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Photos by Travis TallentYoung kayakers from all over the country gathered at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) on Aug. 9-10 to compete at the Whitewater Junior Olympics. The event was billed as the biggest event of 2014 for the NOC.

The NOC is the largest whitewater rafting outfitter in the world and on average takes about 150,000 guests on guided outdoor excursions annually and according to National Geographic is “one of the best outfitters on earth.” There are five NOC locations, but the Wesser Campus where the junior event was held is the only one that is open year-round for kayaking, mountain biking and hiking excursions. An estimated 750,000 visitors come to the location each year.

The NOC also worked in conjunction with the Nantahala Racing Club and Nantahala Kids Club on this particular event – two organizations that offer gear, instruction and friendship to under-exposed youth in economically stagnant areas.

According to Zuzana Vanha, the events manager at the NOC, there were about 50 participants at this year's event ranging from 9 to 18 years of age. Kids came from as far as Wausau, Wisconsin and Rochester, New York, but the majority came from southeastern states like the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

"We had several local kids from Robbinsville and Bryson City that train regularly with Nantahala Racing Club," said Vanha. "We expect that we can get even more kids [to particpate] next year, once they realize that you don't have to be a pro kayaker to attend this event."

For two days, events in freestyle, slalom and downriver kayaking were held with competitors hoping to take some momentum into September where trials are being held in Washington D.C.

Though the event boasted competition among a number of participants, the Junior Olympics also included fun events like a Ducky Cross through the 2013 Wave, a Stand Up Paddle Giant Slalom, and off-the-water community events such as a run and other social activities to encourage camaraderie among participants, families and broader community. All skill-sets were encouraged to take part in the event.

"This is an important event because it serves to energize kids, especially those new to the sport who are just beginning to learn about competition. It helps create a stronger community of young paddlers, and provides that social outlet which is essential to retaining kids' interest in the sport," says Vanha.

"On a broader level, whitewater kayaking is a fun, healthy, challenging activity that teaches kids plenty of important life skills. In addition, whitewater slalom is an Olympic sport, and this event is an important developmental tool for USA Canoe/Kayak, addressing a number of important developmental needs of young athletes aged 10 to 16."

Once participants arrived to the NOC they were met with the option to not only compete, but to raft, zip line, hike, SUP (Stand Up Paddling), and to socialize with like minded youths. The event is pursuing a mission of getting youth outdoors, promoting healthy alternatives for children, and engaging families in outdoor recreation.

"I would describe this event as a Kid Fest," Vanha said. "There was something fun to do for kids of almost any age and ability level. We even hosted off-the-water activities and crafts to make sure that no one was left out of the fun. This event is an opportunity for kids to run around with their friends in a safe setting, allowing them to focus on the most important things; having fun, meeting new friends, trying hard, and building confidence in their skills."

Navigating the whitewater of the Nantahala River can be challenging as a kayaker can go from being upright, to head first in the icy water.


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