The Two Jacksons: What Happened to Slalom Racing in the United States?

Over the last week I’ve had the chance to watch some of the world’s best young paddlers.  The International Canoe Federation makes it absurdly easy to watch video of the Junior World Championships in Whitewater Slalom almost as it’s happening.  Watching these teenagers whip their short boats around, switch hands with their canoe paddles, and finish in under 90 seconds sometimes makes me think I’m watching a different — and far more exciting — sport than the one I “retired” from eight years ago.  I must’ve watched four hours of coverage.  It was great — mostly.

The only thing wrong was that the United States didn’t do very well.  In fact, we were shut out of the medals in both the Under-23 class and in the younger Junior class in all five disciplines.  In several of the most competitive classes — such as men’s kayak — we didn’t even qualify a single boat for the finals.  In other classes — such as C-2 — we didn’t field a single boat in the entire race.  Meanwhile, countries that are a fraction of the size of the U.S. — such as Slovakia or Slovenia — put many more times our number into the race, into the finals, and onto the podium.  What gives?

Although the United States has produced some remarkable slalom racers over the past fifty years, this problem is nothing new.  As long as we’ve had slalom racers — except for a brief period of all-around dominance from 1989 to 1996 — we Americans have been wringing our hands about why the Europeans are so much better than we are.  There have been a lot of causes proposed over the years — lack of funding, lack of infrastructure, removal from the broader boating community.  Some in our sport have even, paradoxically, blamed slalom’s inclusion in the Olympics on its decline in popularity.  The problem is, most of those smaller European countries face the same issues, and their slalom programs are doing better than ours.  So why then?

Do we lack whitewater courses?  Please.  Our country is bursting with World Cup-quality courses — Dickerson, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, South Bend, Wausau, the Ocoee, and Deep Creek.  

Do we lack coaches?  Certainly not at the highest levels.  Silvan Poberaj and Rafal Smolen are, as best I can tell, still the two heads of the sport, and they’re experienced Olympic guides.  They know how to train the best in the world.  They know how to win.  

Do we lack tradition?  Surely not the country of Shipley, the Hearns, and Lugbill — not to mention Clawson, Chladek, Weiss, Evans, Giddens, the Hallers, Jacobi and Strausbaugh, and McEwan!  

Do we lack sheer numbers of young people interested in paddling?  Are you kidding?  Have you been to the Green or the Potomac in the summer?

So what is it?  What is the persistent problem that has plagued American slalom racing since the late-90s?  Last week, watching these kids at the Junior Worlds one-stroke their way down the Bratislava course in Slovakia, it hit me like a hydraulic to the chest:

The United States has too many good rivers!

That’s right.  Our problem isn’t scarcity, it’s surplus.  We don’t have too little, we have too much.

How so?  It’s simple: if you grow up with hundreds of good natural rivers, with loads of interesting, challenging rapids and beautiful scenery, you won’t be inclined to spend your time looping back and forth on a concrete ditch like Dickerson, or past plastic lego rocks, dodging rafts at a tourist hub like Charlotte.  Why paddle 400 yards of class III- at Deep Creek when ten miles of the Upper Yough is a stone’s throw away, thick with camaraderie, running all summer?  Why spend your time on class III when you could be running class V?  Why do made up moves when there are so many real ones available?  Above all — why spend your time training, when you could be doing?  

American slalom has faced this challenge for decades, whether we know it or not.  There’s simply too much else to do.  

My own story is case in point.  I took up paddling late, at 18.  That fall, as I went off to college in Vermont, I quickly realized that I was going to have to fight the temptation of abundant natural rivers all around me if I was going to keep up with my slalom training.  Within a reasonable drive from campus, there were hundreds of natural rivers.  Drive an hour and a half  I could surf one of the world’s best river waves: Lachine.  Fifty minutes south and I could boof my way down the best creek in New England: the Big Branch.  Twenty minutes after class I could chase ten friends down the class IV+ New Haven or class V Middlebury.  Just five minutes from my dorm I could lap an 18-foot waterfall that ran every month of the year.  

So you can understand why forcing myself to do flatwater gate loops that fall was hard — or even driving to a shallow class II slalom race in October like the Farmington when I could have been shotgunning beers and tearing down big, fluffy drops with my college buddies at Moosefest.  I probably boated with fifty different guys, a lot, during my first few years of college, and very few of them had ever run a single slalom gate.  That’s a change from a generation ago.  Today, with short boats and plentiful river access, if you want to get good, you don’t have to run gates.  You just need to run rivers.  And here in the United States, we’ve got them in spades.  They are some of the world’s most famous: the Green Narrows, the Little White Salmon, the North Fork of the Payette, even the Grand Canyon.

On the other hand, how many famous whitewater rivers in Slovakia can you name?  What about in France?  How about Britain or Germany?  The fact is, apart from Corsica or Norway, Europe isn’t really known for its concentration of world class whitewater.  Instead, their whitewater sports center around scant resources: the man made rivers like Bratislava, Augsburg, or Tacen that run consistently and that play home to slalom training clubs.  It’s only natural that they’ll get more into slalom than we are: there’s simply less to do.

Why else do so many famous European boaters come to the U.S.?  You only have to search the latest extreme kayak videos online today to find Europeans like Spaniards Gerd and Aniol Serrasoles screaming down American creeks — the same way that you didn’t have to look far to watch Steve Fisher, Mike Abbott, or Corran Addison on our rivers a generation ago.

And it’s not just that we have the rivers.  It’s also that running them is easier than ever.  For one thing, the boats today are far shorter and easier to paddle than they were 30 years ago.  These boats have in turn opened up a whole swath of new rivers and new freestyle moves.  This, tied with a growing number of dam release rivers, has conspired to make the sport easier to get into and easier to get good at.  The Internet has made it easy to check online river gauges and to download information about put-ins and takes-outs, as well as to coordinate meetings with new paddlers.  All told, it’s way easier to run a wide variety of whitewater rivers than it was 30 years ago, all of which pushes American boaters away from slalom racing and toward recreational river running.  

Consider, for a moment, the Tale of the Two Jacksons: Eric Jackson, most famous and visible kayaker of his generation, and his son, Dane Jackson, most famous and visible of today’s.

In the early 1980s, a young Eric Jackson saw U.S. Slalom Team member Hank Thorburn surfing stylishly on the Kennebec River in Maine and caught the racing bug.  In 1984, Jackson moved to Brookmont, Maryland, where he lived for the next twelve years, training to make the U.S. Slalom Team.  A naturally competitive person, Jackson saw that the one entree into the upper echelon of the sport was through slalom racing.  The pinnacle of what he could hope for, he achieved: racing at home in the 1989 World Championships in the United States, and at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.  

Eric Jackson looping a Dancer in Phil’s Hole on the Ottawa in 1984, when freestyle moves were hard! Slalom was the way to go. (jacksonkayak.com)

As time went on, the sport evolved, and Jackson evolved with it, winning the 1993 Freestyle World Championship, and eventually traveling the country in an RV, competing in the ever-expanding network of rodeos and downriver races that spread like wildfire in the late 1990s.  Soon he capitalized on this himself by starring in a number of kayaking videos that glamorized these pursuits, starting his own kayak competition series, and eventually his own kayak company, Jackson Kayaks.

On the other hand, his son, Dane Jackson, who is arguably the best all-around paddler of his generation, has hardly seen a slalom course.  Where his father spent his twenties chasing a berth on the U.S. Slalom team and found the best competition in officially sanctioned international races against the likes of slalom luminaries like Richard Fox and Scott Shipley, Dane has spent his twenties so far competing in extreme downriver races like the Green Narrows Race as well as extreme slalom races that have come into existence, such as the North Fork Championship, held on the North Fork of the Payette– where he has found competition among guys who have, like him, had little experience in whitewater slalom.  

Dane Jackson racing in the North Fork Championship.   (https://visitidaho.org/content/uploads/2016/05/leeds-dane-rockdrop.jpg)

When his father first moved to Maryland to train slalom in 1984, river running in the United States, especially in the East, was at a standstill.  Rivers like the Green Narrows and my later stomping grounds, the New Haven and the Middlebury, had yet to be run.  Rivers like the Upper Yough or the Gauley were popular, but still the province of a handful of experts.  Other rivers were hard to catch because you weren’t sure if they had water.  It wasn’t easy to meet dedicated groups of expert boaters unless you met them at slalom races or festivals.  

By the time Dane came into his twenties, it couldn’t have been easier.  Unlike his father, he didn’t need slalom.  Nor do most of our young boaters nowadays.

The fact is, just like in skiing, slalom racing is born of scarcity.  That’s because, as fun as it is, it’s a training device for running “real” rivers.  As such, if you have actual rivers you can train on, you don’t need slalom as much.  It’s no surprise that ski slalom has flourished in the eastern United States, where our lack of terrain turns us to new ways to train ourselves and to have fun.  It’s no coincidence that our two best skiers of their generation, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn hail from New Hampshire and Minnesota — two places not exactly known for bountiful powder skiing.  It’s hardly surprising too that the one area in the United States with a consistent involvement in youth slalom kayaking is Washington, D.C. — home to a lot of paddlers, but (especially in the summer), not a lot of whitewater.  It’s no surprise that slalom interest is high there.

So it’s my belief that as long as we have so many good, “real” rivers to run, our young paddlers will be attracted river running, not to slalom racing.  Their coaches and mentors too will be more apt to drive them to a dam release river to practice eddy turns rather than make the extra effort to hang gates or to drive to shallow, class II slalom races.  Our kids will continue to see the Dane Jacksons of the world, plunging down the Green or the Payette, as heroes, not the young up-and-coming slalom racers like Tyler Smith or Sage Donnelly.  It was no different when I was coming up.  The best two boaters in the United States, in my opinion, in the 2000s were Rebecca Giddens and Scott Parsons.  Meanwhile, almost none of my friends had heard of either of them.  But they’d surely heard of Tommy Hilleke, Steve Fisher, or Nikki Kelly.  Meanwhile, lots of European kids will continue to take their first strokes on man made courses like Bratislava or Tacen, and the older kids they look up to will be the Jessica Foxes or Miquel Traveses.  

What does the future hold for U.S. slalom?  It’s hard to say.  Perhaps someday we’ll go through a slalom renaissance, sort of like the one we had in the mid-1970s or the mid-1990s.  Maybe slalom boats will keep getting shorter, to the point that the top racers are basically paddling fiberglass RPMs or Braaaps — so that the gap will close between what racers are using and what regular paddlers are using.  Perhaps slalom races will evolve to be held on more popular rivers, doing fewer gates, making it both easier to compete and easier to run these events — along the lines of easier versions of the North Fork Championship.  You’re already seeing this in some places, such as a new slalom-style race down the Cribworks Rapid on Maine’s Penobscot River, slated to be held this summer.  Will this draw more people into the sport?  Who knows?

For the time being I’ll take pleasure in watching the incredibly high levels of skill of talented young paddlers like Fox or Trave — no matter what country they’re from.

Under-23 World Champion Jessica Fox from Australia.  (http://sportscene.tv/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Jessica-Fox-Canoe-Slalom-2017.jpg)

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