Rapidly rising teen Evy Leibfarth has her sights set on Tokyo Games

Evy Leibfarth, 14-year-old kayak sensation from Bryson City, North Carolina, is aiming to make the U.S. team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Courtesy Lee Leibfarth

Slalom canoeing and kayaking have been described as a cross between slalom skiing and bull riding. Athletes maneuver small, light and agile boats through downstream and upstream "gates" while unforgiving rapids try to buck them into the churning waters.

Because it takes many years to master the nuances of reading water and navigating efficiently, while also developing physical prowess, elite paddlers tend to peak between the ages 21 and 35. Which makes it remarkable that Evy Leibfarth, a 5-foot-2 rising 10th-grader from Bryson City, North Carolina, is one of America's best hopes for earning a women's slot in the 2020 Olympics. She is 14.

"I don't think we have seen in the U.S. in quite some time an athlete at her caliber at the age that she is," said William Irving, CEO of Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina (Evy's sponsor), and a former high-performance director for USA Canoe Kayak.

Granted, most American women who will try for a slalom canoe or kayak berth in the Tokyo Games are young. But Evy is so young that she has not yet been eligible to compete in the International Canoe Federation World Championships or World Cup circuit. Never mind that she hasn't been old enough to compete in the Junior World Championships.

And yet, Evy has finished first in kayak and second in canoe at the U.S. Senior Team Trials the past two years. She has won the kayak and canoe competitions at the U.S. National Championships, and she won both disciplines in this year's Ocoee River Championships on the 1996 Olympic course in east Tennessee.

But the age handcuffs are about to come off. Evy turns 15 in January and will be eligible for the 2019 world championships in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain, famed site of the slalom canoe/kayak competition in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The world championships have heightened importance this year because they're an Olympic qualifying event. That's why Evy and her father/coach, Lee Leibfarth, have been training there this month.

"I want to win a medal in the Olympic Games," Evy said. "And I guess the first step for that is qualifying for Tokyo. So that's my big goal. Both slalom kayak and canoe."

Slalom canoes and kayaks look alike, but there are major differences. Athletes sit on their knees in the canoe and switch sides with a single-blade paddle. The kayak has a seat and a double-blade paddle. Events are labeled K1 for kayaks with a single paddler and C1 for canoe. Canoe is harder to master, while the kayak class has more parity and depth.

"When you talk about competition, K1 is harder to win, say, the world championships," said Rafal Smolen, U.S. slalom national team coach.

In both disciplines, the U.S. has to qualify slots to gain entry to the Olympics -- either at worlds or, as a last resort, in the Pan-Am Championship in March 2020. Slots are qualified by individuals, but since countries can give a qualified berth to any of its athletes, Evy is not guaranteed an Olympic berth even if she earns one. Smolen said the athlete who qualifies the slot has a leg up in the process, but he explained that it's possible a woman who's behind the year before the Olympics could surge ahead.

"We have three of four women that are, more or less, on a similar level," he said. "Evy is maybe a little better than some of them, but they are very young. With young athletes, their progression doesn't happen linear. Like, some of them are better early; some of them get better later. Evy is the youngest one, but the other two are, like, only a year and a half older than her. All these girls can perform."

"More than likely, the person who qualifies the slot has the leg up in the process for making the U.S. team," Irving said.

Evy's chief advantage is that her parents are accomplished paddlers. Lee was an elite kayaker and a coach for the U.S. national team before Evy was born. Her mother, Jean Folger, was a whitewater rafting guide for Nantahala Outdoor Center. Lee and Jean met while working for NOC. That got Evy an early start -- first, sitting on her dad's lap as he paddled across calm lakes, and second, with a pink kayak she received for her fourth birthday.

When Evy was 5, Lee wouldn't let her go down Nantahala Falls, a Class 3 rapids on the otherwise manageable Nantahala River. River rapids are classified 1 through 6, with 1 being a ripple and 6 being the most difficult. To most 5-year-olds, a Class 3 rapid might as well be Niagara Falls. Evy isn't most kids, and she didn't relish being banned from the rapids until she learned how to right her kayak with a maneuver called the Eskimo roll.

"I made her walk around the rapid, and she was very upset about that," Lee said. "She cried. The next day, we got up and she said, 'Dad, take me to the lake. I want to learn how to do a roll so I can run Nantahala Falls.' "

Evy mastered Nantahala Falls and ran harder rivers. At age 12 in 2016, she became the youngest athlete, female or male, to enter the U.S. team trials. She finished sixth and was hooked on elite competition.

"I was the youngest athlete there, and there were thousands of spectators super early in the morning," she said. "That was so cool. I just remember going through the last drop, and I was paddling, and there were so many people cheering for me. That's when I realized I love the sport and want to get really good at it."

Living in Bryson City, 165 miles northeast of Atlanta, Evy is within easy drives of some of the country's best white water. Like the Ocoee River, with its 1-mile Olympic course. And, occasionally, the Cheoah River in Robbinsville, North Carolina, where world champion kayaker Maria Noakes drowned earlier this year.

"The [Cheoah] river only runs about six times a year [via dam release], and it is so secluded and beautiful," Evy said when asked about her most intimidating ride. "But it drops kind of like a waterfall. The first time I ran it, there was so much free fall. That's probably the most scared I've ever been. But I went back up and did it again because I liked it."

Proximity to white water isn't the same as proximity to international competition, though. For Evy to get that exposure, Lee and Jean have taken her to Europe each of the past three summers. Evy has competed against paddlers her own age in the European Canoe Association Junior Cup, winning in several countries and the overall ECA Junior Cup in kayak the past two years and canoe this year. She has also spent time in Australia training with U.S. national team members and Olympic and world champions.

"She has pretty much been winning all the races in her age group, but she is young, and to compete on the [senior] international level, it's too early to determine where she can go," Smolen said. "She is still a tiny girl. She is going to grow, probably pretty soon. She has just started growing taller, so she is going to grow quite a bit. For her body build, she is relatively strong. That's from gymnastics, which provides a solid base for everything else and gives her an advantage in moving the boat around."

Evy says she cross-trains with skateboarding and surfing. She competed in gymnastics from age 6 to 10, traveling to meets around the Southeast.

"Her flexibility is her super power that comes from gymnastics," said Folger, her mom.

Earning a slot in the Olympics is one thing, but contending for a medal is another.

"Evy, being 15 in January, it's probably going to be hard for her the first two years," Smolen said. "Like going to Tokyo, which she has the potential to do, for sure. But winning medals is a stretch. I think her Olympics to compete and win medals will be 2024 and 2028. That's where she is going to reach that age where athletes really mature and can compete in the big events."

Evy has complementary plans. She's finishing her online schooling through K12 International Academy, and she wants to go to medical school and become a surgeon. There's plenty of time to figure out the where, when and how.

"Evy is an absolute delight," said Richard Mistretta, who has taught Evy at K12. "She is everything you want a student or a person to be, in my opinion. She is dedicated, hard-working, humble. You would never know she has enjoyed this kind of success."

Irving, the Nantahala Outdoor Center CEO, said he believes Evy can add her name to the Nantahala Racing Club's roster of 23 athletes who have gone on to become world, Pan-Am or Olympic champions.

"We have two athletes [Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh in C2] who were Olympic champions in Barcelona in '92, so Evy has been surrounded by this high-performance environment," he said. "She is not intimidated by folks that are competing at very high levels. I find it very unique that she is so self-motivated at her age. She is typically the one pushing her dad out the door to go and train. And I think she knows what it takes to be an Olympic-level paddler."

Now that the age barrier is down, look out.