published Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Nantahala to host major kayak event


by Dan Cook

The Ocoee River held the 1995 global spotlight when it hosted the Freestyle World Kayaking Championships and again in 1996 with the whitewater portion of the Atlanta Olympics. Now the Nantahala Gorge -- just across the state line in Wesser, N.C. -- will gain similar attention.

The World Freestyle Championships will be held on the Nantahala River in 2013.

The '95 Ocoee competition was the first time the freestyle world event was held in the United States. The Nantahala gathering will be the second. It is tentatively scheduled for mid-September of '13 with nearly 500 athletes representing 40-50 countries expected.

Freestyle, rodeo-like on the water, involves a paddler performing technical maneuvers and tricks on waves and turbulent holes. Spins, cartwheels, turns and flips add crowd appeal.

A lot of planning must take place before the championships, acknowledged Cathy Kennedy, rafting manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center in Wesser, N.C.

"It will take cooperation from everybody in the gorge, and then some," she said, adding that organizers hope to have the opening ceremony in nearby Cherokee, N.C.

Cathy is the daughter of Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, who with their friend Horace Holder founded NOC in 1972. Several members of the Kennedy family remain competitive in the sport.

Years ago, Payson Kennedy began taking groups from Atlanta to the Nantahala for rafting. He later directed canoeing for the movie "Deliverance," a catalyst in whitewater's popularity.

The NOC was established the same year that whitewater events became part of the Olympics in Augsburg, Germany. Currently only flatwater sprint and slalom events are part of the Olympics, but Nantahala Gorge enthusiasts are hopeful freestyle may be added.

The International Canoe Federation, sanctioning body of all world whitewater championship and Olympic canoe and kayak events, made the announcement of the world freestyle championship for Nantahala. Nevada and Utah sites also were in the bidding.

In making the Nantahala bid, NOC CEO Sutton Bacon drew up an 87-page presentation on behalf of the gorge's outfitters and other local businesses.

"Our vision for the World Championships is to raise the stature of freestyle kayaking for inclusion in the Olympic program, to inspire a new generation of paddling enthusiasts from all disciplines and to create a lasting event venue for paddlers to enjoy for years to come," Bacon was quoted in a release.

Duke Energy; Mitchell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians; U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler; North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue and other government officials at federal, state and local levels gave support.

Annually about 60,800 people float the Nantahala, either renting rafts or going with a guide.

With current airline restrictions on shipping, hauling kayaks from around the world could present a problem for the athletes. But officials are hopeful some of this country's manufacturers will provide boats, eliminating the need to transport them from overseas.

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