Why Whitewater Kayaking Isn’t a Family Sport — and How Slalom Can Help

Last Monday’s post about the tepid state of U.S. Slalom spread around the Internet like wildfire, catching me by surprise, and inciting some spirited debate.  Clearly a lot of people in the U.S. still care deeply about slalom, which is fantastic to see.

The question I tried to answer was:  “Why would an average adult, getting into kayaking and confronted with a plethora of amazing rivers, easy-to-paddle kayaks, and abundant formal and informal instruction, care about slalom?”

I made my point by contrasting today with 1984, when Eric Jackson was in this very position — a 19 or 20 year-old photo boater wanting to take his paddling to the next level.  Back then he saw a birth on the U.S. Slalom Team as a legitimate goal to shape his life around, a goal that I argued few top boaters would be interested in today.

Some people, especially current or former racers, disagreed with my analysis, but many others, particularly non-slalom paddlers, agreed.  To them, slalom racing seems a lot like eating your vegetables: they’ve heard it’s good for you, but they’re not about to start.  Or they see slalom racers as elitist, an insular clique in glass boats, distrustful or condescending toward outsiders.  Even though it’s fun to watch, to a lot of people it’s boring or exclusionary.  I don’t think either one is fair, but I’ve heard it over and over, going back many years.

But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about over the last week . . .  

It doesn’t matter.

Why?  Because I put it in the wrong perspective.  Last week I was writing from the perspective of an adult paddler.  And that’s who was commenting on my post, mostly.  But that’s not really who slalom really belongs to.  While it’s nice if adults race, here’s what I’ve realized in the past week:  slalom, like most competitive sports, is and always has been mainly about kids.

Think about ski racing in the United States.  How many adults do you know who actually ski race?  That’s what I thought: Zero!  Why?  Because why would they?  The idea that any grown-up would voluntarily confine herself to a roped-off gate course when there’s so much freedom and fun to be had on the regular mountain or in the backcountry is patently absurd.  Besides, even if you are interested, the opportunities to race are both scant and costly.  

Yet even though most adult skiers don’t race, the U.S. boasts not only a healthy ski racing program, but a dominant one.  Many of the country’s best racers are not only Olympic and World Cup medalists, but household names:  Lindsey Vonn, Julia Mancuso, Ted  Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Bode Miller.  Sure, U.S. Skiing has more than its fair share of problems, but compared to whitewater slalom, in which we’ve won exactly one Olympic medal in the last five Olympic Games, it’s a juggernaut.

So the question is:  How can we be so strong in ski racing when it’s just as foreign to the average skier as whitewater slalom is to most normal kayakers?

The answer is: because it’s a youth sport.  It’s not about adult participation.  It’s about kids.  Ski racing is a teaching mechanism and a means of not only winning medals, but of introducing kids to the sport and producing lifelong skiers.  Last week I discussed situational obstacles to canoe slalom’s growth: too many rivers, too easily accessible, with too much else to do.  I said that slalom doesn’t work in that environment because it requires scarcity.  But I forgot about the group who have the greatest scarcity of all — a scarcity of freedom.  I’m talking, of course, about CHILDREN!

Think about it: if you’re twelve years old, you’re not exactly torn with anxiety about what to hit this weekend:  the Yough or the Gauley?  That’s because you’re TWELVE.  You can’t drive.  You can’t paddle class V because your parents probably don’t even want you paddling class III.  Kids — as they are fond of telling me in my high school classroom — have NO FREEDOM!  That’s why they’re perfect candidates for slalom training — whether on snow or on easy class II whitewater.

We adult boaters are prejudiced.  We sometimes think that any form of organized competition is a violation of the freedom and soulfulness that we turned to rivers for in the first place.  Slalom — why would I want to do that?  But most competitive sports are geared toward kids anyway, right?  How many adults do you know who play in a soccer league?  What about a lacrosse league?  Not many, right?  That’s just the way it is — you play competitive sports when you’re young because they’re fun.  Your parents like them because they teach teamwork, confidence, leadership . . .  and they get you out of the house for a few hours.  You play them when you’re a kid, maybe you play in high school, or perhaps even in college, then you go off to college and you discover beer and creek boats and pretty soon you’re living in a van down by a lot of different rivers and the next time you’re at soccer practice, it’s 15 years later and you have a whistle around your neck and eight little kids pestering you to be the one who takes the throw in.  That’s just how it is: adult participation doesn’t matter in competitive sports. I mean, it’s nice, but that’s not what it’s about.

(Squawalpine.com)

That’s why it doesn’t matter in ski racing if adults don’t do it.  It’s just sort of understood that ski racing is a youth sport.  Just like in soccer, some of them get good and go to ski academies, or even college race programs.  Some of them even make it to the Olympics.  Surely, plenty of insults are lobbed at ski racers: they’re elitist, cliquey, hoggers of the best trails.  I’ve had run-ins with them on my home mountain, which they sometimes think they own.  But nobody questions why the sport is around, or whether it’s healthy in the United States, the way they do in whitewater.  That’s because it’s perfectly clear that racing is a youth sport, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch on TV every four years.  That, to me, is slalom’s proper place — whether in skiing or in whitewater.  That’s why I was wrong last week — slalom doesn’t have to justify itself to adults.  The Eric Jacksons (or Alden Birds!) who join slalom at 19 are always a minority, just like they would be in baseball or basketball.

And I was wrong to talk so much about medals, although medals are nice, because the benefits of slalom go far beyond wins and loses.  In addition to the benefits that I already discussed — teamwork, confidence, leadership, making friends, slalom breeds lifelong participants.  Sure, some kids who race drop out, especially if the program is too intense, but a lot of them stay in the sport, and might not have joined any other way.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who got into skiing via ski racing.  Sure, they don’t race anymore themselves, but they volunteer at ski clubs, they organize, they coach, and they sign-up their kids.  Most of all, they’re still skiers — and they might not have been without race programs.  In boating, I’m one of them.

And I believe this points to an even bigger issue that I see in paddling: the lack of kids.  I started paddling when I was 18, and over the years most of the people I know seem to have drifted into the sport sometime between 18 and 27.  Last fall I took a paddler I’d been coaching to a popular river festival here in New England.  At 17 years old, he was the only teenager on the river, apart from one 14 year-old who we heard much about before we met him.  And this was not the Green Narrows.  This was a friendly class III river.  Nor was it sparsely attended; hundreds and hundreds of boaters filled the eddies.  Contrast this with your average ski hill, where you’ll commonly see a sizable mix of helmets in the liftline rising only up to your thigh.  Ski past the race hill and you’ll see a dragon’s tail of 30 kids snaking down the gate course.  Ski past the terrain park and you’ll see teenage boys in oversized sweatshirts, skiing without poles, and pointing GoPro cameras at each other as they hit the rails and tabletops.  You’ll see whole families, four across, getting on the lift together.

In paddling, all of this is rare enough on most rivers as to cause me to do a double take.  I know it’s not true that there are NO kids in paddling.  There are certainly SOME.  And there are certainly SOME families who do paddle together.  But compared to skiing — and compared to what we could have — it’s not that many.  And we’ve just sort of gotten used to it.

This is a shame.  Paddling is not only fun, but it can foster a lot of the qualities that we hope kids develop as they get older.  If there’s a better vehicle for teaching self-reliance than a kayak, I don’t know of it.  Plus, it’s not that expensive, especially compared to skiing.  Then there’s the broader context: participation in whitewater is down from its height in the early 2000s.  Considering the lack of kids you see on rivers, it’s hardly surprising.

It’s no secret that the whitewater boating culture in the United States largely venerates risk, adrenaline, and danger.  I wonder sometimes if this has to do with why there are so few kids or families in the sport.  My impression is that the broader public sees our sport as a dangerous one, not a family sport.  Sometimes I think that even we see ourselves that way.  I taught my wife to ski after we’d been dating not even a year.  It took me three more years before I dared take her on a river.  Even though she was a college swimmer, she was scared because she thought paddling was dangerous.  Think about it: how many whole families do you know who paddle class III together?  I know, I know, there are a FEW who do, but it’s a hell of a lot more rare than in skiing.  When did that become common in our sport?  And what does it say?

But there is one place I can think of where I do see families paddling together:  local slalom races!  They may not appeal to the aspiring Eric Jacksons anymore, but they do have a family vibe.  And if we want to grow the sport and to make it more receptive to families and to kids, I think that’s a good place to start.

But slalom races themselves aren’t recruitment or training tools, no more than soccer tournaments are.  Here’s what you really need if you want to grow the sport for kids: clubs.  

(unofficialolympiccanoeslalom.files.wordpress.com)

Clubs — especially slalom training clubs — are a big part of the secret to European slalom success.  Many European countries have strong, well-funded clubs that recruit kids from a young age and train them.  That’s hardly surprising; a lot of youth sports in America — especially individual sports like swimming or skiing — operate this way.  Want to get into swim racing?  You join a swim club.  Want to try ski racing?  You join something like the Franconia Ski Club, which trains hundreds of kids at my local resort, Cannon Mountain.  Parents love this set-up because their kids get coaching and use of the mountain, develop their skills in a safe environment, and get a chance to make friends with kids their own age.  Plus, it’s convenient — you can offload your child (or children) in a single place at a set time, then picking them up later, without worrying about them roaming the mountain unattended.  Plus, some clubs provide loaner equipment when you’re starting out, so that you can see if you like it before you commit to purchasing (thank you, SWASA Ski Jumping in Salisbury, Connecticut!)

And for it to work, you really need it to be centered around a competitive sport like slalom racing, not just roaming around rivers.  That way, it’s got a purpose to it, a goal.  Everyone involved can see tangible results.  It’s focused.  For lack of a better term, slalom is organized.  Don’t forget too that racing is fun.  And it’s got a romance, a glamour: any kid in a boat is a future Olympian, a future Smolen or Eichfeld.  Even more importantly, any kid in a boat is . . .  a kid in a boat: a precious resource for our youth-starved sport, a future advocate for rivers and wild places.

What’s kind of remarkable about boating clubs is that the United States still has so many of them, given how easy it is to find paddling partners without clubs these days.  I think this speaks to a real void that clubs do fill — for organization, camaraderie, and advocacy.  I’ve been a member of several and we did a lot of good.  

But even when I was a member of the oldest, most successful slalom club in the U.S. — the Bethesda Center of Excellence, based just outside of Washington, D.C. — we did a lot of good things, but I don’t remember their being much of an organized youth recruiting or training program.  I don’t recall there ever being regular coached kids’ sessions.  My lasting memories from those years are of a lot of scruffy-looking twenties-age racers chasing each other around the Feeder and Dickerson, not of slightly concerned parents dropping off little kids for their first training session with the Under-10s.  I don’t remember any club coaches, just the U.S. Team coach, who trained the older athletes.  In fact, the club felt mostly like adults, not like a ski club pumping juniors into the system.  It felt like a group of 10-15 good adult racers, and not a whole lot of juniors below us coming up the ranks.  Given that this was the club that had once produced some of our best young boaters in the past, I think that’s telling.  I’m not sure what it’s like today.  

I’m not saying any of this is a panacea, and I’m not saying that it’s without problems, but I am saying that youth slalom can be a vehicle for bringing a lot of new boaters into the sport, because it fits the profile that other successful sports use.  And by making it more like other sports, I think slalom could help combat the perception of whitewater as a dangerous sport, not a family activity.  There are plenty of clubs and organizations doing good work on the youth paddling and youth slalom front today, and I think it’s a really promising direction to go in.  

I realize that the United States faces a plethora of obstacles to creating the same kind of vital slalom club culture as exists in some European countries — geographical distance, lack of funding and government support, and equipment that is too far outside the norm.  All of these are real issues to look at (especially, I believe, the length and design of slalom boats; ski racers use slightly different skis, but not that different).  But I do believe that youth slalom is a promising direction for our sport to go, an important one to consider if we hope to pass along our favorite rivers, to leave our wild places — and this wild sport of ours — in good hands for the future.

(http://nantahalaracingclub.com)

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