for a gate, which cost me probably close to 10 seconds,” she said.
Coming off a year in which she didn’t get to race much because of the pandemic, Leibfarth said she had to relearn how to race and how to deal with some new pressure.
“I think every race during the season I figured it out more and more,” she said.
Leibfarth won the K-1 gold and C-1 bronze at the junior world championships in early July, and then placed 12th in K-1 and 18th in C-1 at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I didn’t have the runs I wanted at the Olympics,” Leibfarth said, “but that’s adding to that fire for Paris.”
In the meantime, the Bryson City, North Carolina, native will start college at Davidson in January where she will major in biology on a premed path with aspirations of working in sports medicine in the future. She’ll keep training with an eye on now making three events at the next Olympic Games.
Leibfarth even acquired her own extreme slalom boat after using boats provided by organizers in this summer’s world cups, which changed between every race.
“I haven’t been doing it as long as the normal slalom, but no one really has,” Leibfarth said, “so it’s really fun that we’re all kind of learning this new sport together.”