What a Worlds … full of excitement, full-on commitment, glory and a little bit of disappointment. The 2022 Freestyle World Championships took place in Nottingham England after a year’s delay due to Covid. In spite of the delay, the Worlds was a fantastic event run by Jacko and Josh. They took freestyle to a whole new level, bringing in a festival of events like ‘World’s Biggest Loop’, ‘Downriver Freestyle’ and a new Masters category. It allowed for so much more participation for competitors and paddlers alike.

photo Kim Jones @kim_jones_photography

Alongside the festival was one of the most hotly contested World Championships we’ve ever had. Juniors and seniors stepped up their games no-end since the 2019 Worlds in Spain and the sheer numbers involved from European nations showed the growth of the sport at grassroots and high-performance levels. Being Irish, I can say we have come the furthest, fastest (I don’t think too many in attendance would argue with that statement). We had three junior women for the first time ever, two C1 women, three squirt-boating and five senior women. Making quarters in every round, semis in four classes and finals in three. Such a showing was unheard of in Irish freestyle and it’s only the beginning, having coached and paddled with many Irish women, I can safely say we haven’t come anywhere near the peak of what’s to come. 

In the men’s class, Rory O’ Reilly and I made the quarter finals, and I went on to semis and finals. I won’t give myself too much pity here, I qualified out of quarters and semis in first but placed fourth in finals. I think I showed the dynamic, explosive and expressive style I wanted to put on stage. Unfortunately, I struggled in finals but that’s how competition goes sometimes. It was pretty damn cool to be the best paddler in the world for even a few rounds. 

Some of the most excitement came out of the OC1 finals and Irish paddler Eoghan Kelly in the finals brought me to the realisation it’s the best discipline we’ve got. Five paddlers competing in bathtubs trying to surf a wave was hilarious, impressive and makes me want to try it. Which I think leads to one of the main things the freestyle worlds is supposed to show, just how amazing is freestyle!

The Italians and Slovenians turned up out of the blue to say, we’re here, we’re good paddlers and you’ll see us again pretty soon. The Americans displayed their ability to win even without the grassroots we have in Europe. The Brits ever-present are staking a claim to be the greatest nation of freestylers ever. And the Irish are showing we can mix the best craic and best support with the best paddling you’ll see.

There are a few paddlers and paddling styles I’d like to mention that I don’t think are often recognised for their innovation, brilliance and style. In the juniors, no one deserves to be left out of this mention. Since Ottie showed the world what’s possible, the junior women have stepped the game up dramatically, playing with lunars, big air and style. What I believe really is knew, their actualisation that they are capable of anything on the water and though whatever barriers there are for women off the water, on the water, there are none. When the junior women go to senior, it’ll be hard not to envision scores similar to the men’s.

Is Ottie Robinson-Shaw already the most successful freestyler in the world? The way Ottie paddles now is stylish and powerful but I don’t think she’s finished developing. I think she is almost in the place now to bring creativity in freestyle to another level.

Paddling styles are interesting, Quim, Dane and Claire-O’ have led our sport for the last ten years but younger paddlers like Tim Rees, Ben Higson and Abby Holcombe are taking what’s been laid down and pushing that further. Throwing big moves at younger ages and pushing trophy moves further than most. By the time they’re senior, the moves they throw won’t be what’s on our current scoresheet. 

My most honourable mentions must go to Harry Price and Rob Crowe for showing us where our sport is going in terms of style and moves. Their styles are intricate, flowing and beautiful. It didn’t always show throughout the comp, but that is where experience comes in handy. Dane Jackson is class, textbook and class. It’s his signature on the water. Unlike on waves, in a hole, Dane isn’t pushing the boundaries in terms of style and moves like the European paddlers, but he shows what it takes the be champ. And until we have the textbook down, we won’t beat someone getting straight As. But … Rob Crowe, he has in my eyes, been the best paddler in world, doing what no one else can do for some time (other than Quim). It didn’t work for him in the finals, but had he shown up. The world would see just how incredible our sport is. I hope one day that he and paddlers like Harry Price get the textbook performance pinned down, because when they do, the sport will explode with life and we won’t be able to fathom just how cool what we do is. (I hope to be one of those paddlers).

I did truly think finals would be a fight between Rob and I to prove which of our styles would win out. But at the end, our styles couldn’t match Dane and Tomasz’ consistency.

Ooh I almost forgot C1 there, Matt Stephenson. That’s it. Ah ok no I’ll go on; he’s innovated C1 with trophy moves and a style we haven’t seen before. He was beaten on the day by a rough around the edges but somehow very finite style of Landon Miller. Where every time he left lunars, I skip a heartbeat as he mystery moves the initiation. Two contrasting but beautiful styles, they with many others are taking the sport beyond.

To finish, I’d like to thank all the paddlers that showed up, all the supporters (especially the Irish), the ICF, the judges, volunteers and most gratefully the host organisers Andrew (Jacko) Jackson and Josh Wedgewood. What Jacko and Josh laid down will I hope, become the base of what’s expected at the Worlds. It’s not just about the results, It’s about the community and the joy we get from kayaking. 

It’s probably about time I let my sponsors know how grateful I am. Palm Equipment, VE Paddles, Canoe Centre, Exo Kayaks UK & Ireland and Blue Wall Technology. I couldn’t have achieved what I have without your support. Thank you!

Sincerely, David McClure