Olympic slalom kayaker/canoeist Evy Leibfarth is preparing for a new challenge—the Green River Narrows Race. Known as the rowdiest and largest extreme kayak race in the world, the Green features a course that’s difficult even for top paddlers like Leibfarth, a North Carolina native who won a gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru.
Located near Asheville, N.C., the raging whitewater course is about three-quarter miles long, snaking through the spectator-filled canyon walls of the Green River gorge. The section is known for its dynamic class V rapids, created by the narrow walls of the gorge, and its gnarly 18-foot drop, called Gorilla, that throttles paddlers right before the finish line. Leibfarth, who’s originally from Bryson City, has had the race, which takes place on November 5, in her sights since she was a kid.
“I’ve been talking to paddlers that have done it basically my whole life,” says Leibfarth, 18. “It’s a really big thing—I grew up on the Nantahala river where there are so many paddlers who run or race the Green all the time, and I always thought it was just so badass. This year, I really wanted to challenge myself and step outside my comfort zone.”
As a current member of the U.S. Olympic Kayak and Canoe Slalom Team, Leibfarth has been earning U.S. slalom titles since she started competing at the age of 12, but her competitive career primarily keeps her paddling at waterparks and on courses with set features.
To help her transition to the Green, Leibfarth will be training with world-renowned whitewater kayaker Dane Jackson, who currently holds the record for the race’s fastest run. Jackson is known for running seemingly unrunnable river sections and waterfalls and is no stranger to competing on big, natural water like the Green River Narrows.
“I don’t do much big river paddling,” Leibfarth said. “I’m mostly doing really difficult moves on easier water and through gates with slalom, but not rapids. Since I’m not used to it, I’m pretty intimidated, especially by rapids like Gorilla. So lately I’m working to transfer that fear and anticipation into excitement, because I of course love racing and I’m so stoked on it.”
Prepping for the Green will be the first time Leibfarth and Jackson—both members of Team Red Bull—have worked together on this type of training project. Leibfarth says she is excited to learn from someone she has been inspired by throughout her life.
“I remember when I was really young, he was at Nantahala after the 2013 Freestyle World Championships, and I remember running around trying to find him and get him to autograph my cert,” Leibarth said. “He is someone that I’ve really been looking up to, basically my whole life. He’s a positive figure in the paddling world and is always pushing the boundaries, which is super cool, but he also always takes the time to inspire the younger generation.”
Completing the Green River Race is just one of Leibfarth’s many goals. After representing the U.S. in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, she has dreams of earning an Olympic medal one day, and as her career continues moving forward she hopes to inspire the next generation of athletes and empower femme paddlers.
“I love having my nails done and dressing up in fancy makeup,” says Leibfarth. “I feel like this will sound cheesy, but the biggest thing is just having fun and being yourself and realizing that if you want to accomplish your goals as an athlete, you don’t have to fit the mold. You can be something that people totally don’t expect and still be out there doing amazing badass things.”
Taking place on November 5, the 27th Annual Green Race will be dedicated to the late Sarah Rulen. Spectators can stream the event live and watch from home or hike into the canyon to join one of the best crowds in the Southeast.
Cover photo of Evy Leibfarth: Brian Hall / Red Bull Content Pool