By Phil Wozniak
When asked about favorite sports, most Americans reply with one of the “Big Four”: basketball, baseball, football or soccer. Each year, however, more and more attention is paid to one of the sports world’s fastest growing arenas — adventure sports. Whether it is because of YouTube sensations like the “People are Awesome” video series, specials on ESPN or random stories on the news, participation in adventure sports is on the rise.
The term “adventure sports” covers a wide range of activities. Everything from “Volcano Boarding” to base-jumping to downhill skiing is included in the term. Whitewater paddling (canoeing & kayaking) is among the most dangerous adventure sports in existence, but it is also one of the fastest-growing in popularity around the world. Whitewater sports first gained international attention during their first appearance in the 1972 Summer Olympics, though there was a two-decade hiatus until the event resurfaced in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Olympic whitewater events are slalom races: paddlers use currents to navigate between downstream and upstream gates (very similar to those used in slalom skiing). Since the inclusion of whitewater slalom events in the Olympics, the sport has developed two distinct branches: freestyle and “creeking.” Freestyle kayaking, or “play-boating,” uses a short, stubby kayak to perform tricks on a standing wave, including front-flips, pirouette spins and cartwheels.
Creeking, on the other hand, is by far the most extreme form of kayaking. It is canyon or gorge kayaking with fast-moving water, steep drops, slides and waterfalls. The rapids on creeks typically range from Class IV-V in the International Scale of River Difficulty. A rapid’s class determines how dangerous it is. Class I rapids are slightly more dangerous than a community pool’s lazy river, while Niagara Falls is a Class VI. Despite the incredible dangers associated with creeking, it has become the most popular area of kayaking in recent years.
I first began whitewater canoeing and kayaking in 2006 in North Carolina. What started as an activity at summer camp quickly grew into a passion. Immediately after high school, I began working as a whitewater canoe and kayak instructor. Since then, I have competed in slalom whitewater events, learned basic freestyle kayaking and started creeking. In 2012, I made my first Class V descent at Boxcar Falls on the North Fork of the French Broad River in North Carolina.
Whitewater paddling offers an adrenaline rush unlike any other. Currents on some creeks can exceed 30 miles per hour, and popular freestyle standing waves can range from eight to 20-plus feet on some rivers. No feeling can compare to the thrill of attempting to navigate the hazards of a river with nothing more than a life jacket, a paddle and 35 lbs. of hard plastic.
In my experience, I have found adventure sports to be just as formative as, if not more so than, participating in traditional sports like track or cross-country. Adventure sports offer life lessons that are hard to gain in less dangerous situations. From my experiences out on the rapids, I have learned respect for my own limitations, how to remain cool under pressure and, most importantly, how important it is to push your comfort zone and do what scares you most.
As adventure sports increase in popularity, I can only hope that University of Dallas students can participate in them more through clubs like Verso l’alto Venture Club. Additionally, we are ideally situated for such sports. Dallas is home to some of the country’s best-maintained single-track mountain biking trails, and excellent whitewater is only a three-hour drive away in the Ozarks of Arkansas. These activities represent incredible opportunities for personal growth and incomparable adventure. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”