Bunny Johns became a paddler mostly by accident.
As a college freshman in the early 1960s, she’d lined up a summer job in her hometown outside of Atlanta but returned to discover the position had fallen through. Then a friend of hers called to say she’d been offered a job teaching swimming at Camp Merrie-Woode in Sapphire but didn’t want to go — maybe Johns, who had been a competitive swimmer in high school, would want to take her place?
Since the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Michal Smolen has been hopping continents to finish out the post-Rio racing season, but The Smoky Mountain News caught up with him for an email conversation about paddling, Olympic dreams and the value of American citizenship.
Much of America spent Aug. 5-21 with eyes glued to a television, cheering on athletes from all corners of the country as they represented the red, white and blue in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
SEE ALSO: A conversation with Michal
For the community of paddlers whose nucleus is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, one Olympic dream demanded especially rapt attention — that of 23-year-old kayaker Michal Smolen, a whitewater slalom favorite who cut his teeth on the waters of the Nantahala River. William Irving, president of NOC, well remembers his first experiences watching Michal paddle. At the time, Irving was the high performance director for USA Canoe/Kayak and Smolen’s father Rafal was the newly hired national team coach.
A cacophony of voices and cheers echoed across Bryson City as a sea of humanity overtook the small town, a wall-to-wall crowd churning and pressing their way through downtown with excitement radiating from each face.
A destination for paddlers around the world, the Nantahala River is known for its complexity of rapids and consistent waters levels, ensuring a level of competition that can’t be found anywhere else in the United States. The world’s top paddlers will descend on the river for a week of competition, camaraderie and cold water during the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s (ICF) Freestyle World Championships Sept. 2-8.
By Tyler Norris Goode • Contributor
Rowan Stuart’s favorite kayak maneuver is called the “Phonics Monkey” and involves spinning the vessel on its bow like a pirouette for a full 360 degrees then flipping the boat end over end.
There’s nothing easy about the trick, but Stuart’s ability to cleanly achieve it at high-level competitions is a big reason she’ll be competing in the Freestyle World Championships, the premier competition for freestyle paddling athletes, that start Sept. 2 in the Nantahala Gorge.
Combining an array of difficult tricks, precision paddling and finely tuned choreography, freestyle kayaking can be described as aquatic gymnastics.
Awards: 2012 World Cup Champion
Day job: Kayak retailer
I was 12 when I started paddling. We had a group of kids doing canoe sports, traveling around and doing competitions. It was really nice to have those trips together. At that time, we all were just starting to race and do rafting, doing small competitions, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.
Sitting at a picnic table alongside the Nantahala River, Charles Conner watches the fast moving water. It’s may be a peaceful sunny morning at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but it’s the calm before the storm.
“Right now, we’re really excited but anxious because there’s so much left to do,” he said.