Fresh from Athens Greece, members of the U.S. Whitewater Slalom Olympic Team came to Riverbend Park in Great Falls to promote their sport and answer questions about canoe and kayak racing. At the Olympics this year, the sport proved to be one of the most popular and is showing signs of gaining recognition domestically as well.
The Olympians were in the area to compete in the U.S. National Championships over the weekend at a facility in Dickerson, Md. Among those at Riverbend were current silver medalist Rebecca Giddens and Barcelona gold medalist Joseph Jacobi.
“The Olympics this year were much different than before. To start with, the world we live in today is a much different place. It means so much more to have people come together in the spirit of the Olympics. People can imagine reduced conflict. It’s good for the psyche of the world,” said Jacobi.
Jacobi took eighth place in the Athens Olympics but says he is not disappointed. “My sport is different now than it was 12 years ago. I can really appreciate our journey, process and pursuit. It’s very hard to be disappointed. The view of the world from eighth place at the Olympics is a pretty nice place to be,” said Jacobi.
David Yarborough is the executive director of the National Governing Body of the USA Canoe/Kayak group. “This is a strength sport as well as a finesse sport,” said Yarborough. “The white-water is really growing in popularity. Especially around here. D.C. is actually one of the hotbeds of this sport in the United States,” said Yarborough.
In the Olympics there are only four white-water events, and only one of those is for women. “We did very well. We went in thinking we’d win at least one medal, and we did. We hoped for two but are pleased with the one we got,” Yarborough said.
YARBOROUGH CREDITS Giddens with helping expand awareness of the sport. “Rebecca is our Michael Jordan,” said Yarborough. “In Athens they had a problem with attendance, but our stands were sold out every day,” Yarborough said.
Giddens is a little overwhelmed by all the attention but says she “really enjoys competition” and is “having fun with it.” Her specialty takes great physical strength because of the maneuvering that she has to do in a kayak. Similar to downhill skiing, the white-water slalom course requires participants to navigate between poles on the course. Unlike skiing, touching or bending a pole results in a lesser score.
Jacobi said the fast action and the new spotlight are drawing in young people looking to compete in a unique activity. “Today this sport is perceived as a hip, mainstream sport that anyone has access to,” said Jacobi.
USA Canoe/Kayak officials hope that as the sport becomes more commonplace, they will be able to expand programs and facilities across the country. The United States is the only country whose national sports federations, such as USA Canoe/Kayak, receive absolutely no federal funding. The sport survives on U.S. Olympic Committee support, corporate donations and individual contributions.
According to Yarborough, that’s one of the reasons the athletes turn out at venues like Riverbend Park, to raise awareness and support for the increasingly popular sport.