Keeping the momentum in kayaking

While kayaking is an increasingly popular sport overseas, the lack of awareness and white water in WA has left the sport struggling for years to retain its members, particularly juniors. But kayak clubs around WA have recently implemented programs which have seen an increase in junior paddlers.

George Pankhurst training at the Ascot Kayak club slalom flat water course. Photo: Tyler Armenti.

Just over a year ago, Ascot Kayak Club implemented a new junior program and changed the way it trained juniors, focusing on developing skills in a more engaging manner. This program defines a pathway for juniors starting at eight up until 18 and gives them options to try different disciplines.

It appears to be working. Within the last year, the club has seen a dramatic increase in the number of junior kayakers.

Number of Junior members at Junior kayak club 2012-2020. Statistics provided by Ascot Kayak club.

Ascot Kayak Club president Mark Sedgwick says the program has dramatically increased the number of juniors, due to the retention rate.

“Currently we have 107 juniors where it really sat at 50 or 60 before. The difference now is the retention rate and that’s what the program has addressed,” he says.

“Getting the kids in was easy but they tend to drop off, especially as they approach the mid-teens years and we are now starting to see that build and hold on to them with the provision of tailored programs to their age and skill set and discipline that they are training for.

“When we transitioned from where we were before to what we are offering now that’s when kids started staying in the sport because there are more options for them and part of that is keeping them entertained and coming back to having fun. Before, if you weren’t interested in flat water it was sort of hard for you to transition into those other disciplines or know they actually existed so that’s what we’ve done, is created options for the kids.”

Sedgwick says the previous program was run only by instructors, where the new program consists of coaches and instructors working together.

“Ascot up until 2 years ago ran basically a kids flat water program and there was a little bit of slalom on the side but that was run separately and almost privately from very few core people who wanted to do that,” he says.

“When I joined the club in 2012 we didn’t actually have a club coach,  everybody was an instructor, but I’d say in the last three-four years we’ve probably doubled the number of instructors from previous years, at about five or six before and now we are way up.

“We currently have two coaches, Jesse Phillips and Coran Longwood and under those coaches, instructors we would have about 15.”

The current Ascot Kayak club junior program structure. Provided by Ascot Kayak club.

Kayaking is believed to have originated from Greenland more than 4000 years ago, created by the intuit people. The word kayak (ki ak) is Eskimo for ‘man-boat’ and was originally constructed out of driftwood, animal skin and sometimes whale bone. Whale fat and seal bladders sealed the vessels and provide buoyance. New age kayaks are generally constructed out of carbon or fiberglass and can weigh around 8kg.

Whilst canoes were used all around the world for larger scale usage such as transport, trade and warfare, the kayak was designed primarily for hunting and fishing. The main difference between the two boats is a kayak has an enclosed cockpit, meaning the paddler sits inside the boat with the boat covering their legs, utilising a double bladed paddle to propel them through the water. A canoe however is an open boat, designed to be kneeled on top of and uses a single bladed paddle.

Paddle WA executive Rosalie Evans explaining kayak history in WA
Timeline of Kayak clubs in WA. Provided by Paddle WA.

The sport consists of a variety of disciplines such as marathon, paracanoe, freestyle, wild water, canoe polo, dragon boating, with canoe sprint racing and slalom being the two Olympic disciplines.

Canoe sprint racing is the most competitive discipline on flatwater, focusing on speed across distances of 200m, 500m, and 1000m. It was first included at the Berlin Olympic games in 1936 with Australia’s involvement starting in 1956, at the Melbourne Olympic games.  Slalom however is typically done on a wild water course with competitors maneuvering through gates that are suspended over the course. Competitors are timed as they paddle down the course, with additional penalties awarded at each gate by a judge.

Olympics is the goal for many athletes, coaches, and supporters it is easy to forget where it all starts.

Junior paddlers doing big things

George Pankhurst’s junior experience. Video: Tyler Armenti.

Ascot junior paddler George Pankhurst was selected to race at the 2020 ICF Junior and under 23’s Canoe slalom world championships. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the international event was cancelled.

Pankhurst says he will continue to train hard and although the virus put limitations on his sport, it has made training easier.

“It’s not too bad, I just kept training as if I didn’t make it into the team but it stopped me from being able to travel to Sydney, to the white water so I haven’t been able to go on big white water since February at the Australian open, so I’ve just been doing a lot of flat water training sessions,” he says.

“COVID made it easier for me actually, cause of the online learning at home I could just come here, train, then go straight home and start school. We set up a gym at home and ran at home but it was easier for me training in the mornings because I could just come here then home instead of here then school and having to pack everything.”

Paddle WA executive officer Rosalie Evans says juniors are the future of the sport and this group was sadly neglected in previous years, further seeing the decline in junior members.

“It has been a concern for quite some time and for a while there we just lost sight of the ball, of making sure we just had juniors following up because we’ve always been well represented from WA, nationally and then all of a sudden there were no juniors coming after,” she says.

“We were so concentrated on those top few Olympians that we weren’t worried on what’s coming up so without juniors we as a sport have no future, except for recreation.”

Sedgwick agrees juniors are important to kayaking as it is not regarded a big sport in Australia and attracts more of an older demographic.

“Being an Olympic sport, if you’re going to make the Olympics you’ve got to start quite young and work on your skills and make that commitment at an early age,” he said.

“You look at kayaking, it is not considered a major sport, a significant sport in the scheme of Australian sport, even though part of it is an Olympic sport, which is sort of ironic that something that makes the Olympics is not regarded as a mainstream sport.

“It does seem to attract an older cohort and at ascot we identified there was a real lack of feeding in at a ground level.”

Ascot Kayak Club is the biggest kayak club in Australia currently with 665 members, growing from only a dozen when it began in 1972.

Sedgwick credits the club’s popularity to its location on the river and facilities it offers.

“Ascot is the biggest club in Australia by almost double,” he says.

“I think part of that is two things. One is the location on the river because this is sort of an ideal location in terms of protection, it gives you a number of options but the facilities that we’re now in I think is the biggest attraction.”

Kayaking legend Terry Bolland says there is a dramatic decline in juniors around the late teens because they have been training for numerous years in the one discipline and burn out.

“When kids start early, by the time they are 16 or 18 they probably had eight years of paddling and they could get bored,” he says.

“There is quite intense training. You’re up early morning and then you go to school and then you might have to do more training at night for something and then you have to go to these races and if you’re not the top dog you know you can lose the enthusiasm.

“If you can’t be the top in Australia then you just lose it and think well what’s the point, where if you don’t have that ambition to be the best and you jolly around and do different disciplines, white water do this, do that, you tend to last longer because you’re not so bored about it all.”

Bolland has been paddling for 46 years around all parts of Australia and the world, kayaking more than 100,000km. He has been the Ascot Kayak Club president, paddled 26 Avon descents, and is the owner of Canoeing Downunder in WA. He was also the first expedition sea kayaker in WA, a canoe/kayak instructor since 1979, won a bronze medal at the 2019 World masters canoe marathon championships in China, and gold in the doubles event. He currently holds a world record for paddling 220kms in 24 hours, amongst numerous other achievements.

Terry Bolland’s motivations and adventures. Photo: Tyler Armenti.

A Sports Australia report presents the dramatic decline of people engaging in sports from 0.8 million inactive youth aged 15-17 to 2.4 million inactive young adults aged 18-24 years.

Current number of inactive people in Australia. Statistics by Sports Australia.

Bolland says if it is not the boredom that stops youth paddling it is the injuries.

“Sometimes if you’re being pushed and pushed, it’s like this is it, I don’t want to get out of bed anymore, let me stay in bed,” he said.

“Certainly, the sprint guys don’t tend to stay in, or they get injured because you’re pushing yourself while you’re still growing, and it doesn’t work for everyone.”

Shoulder injuries are common for flat water paddlers and are mainly caused by overuse. A 2020 study from the British Journal of Sports medicine found 42.1 per cent of junior participants experienced shoulder pain. They concluded that shoulder injuries in junior kayakers are due to body composition with lower trunk muscle mass being associated with the injuries.

Junior kayak boats (Guppy boats) at Ascot Kayak Club. Photo: Tyler Armenti.

Due to COVID-19 Paddle Australia gave free member access to an introductory coaching course, allowing paddlers to be more involved in club activities.

Evans says kayaking has done well through COVID19 with the increase in coaches and members.

“We’ve done really well with coaches. With COVID what Paddle Australia also did was give a free coaching course for people but there was no charge to get that qualification so all around Australia people took them up,” she says.

“COVID has really opened a lot of eyes to paddling and kayaking because a lot of sports closed down, but we could still paddle and even our club stayed open.

“Our membership has just started for this coming year and going by the other states our numbers have actually looked like they are increasing so maybe this is something that has been kind of good for us, COVID.”

Big plans for the future

On September 3, 2020 the McGowan government announced it would provide $300,000 to help develop the flat water slalom course at Ascot kayak club.

Sports and recreation minister Mick Murray says the condition of the current course is inadequate.

“The current slalom training facilities at the site, which are essentially old clothes poles set in the water, are more than 20 years old, in poor condition and woefully inadequate,” he says.

“Not only will the new facility help us train our champions of the future, it will provide important jobs for tradies and contractors through the construction phase.”

The current slalom course at Ascot Kayak club. Photo: Tyler Armenti.

Sedgwick says the grant will have a significant effect on the club and kayaking in WA.

“WA is disadvantaged in terms of slalom paddling because we don’t have natural white water long enough for people to develop their skills and we don’t have a purpose built white water park like we have over east, the infrastructure has aged,” he says.

“The slalom course we are replacing now is over 40 years old and in disrepair and at the moment is the only really active, permanent slalom course on the river so in terms of slalom discipline it’s going to provide a world class facility that will enable WA athletes develop their white water skills, even though it’s not white water.”

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