Women’s Canoe Gives Paddlers Gender Parity At Olympics

by Karen Rosen

Ria Sribar competes during the 2018 ICF Canoe Slalom World Cup Final on Sept. 7, 2018 in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain.


CHARLOTTE, N.C.  – While women have traditionally been first in lifeboats (see: Titanic), they couldn’t get into canoes – at least when it came to Olympic slalom competition.
As the Games make more program changes to achieve gender parity, a generation of Team USA female athletes are ready to fill the seats that are opening up.
“Most of us are under 20, so it’s a really young team,” said Evy Leibfarth, 17. “It’s really cool to be part of this awesome group of girls that’s just on the rise.”
At eight previous Olympic Games, men had three events – C1, C2 and K1 – with potentially four different athletes winning medals in canoe slalom (which comprises the disciplines of canoe and kayak), while women merely had one event – K1 – and one medal opportunity.
That will finally change at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where women will have the same number of slalom events as men by competing in both K1 and C1. The C2 event has been discontinued.
And at the Olympic Games Paris 2024, extreme slalom – with four boats competing at the same time – joins the program for both men and women.
“I think we deserve it and I think we’re equally good,” Ria Sribar, 18, said of gender parity. “It’s just a matter of getting supported and women will show what they’ve got.”
Leibfarth races C1 and K1 and won all four of her runs on the first day of competition at the U.S. Olympic and National Canoe/Kayak Slalom Team Trials. The event continues through Wednesday at the U.S National Whitewater Center.
Leibfarth earned an Olympic quota spot for Team USA in C1 by placing fourth at the 2019 world championships. She also earned a quota spot in K1, but the current rules do not allow the same athlete to keep two quota spots. However, if Leibfarth qualifies for Tokyo, she will be allowed to compete in both events.
Sribar was second behind Leibfarth on both K1 runs, with Marcella Altman, 16, placing third. 
While both Sribar and Altman know there is no path to the Tokyo Olympics for them in K1, they are hoping to qualify for junior or senior national teams that will travel to world cups and the world championships.
Neither begrudges Leibfarth her success on the world stage. 
“I’m really rooting for her,” said Altman, who is also a competitive skier. “Going to the Olympics at such a young age, it’s like anyone’s dream really, and she’s out there actually doing it. It’s not a dream for her anymore. And it really pushes all of us to get better.”
“It’s more fun to be part of a good team,” added Sribar, who competed at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018. “We’re growing up together, which I think is kind of fun.
“It’s interesting because off the water, we’re all really good friends and close and we go have picnics and hikes, but on the water, it’s definitely a tough competition.”
And yet they help each other by cheering whoever is on the water or offering scouting reports about how to maneuver around a particular gate.
“Whoever goes first gives the others information for the run,” Leibfarth said. “If I go first I’ll have everyone asking me, ‘Was this move bad?’ And I’ll tell them. We all really want everyone to get better and be faster.
“It’s a really positive community…So I’m really lucky to have a team that’s not just competitors, but also friends.”
It’s no coincidence that all three of these athletes had parents who paddled. Leibfarth’s father, Lee, was a national team athlete and coach and her mother, Jean Folger was an instructor and raft guide. Renata Altman was born in the Czech Republic and competed for Team USA in the world championships. Rok Sribar, the general manager of high performance programs for the American Canoe Association, was an extreme kayaker.
Altman’s younger sister, Isabella, also paddles. Altman does both canoe and kayak, but due to issues with a shoulder injury she chose to only do K1 at this event.
“It’s such a great sport and it’s kind of a shame that more people don’t do it,” said Altman, who had to forgo canoe at this event because of a shoulder injury. 
“At the center, people are ziplining or rafting, and they can see people in the slalom boats. Maybe some little kid someday will be like, ‘I really want to do that,’ and get interested in the sport and let’s hope they get pretty far in it.”
Rebecca Giddens was the last American woman to win a medal in slalom, taking home the K1 silver in 2004 in Athens. Dana Chladek won the bronze in Barcelona in 1992, then captured the silver in Atlanta four years later.
Lee Leibfarth said that adding women’s canoe to the Olympic program has led to female kayakers crossing over to do both disciplines. Men usually specialize in one or the other. 
“It was a natural fit for an emerging women’s class for women who are already accomplished kayakers to jump in canoe,” he said. “And now we’re seeing women that are just specializing in canoe, but that’s come about within the last four years or so.”
He also said the influx of women to canoeing has led to an evolution in paddling technique.
“When I was originally coaching, when you were in a canoe, you picked a side,” he said. “If you were paddling on the right side, you would always be on that right side. They would cross, but they would never switch sides, thinking that it took more time to switch hands – in reality there are times when it’s actually faster.”
Leibfarth said that because of the strength factor, women are switching sides from left to right when it makes sense, when it’s faster. 
“And now,” he said, “you can see the men doing that as well.”

Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to since 2009.