The Chattahoochee River serves as the municipal boundary between Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. There is a thundering stretch of whitewater that bisects the downtown areas of both cities with a small island on the Columbus side that protrudes into rapids and is accessible by a pedestrian bridge. Just off of the island is a thundering hydraulic known to the local kayaking community as “Good Wave.”
This powerful and unpredictable river feature served as the stage for the 2023 ICF Freestyle Kayak World Championships. The event drew over 200 athletes from 20 countries. They came to showcase their skills in a battle for the title of best freestyle kayaker in the world.
World Championships of Freestyle Kayaking
Freestyle kayaking is likely one of the most dynamic and entertaining sports you have possibly never heard of. Athletes enclose themselves in a small plastic boat that is roughly 6 feet in length and paddle onto a stationary whitewater feature.
In competition, they use the power of the moving water to throw as many different aerial and acrobatic maneuvers as possible in a 45-second ride. The bigger and more technical maneuvers score the most points. The person with the highest-scoring ride in the final heat wins.
Athletes work their way through a series of qualifying rounds that eliminate paddlers over a period of 6 days. The top five athletes in each class compete for the gold in a final heat.
The ICF Freestyle World Championships happen at a different location around the world, every 2 years. In the years between, there is a Freestyle World Cup event held at the location where the next World Championships will be held.
2023 Freestyle Kayak World Championships: Columbus, GA
This year’s World Championship event was one for the history books. It had an exceptional number of record-setting achievements — and, several noteworthy upsets.
There were a handful of key players leading into the event that promised to elevate the competition to new heights. And, they certainly delivered!
The squirt competition kicked off the event. Squirt boating is a variation of freestyle where paddlers compete in long narrow boats. They are designed much like a propeller. This is so they can both perform acrobatic tricks at the surface and underwater. It is also so they can purposefully “flow” underwater in order to stay under for extended periods of time, called a mystery move.
The score in a squirt competition is determined by the acrobatic maneuvers at the surface and multiplied by the number of seconds maintained underwater. It is an exciting discipline and one that keeps spectators on the edge of their seats. Anticipation is high as they wait for athletes to rocket out from the murky depths after an extended period of submersion.
The United States dominated the squirt event with a full sweep of the podium in the men’s class. This was led by Taft Sibley (USA) taking the gold, followed by teammate Andrew Grizzell (USA) with the silver, and five-time World Champion Clay Wright (USA) in the bronze position. The last time the USA swept the podium was 22 years prior, in 2001.
Rose Wall (USA) was the first woman to break the 2,000-point barrier that was previously achieved by only three other men. She also set a new women’s competition world record, by submerging her kayak for 31 seconds. Wall won the event, followed by World Champion kayaker Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (GBR) in silver and Tamsyn McConchie (GBR) with bronze.
Next up was the Open Canoe event, which is another variation of freestyle kayaking where competitors sit on their knees in a boat with an open cockpit and use a single-blade paddle. As the athletes drop into the whitewater feature, their boats fill with water, making them extremely heavy and cumbersome.
It is a multigender discipline — where women and men compete against each other in the same class. It requires extraordinary strength, and female competitors are virtually nonexistent.
This year, Landon Miller (USA) took the gold, followed by Zachary Zwanenburg (CAN) with silver and Philip Josef (GER) with bronze.
2023 ICF Freestyle World Championships: Canoe Categories
C1 Men’s Freestyle
C1 is similar to Open Canoeing, in that paddlers kneel in their boats and use a single blade. But, in the C1 class, athletes are able to use a neoprene skirt to keep the water out of their boat. This keeps it light and nimble. As a result, they are able to perform more technical aerial maneuvers than the OC1s.
The men’s C1 class proved to be one of the tightest races. Former World Champions Dane Jackson (USA), Jordan Poffenberger (USA), Landon Miller (USA), and Tom Dolle (FRA) all jockeyed for the top position on the podium. Jackson took the lead with his first ride and maintained it throughout the competition.
But, in the last three rides in the finals heat, underdog Seth Chapelle took the lead in an incredible flurry of high-scoring tricks. The grandstands were silent with anticipation as Jackson caught the wave in the final ride of the event, waiting to see if he could better the incredible performance by Chapelle minutes earlier.
Jackson performed beautifully, but it wasn’t enough to top Chapelle’s winning ride. The crowd erupted in jubilee, as longtime competitor Seth Chapelle (USA) took the win for the first time in his 20 years representing Team USA at the Freestyle World Championships. This win was a hard-earned and well-deserved accomplishment for one of the nicest guys in the sport.
Chapelle was joined on the podium by teammates Dane Jackson in second place and Landon Miller in third. It was the second podium sweep by Team USA at the 2023 World Championships.
C1 Women’s Freestyle
In the women’s C1 event, reigning World Champion Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (GBR) retained her title. This was followed by Zofia Tula (POL) in second place and Tamsyn McConchie (GBR) in third.
2023 ICF Freestyle World Championships: Kayak Categories
Junior Women’s K1 Freestyle
The Junior Women’s category was a much-anticipated event, as local paddler and bronze medalist Makinley Kate Hargrove squared off against favorites Sophie Gilfillan (CAN) and Leah Hough (IRL). Hargrove laid down a high-scoring first ride, leaving the other competitors scrambling to catch her in their remaining two rides.
Gilfillan brought the heat in her second ride, a mere 20 points behind Hargrove. With all of the girls capable of taking the lead, the third and final ride of the event was tense.
Hargrove won the gold, followed by Gilfillan, and then Eleanor Knight (USA) with bronze. Knight had a beautiful series of high-flying tricks on her final ride to get onto the podium.
Junior Men’s K1 Freestyle
In the junior men’s competition, Tim Reese’s (GER) first ride proved unbeatable and earned him the gold. Onni Eronen finished in second place, earning Finland its first ICF medal at a World Championships. Timmy Hill (GBR) rounded out the podium in third place.
Women’s K1 Freestyle
In the women’s K1 class, five-time World Champion Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (GBR) was the favorite to win the event. Other athletes to watch included former World Champions Emily Jackson (USA), Hitomi Takaku (JAP), Sage Donnelley (USA), and Abby Holcombe (USA). It was a heated competition!
Heidi Walsh (GBR) laid down a beautiful ride in the semifinal round, eliminating Holcombe from the final round. Sage Donnelly performed beautifully in her second finals ride, earning enough points to win the gold. This was followed by Robinson-Shaw with silver and Jackson with bronze.
Men’s K1 Freestyle
In the Men’s K1 class, legendary athlete Dane Jackson (USA) is the undisputed G.O.A.T. He excels not only in freestyle kayaking, but also in extreme racing, water falling, and first descents. Jackson entered this year’s event with 19 International Canoe Federation (ICF) medals under his belt, nine of which were gold. He was a massive favorite to win the men’s K1 event.
His primary competition leading into the event was his brother-in-law and former World Champion, Nick Troutman (CAN), two-time World Champion Tom Dolle (FRA), and local kayaker and former Junior World Champion Mason Hargrove (USA).
Throughout the preliminary events, the competitors jockeyed for the lead in an incredibly difficult feature — sometimes performing brilliantly and other times getting flushed out the backside of the feature without scoring a single point. This made for an exciting event with several unexpected results.
Alan Ward (GBR) and Hayden Voorhees (USA) surprised the crowd with beautiful rides in the semifinal rounds and eliminated Hargrove from the final event.
The final round proved to be a family battle with brothers-in-law sparring for the top position. Jackson (USA) earned the top spot with his third consecutive win in the K1 class. Troutman (CAN) came in second and Dolle (FRA) placed third.
2023 Freestyle Kayak World Championships: One for the History Books
The 2023 Freestyle Kayak World Championships was a crowd favorite with all the attributes of a brilliant event. A difficult and unpredictable feature coupled with some of the greatest whitewater kayak athletes of all time, created a deep sense of anticipation as to what would happen in each of the classes throughout the event. There were record-setting performances coupled with unexpected defeats.
The underdog rose to the top to be crowned a champion more than once. But, most importantly, friends from around the world came together to play one of the most exciting games on the planet.
Be sure to check out the next Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Plattling, Germany, June 16-21, 2025.