Whitewater canoe slalom combines tactile decision making with ruthless precision. Photo: Amber Maslen

Whitewater canoe slalom combines tactile decision making with ruthless precision. Photo: Amber Maslen

Words by Oscar McBurney & Amber Maslen, British canoe slalom athletes 

Whitewater canoe slalom is the hardest, most breathtaking sport in the world.

The sport combines tactile decision making with ruthless precision. Imagine for just a second running hurdles during an earthquake. Except the hurdles are electrified. And they swing around. That’s pretty much canoe slalom. You get one shot at winning. There are no second chances.

Every athlete’s ultimate goal is the Olympic Games. To qualify, there is a selection series once every four years, with one spot per category for every country. For a kayak specialist, or a canoe specialist, there is one chance every four years to go big. So why commit to so much risk, where years of sacrifice are on the line for a ninety second race?

When Usain Bolt is in his private jet on the way to a race, he already knows what time he is likely to put down. He also knows that this time is likely to be the best. This is because in linear sports such as running, you are able to train against your real opponent every day - the clock.

Every whitewater canoe slalom athlete’s ultimate goal is the Olympic Games. Photo: Amber Maslen

Every whitewater canoe slalom athlete’s ultimate goal is the Olympic Games. Photo: Amber Maslen

Slalom is a problem solving sport. The day before a race, the gates that athletes must navigate are set by officials. There are between eighteen and twenty four gates in a course, and six of these are always ‘upstream’ - they have to be navigated against the current. The athlete’s time is measured by two laser beams, at the top and bottom of the course, and the fastest time wins.

Each race is completely unique and competitors attempt the course for the very first time during the race. Success is completely reliant on athletes being able to read the water from the bank, and construct a plan based on their experience of the whitewater. There are often several different ways of completing a key move in the course, and athletes have to decide which one is fastest, measured against what they are technically able to pull off.

Whitewater is inconsistent, made of big features mixed with small cross-currents. Slalom boats only weigh nine kilos, so they are extremely sensitive to movement.

Whitewater canoe slalom is a problem solving sport. Photo: Oscar McBurney

Whitewater canoe slalom is a problem solving sport. Photo: Oscar McBurney

To be an elite slalom paddler, an athlete has to put in thousands of hours of training on different whitewater courses, practising hundreds of different gate combinations. This type of lifestyle training takes slalom athletes all over the world, practising on the most challenging whitewater for any gate sequence that might come up in a race.

Though slalom is undoubtedly complex it is also a remarkably inclusive sport.

Many Olympic sports have anatomic specification - for example in swimming, long limbs often feature in the fastest athletes. In contrast, success can be seen in slalom with hugely varying body types. Over the years canoe slalom Olympic champions have been seen to have bodyweight margins of up to thirty kilos between one another. Short or tall, light or heavy, the world’s masters of whitewater are a comprehensively mixed bunch.

Success can be seen in slalom with hugely varying body types. Photo: Amber Maslen

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There are several reasons for success in such a broad spectrum of predispositions. A slalom race is effectively a ninety second lactic effort. So all athletes must have good lactic tolerance, and speed-endurance capabilities. However the effectiveness of this fitness is defined by the individuals technical ability on the water. Misplaced power in a slalom race can cost athletes a lot of time, if they can’t use the water to their advantage.

The best paddlers can use the water features to create effortless movements. Often in slalom, smaller athletes are able to use water features effectively because their lighter bodyweight can balance on top of the rapids. We often see bigger, heavier paddlers being able to blast through complex moves as though they were flat water, because the rapids simply don’t have the same effect on them.

“Fight the water and you will lose" is a saying that all athletes, big or small, learn at some point (and often continually) in their careers.

“Fight the water and you will lose”... Photo: Oscar McBurney

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Next comes the hardest part. For a perfect run, athletes have to memorise twenty four gates, along with the sometimes unfamiliar whitewater features that comprise a race course. Being able to practise the moves mentally gives a competitor a distinct advantage over the rest of the field. Getting this mental map perfect before a race run can be make or break.

As a result slalom is often incredibly unpredictable.

When they have mastered mind as well as body, an athlete knows on the start line what’s going to happen. In slalom, it’s not just about being the best at kayaking and canoeing. It’s about having the cleanest mind, the most forgiving temper, and the most indestructible confidence. A level of balance is required that is hard to simulate in any other environment in the world.

Slalom is the hardest, most addictive sport in the world.

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