Earlier this month, Olympic paddler Evy Leibfarth competed at the Green River Narrows race in western North Carolina for the first time. A slalom kayaker/canoeist whose career finds her primarily paddling waterparks and shorter courses, Leibfarth knew the already intimidating event—the largest extreme kayak race in the world—would be a new kind of challenge for Leibfarth. When the young athlete decided to sign up, the goal was just to finish, but Leibfarth paddled her way to second place with an impressive time of four minutes and 41 seconds.
In the world of kayaking, the Green gives paddlers a harrowing challenge full dynamic class V rapids that run through the narrow walls of the gorge along with the unforgiving 18-foot drop named Gorilla. In preparation for the race, Leibfarth trained with professional kayaker and five-time Green Race winner Dane Jackson, who this year was the first racer to ever finish in under four minutes.
BRO caught up with Leibfarth to see how she felt about the overall experience of her first-ever Green Race, what it was like working with Jackson, and what is next for her.
BRO: How did you feel come race day?
Leibfarth: On race day, I felt like I had a really good visualization of the river and the lines I wanted to take, but I was definitely nervous about some of the bigger rapids like Gorilla; since I didn’t get as much practice on them as I would have wanted because the water level was so low leading up to the race. My last practice lap before the race, I had a really rough run on Gorilla. so I spent a lot of time trying to visualize doing it well. I honestly had no idea how I would do and was just hoping to put together lines I was happy with.
BRO: How was your run? Were there lines you felt really proud of or would do differently?
Leibfarth: I was really happy with my lines on the top half of the run through some of the smaller, more technical sections, and then my line on Go Left which is definitely one of the more scary ones. I flipped on Gorilla and lost some time in the slides below it, so I definitely want to clean up that section next time I race. It was really hard to keep smooth lines at the bottom since I was so tired from the top, and a longboat is really hard to steer if it gets even a little bit offline.
BRO: What has been the most challenging part of your experience training for and racing the Green?
Leibfarth: The most challenging part for me was definitely remembering the lines on the river. In slalom, I’m used to remembering much shorter sections of river and also being able to stand on the shore to study it. The race section of the Green just had so many rocks and lines that looked similar to me, which made it really hard for me to tell where I was. When I started doing runs without following someone down I would get pretty lost. I finally got the lines down to the point where I could visualize the run a couple of days before the race. I watched a lot of GoPro videos of people who had raced before like Dane Jackson.
BRO: What is your biggest takeaway after working with Dane and training on the Green?
Leibfarth: My biggest takeaway from the Green is how awesome it can be to switch it up and try something new. Even though it is still kayaking, it’s so different from what I normally do (and a lot scarier), and I feel like I gained a lot of skills in reading water and paddling whitewater that I can use in slalom.
BRO: What were the most memorable parts of the race/ your overall experience?
Leibfarth: My overall experience was really amazing. I learned so much about river paddling, running bigger rapids, and a lot about safety on the water. I was really lucky to have two people that go to my college (Ben Atherton and Josh Huber) show me down the river a bunch and help me learn the lines and watch out for me. That was really fun, and I am so thankful for all their help and the fun memories I have from training.
BRO: The Green is known for its passionate and rowdy crowd. Can you tell us about the energy of the day?
Leibfarth: The energy at Green Race is really unlike anything I have seen before. There are so many people lined up on the rocks screaming encouragement at all the paddlers coming through. It’s definitely a really supportive environment filled with a lot of people in the river community. Coming around the corner at Go Left is really awesome because all of a sudden there are people everywhere watching and you can start to hear the crowd. It definitely helped push me through the bottom part of my run.
BRO: What is next for you, and how will your experience racing the Green shape you and your goals moving forward?
Leibfarth: Now that the Green Race has wrapped up, I am back to training slalom and have my sights set on the Paris 2024 Olympics. I’ll be doing a lot of travel to races and training camps over the next year and a half to prepare. After racing the Green, I am super stoked to improve my creeking skills and learn more about running natural rivers and doing runs in a plastic boat. I want to do more extreme races in this style, so I have some goals for races that I want to do in Europe (like the Oetz Trophy race).
BRO: Will you race the Green again?
Leibfarth: Absolutely! I had such an amazing experience training for it this year and learning the river for the first time, but I look forward to coming back and focusing on being faster.
Cover Photo: Evy Leibfarth trains for the Green River Narrows Race, Gorilla Rapid, Green River Gamelands, North Carolina, USA, November 3, 2022. Copyright Marc Hunt / Red Bull Content Pool
More on Evy Leibfarth
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- At 17, North Carolina Slalom Canoeist Qualifies for Tokyo Olympics
- Women’s Canoe Slalom: Making Waves
- Evy Leibfarth of Bryson City, NC earns the U.S. two spots in the 2020 Olympics