Throughout my travels and conversations with people in the stand up paddling community there is a continuous buzz about the prospects for SUP to one day ascend the path and take a place among the pillars of great athletic endeavors as an Olympic sport. The conversation in the United States reached a fevered pitch this past May when Team USA won gold at the ISA World Games – a feat accomplished in large part due to the decision and ability of top American athletes such as Izzy Gomez and Sean Poynter to Candice Appleby and Danny Ching to be able to make the trip and compete on the ISA’s international stage.
Then along came the Payette River Games. Set in the scenic ambiance or rural Cascade, Idaho, the Payette River Games demonstrated to the world you do not need an ocean or lake to host a world-class, highly competitive and challenging stand up paddling competition. All that is needed to spice things up is a little whitewater and a fast-moving river. How interesting would it be then if the style of SUP to eventually conquer Olympus and stand aside fellow paddling disciplines as a formally accepted competitive sport by the International Olympic Committee were to be whitewater SUP? Let’s take look at some of the variables one may wish to consider in weighing the issue.
As any of the competitors from the Payette River Games will readily attest, paddling through a whitewater course is challenging and fun. Many stand out SUP racers were quickly humbled by the fast-moving current as they navigated the ferry lines (whitewater speak for paddling across the current), charged into the eddies and braced for the plunge that made up the main feature on the course. Paddling on whitewater has all the challenge of paddling in and out through the surf zone, yet none of the subjectivity. Baring a flash flood, the water is going to be moving at the same rate and manner tomorrow in which it is today. Which brings us to the second factor to consider.
Consistency. Morning, noon or night – day in and day out, the river simply runs with the predictability of a finely engineered machine. Tides are a non issue and the wind plays a negligible role when compared to the dynamics it can quickly whip up on the ocean or flat water. In this regard, whitewater paddling may be considered a controlled environment. You know exactly what to expect – more or less!
Turning to the shoreline, whitewater SUP is infinitely more spectator friendly than any other SUP racing discipline. The action all takes place right before your eyes; start to finish, buoy after buoy. The problem of starting and then disappear only to reappear after a period of time for the finish so common in most SUP races is a non issue from the perspective of a spectator. In addition to being visually appealing, the rules in whitewater SUP competitions, based on my experience at the Payette River Games, are straightforward and unambiguous compared to the nuances of SUP surfing and other SUP racing disciplines.
There can be no doubt, whitewater paddling is incredibly exciting both as a competitor and a spectator. The river is a great equalizer and whitewater SUP champions may not necessarily the ones who can paddle the quickest from point A to B, but the ones who can read the water to know when to dig hard, when to hang back and brace and most importantly, when to simply go with the flow.