OPINION: Where did the World Championships Go?

By Nouria Newman

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

With Adidas reevaluating its marketing strategy and discontinuing its sponsorship in kayaking came the end of the Extreme Kayak World Championships, also known as Sickline. While it is true that the organizers gave their event the self-proclaimed title of ‘World Championships’ in 2008, it doesn’t change the fact that Sickline was the closest thing the whitewater world had to an actual world championship.

There is no debate that Sickline was not the hardest whitewater race in the world (the North Fork Championship holds that title), or the most progressive event (the Whitewater Grand Prix holds that distinction), or even the greatest show (and shit show) in the sport (see: Green Race). All this begs the question: Did this race in a little town in the mountains of Austria deserve to call itself the ‘World Championships,’ especially when the heart of extreme kayaking undeniably resides in the United States? A few years ago, my response to this question might have been different; in hindsight, I realize my answer should have always been an unequivocal “yes.”

Even though Sickline wasn’t the hardest or the most spectacular, over the years it had become something more, something truly deserving the world title-bearing distinction: the greatest event of whitewater kayaking. As the saying goes “haters gonna hate,” but I stand by this statement: Sickline was the best extreme kayaking race, period.

Of course, my position is debatable, so here are five reasons why I believe Sickline was the best race in the world:

Photo by Vitek Ludvik Photograph by Jeremy Koreski

1. Safety

The Wellerbrucke isn’t the hardest or most consequential rapid out there, but the numerous siphons and sticky holes do present some serious risks. Luckily, the safety crew at the event was always top-notch. For some, having a ton of UK boaters at the same event sounds terrifying, but, for the safety crew, it is a great opportunity that prepares them for nearly all possible scenarios. There seems to be a strong culture of “getting sendy” amongst the British, paddling rapids way above their skill levels and a deep love for carnage, which makes having a prepared, well-organized safety team even more vital to safely running an extreme kayak event.

Newman Boofing Champions Killer (Photo: D Benedetto) David A. Smith/Contributor/Getty Images

2. Technicality

As I mentioned earlier, the race course isn’t that extreme and not even close to the North Fork or King of Asia courses. It’s definitely easier than the Little White, Homestake, Rey del Maipo, Citroen extreme, and so forth. Paddling down the Sickline race course isn’t that hard but going fast is a totally different story. On the top part of the course, you need to push yourself to exhaustion, go as fast as you possibly can, but keep your lucidity. Because the bottom part is pretty much a continuous succession of various technical moves, and a single mistake, a single misplaced stroke, will put you off line and you will be game-over before you even know it.


3. Density

One stroke, just one single little stroke. A few centimeters; sometimes just a centimeter. A second, but most likely not even: just a split of second. The real challenge racing here is having, not just one, but many clean runs. The field at Sickline had by far the highest concentration of fast kayakers at a single event. A single mistake, costing you as little as a tenth of a second, was the difference between victory or disappointment. To perform at Sickline, it wasn’t enough to just go down and have good lines; you had to chase perfection. Be precise and meticulous. Training laps over and over, paying attention to the smallest details, in a quest to find the perfect line and chase it.

3 time champ Sam Sutton leads another paddler down the middle of the course. Photo by David Spiegel
Four-time Sicline champ Sam Sutton showing another paddler the race lines. (Photo by David Spiegel)

4. Equal opportunities

Anyone could show up at Sickline, race and do well. Also, attending the event presented the opportunity to witness great performances from paddlers you had never seen or heard of before. What I liked most was seeing some incredible paddling from so many different paddlers who came from different backgrounds (e.g. Savage New Zealanders, established pro kayakers from the U.S., Euro-unknowns, international slalom racers). Everyone had a shot and the results were always full of surprises.

It was also one of the few races where women received equal treatment to the men. It was an eight-year battle for parity, but eventually it all happened. Same race course, same media coverage, same recognition, and equal price money.


5. Showcase

There is not an existing race which has the same professionalism as Sickline. I admit, the rigorous organization seemed a little over-the-top at times (There isn’t a single racer who doesn’t remember the race briefing and these mighty words from Mike Hammel: “If you don’t do this…DQ ! If you don’t do that…DQ!”). It was worth enduring for such a well run event.

But the Austrian psycho-rigid tradition has its goods when it comes to event organization. The race was always on time, the timing system couldn’t have been any better, and the coverage of the event was outstanding (i.e. live broadcasts, timely press releases, and a strong presence on social media). The organizers were doing it all, and doing it very well. Can you name another whitewater event that generates a couple of thousand minutes of air time and is available to more than 3000 news outlets across the globe? Probably not.

Now that Sickline is no more, extreme kayaking has lost more than just its world championship, we lost a big-time event that was on par with events in much bigger outdoor sports. Sickline showcased kayaking at its best, only to be replaced by some race in Indonesia, which will have much less exposure and a much smaller attendance. Though the event in Indonesia will be called the 2018 Extreme Kayak World Championships, it is only because a handful of people from an obscure group with no legitimacy called the AWP, decided so. I feel like that is a joke.

North Fork Championship Nouria Newman at Rock Drop in Jacob's Ladder.
Nouria Newman at Rock Drop in Jacob’s Ladder, competing at Idaho’s North Fork Championship. Photograph by Shana Novak

Does extreme kayaking need a world championship at all cost? Do we need a race series? Point systems? Is it better to have a lower quality world championships rather than no world championships at all? Can’t we just have some good races until someone who has the ability to put together a true world championships takes the mantel from Sickline?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I guess we will just have to wait and see what future holds. Thankfully, whitewater kayaking is so much more than racing, so until someone puts together a proper World Championships, there are still numerous cool events around the globe for us to enjoy. Just go kayaking and have fun because, at the end of the day, this is the most important thing.

Nouria Newman is the reigning women’s “extreme kayak world champion,” having won the last (2017) Sickline event.


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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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