Written by Chris Hipgrave (pictured above) - At the height of the Cold War and in the shadow of an Eastern Bloc boycott, the 1984 Olympic Games took place in Los Angeles, California. USA canoe and kayak athletes had been performing well leading up to the Games and ultimately Greg Barton would win a Bronze in the K1-1000 flatwater event. Four years later at the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea and Greg Barton made history by winning Gold in the K1-1000, then just 20 minutes later he and Norm Bellingham won Gold in the K2-1000.
At about the same time (1987), Los Angeles had closed the financial books on their Games and profits were divided among the participating National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) with one of the financial beneficiaries being the USA canoe and kayak NGB of the American Canoe Association. The presence of Olympic money buoyed by Olympic success in flatwater sprint caused conflict, with the ACA Board wanting to use the money to seed the base of the sport while the sprint team took a more short term view on improved training facilities and equipment. As a result USA flatwater sprint started the legal process of succeeding from the ACA and ultimately ended up creating the US Canoe & Kayak Team (USCKT) based in Lake Placid, NY. That divorce from the ACA was bitter for many involved and continues to shape opinion even today. To further complicate things, the US Olympic Committee and International Canoe Federation would only recognize one National Governing Body per nation, so once the divorce paperwork was finalized, USCKT ended up representing all the competitive disciplines including the now Olympic discipline of whitewater slalom, which despite debuting in 1972, was now included in the 1992 Games in Spain. USCKT also assumed leadership of wildwater, marathon, polo and the other non-Olympic disciplines.
In 1992 whitewater slalom returned to the Games after a 20 year hiatus in Barcelona, ESP where Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh won Gold in C2 Slalom and Dana Chladek won Bronze in the K1W Slalom while Greg Barton took home the Bronze in the K1-1000 flatwater event which would be the USA’s last Olympic flatwater medal. The 1996 Games in Atlanta, GA saw Dana Chladek win Silver in K1W Slalom. The USA didn’t win any canoe and kayak medals in 2000 in Australia but in 2004 in Athens, Greece, Rebecca Giddens won the USA’s last Olympic canoe and kayak medal, a Silver in K1W whitewater slalom. Bottom-line is that after the ACA / USCKT split, the upward trajectory of the USA canoe and kayak medal count took a sharp nose dive, with whitewater slalom representing most of the high points.
And yet over this same time period, recreational canoe and kayak participation had exploded and given birth to today’s leading industry brands, massive canoe clubs and a general increased popularity in outdoor sports. The ACA would go on to focus on these millions of recreational paddlers with a primary focus on safety, education and advocacy, while USCKT (now USACK) would focus only on elite competition. As a result, by 2014 ACA membership would total in excess of 35,000 while USACK’s would be less than 2,000.
After the split, USCKT relocated to Lake Placid, NY then in 2002 moved to Charlotte, NC and more recently Oklahoma City, OK, each move underlined by a desire for better access to potential sponsors and resources. But sadly, those financial dollars never materialized and the US Olympic Committee was (now) USACK’s primary source of funding. USACK finally hit rock bottom in 2014 when the USOC announced severe funding cuts in its USACK support, limiting resources to one slalom coach and athlete support for one slalom athlete. Thanks to some successful politicking they negotiated to also fund the slalom head coach position. With the resignation of the USACK Executive Director, a redirection of those financial resources also permitted the funding of a flatwater sprint director. In concert with these dramatic financial restrictions from the USOC, came the announcement that the ACA and USACK would merge, turning back the clock to a pre-1987 organization where one organization would cohesively represent the recreation and competitive interests of the entire paddlesports community. As part of the agreement, Wade Blackwood, Executive Director of the ACA, would also take over as CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak.
So what does the future look like for competitive paddlesports? Well, the current ACA leadership team has a history of success and sees the whole paddlesports picture as one would expect from an organization that represents the recreational interests of millions of paddlers. However, it would be naive on our behalf to assume that now these two organizations are back together that things will immediately swing upwards or that we could ever climb back to where USA canoe & kayak was back in the 80’s and early 90’s. The paddlesports landscape is very different today than it was back then and both olympic disciplines are even further removed from the recreational interests that we see on our rivers and lakes. Furthermore, the cost of producing an Olympic medal continues to rise. A 2008 Australian study suggests it costs $40m (AUS$) to produce just one gold medal while a 2012 British study suggests £10m per medal.
But at the very least we now have organizational efficiency and an “opportunity” that has been missing for decades. We now have an incredible opportunity to expose competitive canoe and kayak of all sorts to a huge base audience that just might choose to give it a try or maybe become a volunteer, donor or simply a fan. The pressure is now on the boots on the ground to own this new organizational relationship and the future of competitive paddlesport and create a pathway to success for its membership. In just the last couple of years, organizations like the Oklahoma Boat House District, Nantahala Outdoor Center/Nantahala Racing Club and ASCI have all hosted a canoe and kayak World Championships and are creating lasting paddlesports legacies that will fuel tomorrows American competitive paddlesports landscape for years to come.
So let’s give the American Canoe Association our full support and see where they lead us because it can only be up.