“This is a great day for Swain County,” said Joe Jacobi. “We’re doing something tonight that’s never been done here, and that’s host an ICF World Championship. This is a great step forward for the sport, and we’re so excited to bring the world to the U.S.”
A gold medalist in doubles canoe at the 1992 Olympics and the current CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, Jacobi made the Nantahala River his training spot. Swain County became his home during that time, and its allure hasn’t waned. With the Nantahala Outdoor Center playing host to the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s (ICF) Freestyle World Championships, seeing more than 500 paddlers from 45 countries in Swain County is almost unimaginable for Jacobi.
“After years of planning, the entire county, from the chamber of commerce to the Tourism Development Authority to the NOC, worked together and made this happen,” said Brad Walker, the chair of the TDA and chamber of commerce board member. “And now it’s here. It’s happening, and that’s one thing you can’t take away from us.”
Thousands of spectators, athletes and the curious alike descended into downtown for the opening ceremonies. Flags from participating countries were held high as languages from every corner of the globe drifted through the late summer air. During the parade, a marching band moved down the street as each country walked behind them. Crowds lined the street, cheering on their newfound international family. With the United States team bringing up the rear, the masses erupted in chants of “USA, USA” that grew louder and louder as the group approached the welcoming stage.
“It’s been fantastic being here, it’s a great atmosphere,” said James Bebbington, the current freestyle world champion from Great Britain. “We have a couple days left of rest before the competition. It’s been tiring with all the training, but we’re ready to go.”
As the athletes and crowd surrounding the stage, ICF President Lluis Rabaneda of Spain readied himself to give a speech signaling the official opening to the competition.
“The Nantahala River has that outdoor soul, which is what we love about it,” he said. “We’re spreading the word about the event through live streaming and social media. This may be the largest coverage ever for an ICF competition, and we’re ready to start.”
After the commencement speeches, the Warriors of AniKituwa, the official cultural ambassadors of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian, conducted an intimate performance. Fully clothed in their ceremonial attire, they brought members of the audience into their spectacle, which included the “ant” and “bull” dances.
“We are the indigenous people of this land, and we want to give everyone a better idea of who we are as a culture,” said performer Sonny Ledford. “Having this competition here locally puts us on the world map. I’ve already been able to meet folks from Great Britain and Canada.”
Standing in the crowd is Joyce and Dennis Eshleman. Based out of West Palm Beach, Fla., the couple has a second home in Bryson City. They have a deep affection for the beauty of Southern Appalachia, with the ICF world championships as the cherry on top.
“It’s truly an honor to have these fine young people from all over the world come and experience this area,” Joyce said. “This is a great town. It has everything and it’s a great place to explore watersports.”
“And this will be a good thing for the local economy,” Dennis added. “We have the waterskiing world championships in West Palm Beach, so it’s great to see similar activities here.”
Following the speeches, a splash could be heard under the bridge on Everett Street. Gazing down, one could see a 30-foot ramp erected on the riverbank. Dozens of athletes were lined up with their freestyle kayaks, eager to slide down the ramp and be launched into the Tuckasegee River. With each launch came a variety of tricks displayed in midair as applause reverberated through those watching from the bridge.
The crowd eventually dispersed into every direction. Troves headed for the nearby Nantahala Brewing Company where locals, athletes and tourists converged for an evening of music, craft beer and camaraderie. Co-owner of Bryson City Cork & Bean, Scott Mastej scans his busy dining room. It’s filled to the brim with hungry, jovial customers, some from around the corner, many from around the world.
“It’s amazing to see all of this happening. We’ve had a large number of international athletes come in already,” he said. “The competition is here, and Bryson City is excited to welcome the world.”