Canoe/Kayak Preview

In the Olympic Games, there are two disciplines of canoeing, and each includes events for canoes and kayaks.

The first is canoe sprint, which is sometimes referred to as flatwater sprint. The Olympic distances recognized by the International Canoe Federation are 200-meter, 500-meter, and 1000-meter. These races take place on straight courses with each boat paddling in its own designated lane. 

The second discipline is canoe slalom (previously known as whitewater slalom), which is generally held on an artificial whitewater course. Athletes navigate a decked canoe or kayak through a course of 18-24 hanging downstream and upstream gates in the fastest time possible. Penalties are assessed for touching (2-seconds) or missing (50-seconds) a gate.

Canoeing has been part of the Olympic program since the 1936 Games in Berlin. Through the sport’s history in the Olympic Games, U.S. athletes have earned 16 medal-winning finishes — with Rebecca Giddens most recently reaching the podium for Team USA in canoe slalom with a silver in women’s single kayak (K-1) in 2004. 

Updated on June 29, 2021. For more information, contact the sport press officer here.

• Until Tokyo, all of the Olympic women’s events were in kayaks. That changes in Tokyo, with women’s canoe events in both slalom and sprint. The debut of women’s canoe events is especially significant in canoe slalom, where this will be the first time there is gender parity in the discipline at the Olympic Games. As a result of the addition of women’s single canoe (C-1), men’s double canoe (C-2) will no longer be on the Olympic program. Women’s C-1 first became a world championship event in 2009.

• In canoe sprint, the Tokyo Games will see the introduction of the women’s C-1 200-meter and C-2 500-meter, and the men’s K-4 1000-meter will be shortened to a K-4 500-meter event. To make way for the new events, the men’s C-1 200-meter and K-2 200-meter have been removed from the program. Although these events have been raced at world championships, they have never been raced on the Olympic level. 

• In 2019, Evy Leibfarth qualified for her first slalom senior national team in both women’s K-1 and C-1 at age 15. Despite being one of the youngest athletes on the international racing circuit, Leibfarth made finals and won medals at the world cups while also taking home a bronze medal in K-1 and a gold medal in the extreme slalom at the ICF Junior World Championships. She capped off her first season by earning the U.S. an Olympic quota spot with a fourth-place finish in C-1 at the 2019 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships. Now 17, Leibfarth then qualified herself to fill that spot at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in April 2021.

• Zachary Lokken, 27, will be making his Olympic debut in slalom. The 2019 Pan American Games gold medalist has been competing internationally at the senior level since 2008.

• Michal Smolen, son of U.S. national slalom team coach Rafal Smolen, is among the top men’s K-1 slalom paddlers in the world. Smolen, 27, made his Olympic debut in Rio in 2016 and now is seeking his first medal. The 2015 Pan American Games gold medalist had a strong 2019 season and earned his Olympic spot at the 2021 team trials.

• Nevin Harrison, 19, had a breakthrough 2019 season, establishing herself as a possible medal contender in Tokyo. Competing in the women’s canoe 200-meter sprint event, Harrison put the world on notice when she won gold at the 2019 world championships. That finish secured a Team USA quota spot in women’s C-1 200-meter for Tokyo, and Harrison went on to secure that spot for herself at the 2021 trials.

• July 25, 2021: Olympic competition gets underway with heats and quarterfinals in multiple slalom events.
• July 26-31: Finals in the four slalom events are spread across these five days
• August 2, 2021: The canoe sprint competition gets underway with multiple heats.
• August 3, 5, 7, 2021: Finals across the 12 sprint events are held.