Whitewater racing might be the only thing more thrilling than whitewater paddling. You're not just trying to get down the river, you're trying to get down the river faster than anybody else. Doing so takes a heaping measure of more skill and more strength.
Whitewater racing takes its basic format from slalom skiing. Racers negotiate an obstacle course, passing through 25 or so gates. Judges penalize racers for touching the gate poles with their boat, body or even their paddle. Slalom races are timed events. Racers run the course singly, not side by side as in a track race. The racer with the best time wins.
According to Horace Holden, a whitewater slalom competitor in the 1996 Olympics, "Like skiing, it's pure thrill going down the hill. One of the unique things is that you're on a dynamic playing field. You get drops, free fall, splashing, speed. And then the precision of going through the gates. You're inches, even millimeters from the poles."
But is it safe? Says Horace, "People have a misconception that slalom racing is high risk. If done correctly it's actually a very safe sport. The key is proper equipment, especially a good helmet and boat."
The popularity of whitewater slalom racing has grown in tandem with whitewater kayaking. The previous two Olympics, 1992 and 1996, have had whitewater slalom competitions. The Nantahala Racing Club (NRC), based at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, is hands down the champion factory of U.S. slalom racing. In the 1996 Olympics, out of 9 team members, 4 were from NRC. And in 1992, 2 racers from the club won a gold medal. But interest is growing throughout the country. Prospective racers can find training centers in Atlanta, Georgia; Washington, D.C.; Durango, Colorado; and Boise, Idaho.
It's never to late to start. The average age of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team was a relatively mature 33 years. According to Horace Holden, "If you can swim and are in decent shape, you can kayak. So much of the sport demands that you be able to be focused and have the experience to be at the starting block and relax."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication