INTERVIEW: Evy Leibfarth, A Bright Light Shining for Slalom
By Capo Rettig
Evy Leibfarth is about to take the world by storm, that is, unless she has not already done so by the time you read these words. The shackles of youth disappeared into the air this past January when Evy turned 15, the required age for entry into ICF competition. New chapter. New story. This summer, Evy placed third in the women’s canoe category in Ljublijana, Slovenia, becoming the youngest competitor to earn a medal at a World Cup, in only her second World Cup competition. The weekend before in Bratislava she finished top 10 in both K1 and C1 in her first. Not bad for just turning 15. The Bryson City, North Carolina athlete already had a reputation at the US National level, having qualified for both the K1 and C1 women’s national team –two years in a row. Despite qualifying for the team, her age kept her from being able to compete. That is now all in the past. We caught up with Evy between her slalom competitions in Europe, and got to know a bit more about this young athlete who is making a global splash. What we found was a well-rounded articulate athlete with great promise and a wonderful story.
Evy, how did you first get into kayaking?
I started kayaking when I was four years old, but I don’t remember much. Both my parents are paddlers, so kayaking seems natural! When I was seven, my parents and I were going to run the Nantahala River when I saw a small slalom race. I convinced my parents to let me enter, and I got my first slalom boat less than a year later. I immediately loved how fast it was and have been hooked ever since.
What motivates you as a kayaker?
I have always loved the way kayaks move through the water; the speed and precision that are used together to make it down a river or course. My love for kayaking allows me to always strive to be better, as passion for something always makes it easier to be motivated. I push myself because I want to do better, not because other people put pressure on me to do well. Self-motivation is a really big part of being an elite athlete. I am motivated to get up early and train, and to go as hard as I can every workout, for the satisfaction of knowing I have done everything I can to get better at the sport I love.
Do you do any other types of kayaking?
I love all kinds of kayaking. I always try to find a new creek or river to paddle when I’m home. I like to use my Pyranha Ripper, so I can still do some slalom moves! At some of the World Cups, I’ve also competed in Extreme Slalom, which is like boatercross. You launch from a bridge in a plastic boat and compete head to head with three other boats, while navigating a few gates.
What is your most memorable kayaking moment?
When I was 9, I was doing a slalom workout at Nantahala Falls with some friends. We were supposed to do a hard move where you boof over the top hole to go diagonally through the rapid. In the start eddy, I asked my friends what a boof was. I didn’t figure it out, and instead of boofing, I floated sideways into the hole and ended up getting surfed out of my boat. It was terrifying, not being able to get out of a hole, but I went back up and, after more explanation of what a boof was, I tried the move again and turned a terrifying event into something I learned from.
Do you participate in any other sports that you feel helps with your kayaking in any way?
I competed in gymnastics for over seven years. So much of my strength comes from that flexibility, and also having experience competing from such a young age is so helpful for learning strategies to deal with nerves and stay focused. I also enjoy surfing and skateboarding, which help my balance.
Recently there have been more competitors in extreme kayak races with slalom backgrounds. Do you have any interest in pursuing this style of race in the future?
Extreme Slalom is gaining popularity and I’ll definitely continue to pursue it. Even the more extreme races like the North Fork Championships combine whitewater slalom skills with big water skills, so a slalom background can mean a big advantage. In the future, I would love to spend some more time on big whitewater in the hopes of competing in events like this as a way to round out my kayaking.
Are more juniors are getting into slalom kayaking these days?
Right now, I believe the sport is growing in the U.S. My local kayaking club, the Nantahala Racing Club, has about 10 kids just getting into slalom, and this depth in the program hasn’t been around for a while. Hopefully, as they get older, they’ll want to start training seriously. Local paddling clubs are the only way more juniors will get into the sport. I think a lot of teens won’t start kayaking out of fear, but slalom is basically harder moves on easier rivers. It can help build skills without stepping too far out of a comfort zone.
How does the junior slalom community in the USA compare with the greater world?
I first traveled internationally for slalom was when I was 12, and I was amazed at the number of slalom athletes at each race site. In the USA right now, a big race has about 30 athletes, but at races in Europe, the entries are capped at 400 juniors. I hope that one day slalom grows to that size in the USA.
What is your most memorable competition moment?
2019 World Cup #2 in Tacen, Slovenia will probably be my most memorable race forever. In slalom, you get two heats runs—basically two tries to make it to semifinals. After the first heats run, the 20 fastest racers advance, and after the second heats run, the 10 fastest racers advance. Those 30 semifinalists have one run to be top 10 and advance to finals. My goal was to make it to semifinals, and once I made it, I put everything towards making it to finals, and I did. It was a really tough course on some of the biggest artificial whitewater in Europe, and I was able to keep focused throughout the race, even with the distractions of the announcers and the thought of results. I was really low in the first up, but I pushed as hard as I could the rest of the run, and I placed 3rd. Earning a World Cup medal, in a field of so many other amazing athletes, was incredible, and I will always remember that feeling of disbelief when I medaled.
What are your goals for 2020? Any Olympic asipirations?
Becoming an Olympic medalist is a long-term goal of mine, and the first step is qualifying an Olympic boat at this year’s World Championships in La Seu de’Urgell, Spain. No matter how I do at that event, though, I want to come out feeling happy with my performance. I’m training hard for that Olympic spot, but I know I have a lot of years to make that dream happen.
How do you balance your education and being an athlete?
Balancing my training and travels with school can be hard, so I have to make a schedule to ensure I have enough time for everything. In the future, I hope to have a career somewhere in the medical field, so keeping good grades is essential to getting into a good college. I’m going into my junior year of high school at K12 International Academy, an online school, and with that I have the flexibility to get ahead and fall behind in school, as long as I finish by a set end date. Planning my training and school out ahead of time is critical for staying on top of everything.
Do you have any role-models or heroes in the sport?
My dad was my first paddling coach, and he continues to coach me on the international circuit now. My all-time hero in canoe slalom is Jessica Fox, a wk1 and wc1 paddler from Australia. Last year, she won almost every World Cup. Even though she hasn’t this year, she’s always able to learn from her racing and from other competitors. I really look up to her as an ambassador and an athlete. She has a busy training schedule and still finds time to coach and help with the younger kids and helps them pursue the sport.
(the short version of this interview was published in KS71, Fall 2019)