This spring the International Canoe Federation named the Nantahala River Gorge in western North Carolina as the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
“The Nantahala River has been many things to many people, but it’s never been a World Championship destination,” said Joe Jacobi, CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for whitewater sports in America.
For Jacobi, who won an Olympic gold medal in whitewater slalom in 1992, bringing the freestyle championships to the gorge is a double opportunity. The event could revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, the country’s cradle of whitewater competition, as a paddling destination. At the same time, it could raise the profile of whitewater freestyle for American audiences.
Freestyle kayaking features an athlete performing technical moves and tricks on a single feature. Instead of using a half-pipe, kayakers use rivers features like waves and holes. Freestyle moves are usually highly stylized spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne.
It’s the fastest-growing segment of whitewater competition, and bringing the championship to the gorge is a chance to mix old school and new school.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center, headed by CEO Sutton Bacon, jumped on the opportunity to win the bid for the freestyle championships.
“I think this is something that will be transformational not only for the gorge community but for the region,” Bacon said. “It will put western North Carolina on display to the entire world.”
The U.S. whitewater freestyle team has dominated the last few international competitions, and the International Olympic Committee seems keen to emphasize the growing sport.
It is expected that the Nantahala Gorge will host 500 international athletes and between 6,000 and 10,000 spectators per day. The event, scheduled for the second weekend in September, will bring needed tourism revenue during a lull after the main tourism season on the river and just before the fall color season.
“The lure and the feeling that makes the Nantahala Gorge special has never gone away,” Jacobi said. “It’s still a place that all paddlers have to go at some point.”