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NC Teen Leibfarth Aims To Make Waves In Kayak And Canoe In Tokyo Olympics

 Evy Leibfarth kayaks in a practice run at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
Evy Leibfarth kayaks in a practice run at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

Evy Leibfarth doesn’t remember the first time she went kayaking. If it counts to say before she was actually born and was hitching a ride with her mom, it was probably then. Her parents were both river guides, and paddling among the rapids was a part of her life before she could even form memories.

"They met pretty much on the river," Leibfarth said. "So I've always been, like, surrounded by that my whole life.

When she was 3, she started going down the river on her dad’s lap. When she was 4, she got a pink kayak that still makes her swoon when she talks about it now, at age 17.

"I was more excited about the color than the boat," she said. "And I also got a paddle to go with it and it had little sparkles on it. So I remember that. And I remember being super excited to go out and use it."

But when Leibfarth was 8 years old, she and her parents were going on a family river run on the Nantahala River near their western North Carolina home in Bryson City when they happened upon a kayak race about to begin. She might not have realized it then, but it was a pivotal moment in her life.

"I was like, I want to do that. Like, I really want to do that," Leibfarth said.

"And we were like, really?" Lee Leibfarth said. "And she said, ‘Yes, I want to go do that.’"

Lee Leibfarth had been careful to avoid steering his daughter into the sport he loved. He’d grown up on the river, too, had been on the Olympic development team and coached the junior national team for a handful of years. He met his wife, Jean Fogler, when the two were river guides. Yes, their lives were spent amid whitewater, but Lee Leibfarth wanted Evy to choose her passion on her own.

"We definitely didn't want to push it on her," Lee Leibfarth said. "We didn't want to say, ‘OK, you've gotta kayak.’"

So when Evy decided to compete in that race, it marked an important moment. It was when Lee Leibfarth felt like he could really start coaching his daughter. He followed her down the river during that first race, mostly because she was still so young and he wanted to make sure she was safe. But he also shouted out some pointers when he could.

Evy Leibfarth didn’t win that first race. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but she also discovered something crucial.

"And, you know, I didn't really know how to go through the gates, but I had so much fun," she said. "And I just love, I love competing."

Not long after that first race, Evy Leibfarth showed just how much she’d come to love the sport. She had been begging to go through one section of rapids with her parents called Nantahala Falls. In whitewater, the difficulty of rapids is graded in a system from Class I to VI, with one being the easiest and six essentially being waterfalls. Nantahala Falls is a Class III.

"And for an 8-year-old girl, that’s pretty big," Lee Leibfarth said. "As a young girl, she was pretty fearless. She would always want to do bigger rapids, and it was always me kind of holding her back a little bit."

But before her parents would let Evy go down that Class III rapids section, they wanted to make sure she knew how to complete a roll — that’s a maneuver in which a kayaker flips over underwater and rolls back upright — in case she was forced to do the same on the river and knew how to recover.

The deal was she had to do five consecutive rolls on flat water.

"And she was so motivated to get her five rolls on flat water or a lake or a pool," Lee Leibfarth said. "And that was really the first time that I saw that she was pretty dedicated to wanting to do more with kayaking."

There was something about kayaking among rapids — and, a few years later, canoeing, too — that thrilled Evy Leibfarth more than any other sport. She was a competitive gymnast until she was 11, but when she had to choose one sport to focus on, the answer was clear.

"I've always loved going fast — whether it's on a bike, a skateboard, in a kayak," she said. "And I think that going fast through the water, there is just something that jumped out to me that I just really loved."

In kayak, Leibfarth sits with her legs extended and uses a paddle with blades on both ends. In canoe, she kneels and uses a paddle with a single blade. In both, she follows a course through rapids, maneuvering around poles as quickly as she can — sometimes screaming when she gets a little too close, she admits.

"You're getting really close to them, like you're probably like a centimeter away from them," she said. Sometimes when you're ducking in, it makes me nervous. I get a little scared."

It is one of the few things that rattles Leibfarth — but it doesn’t deter her. Once she began to focus on the sport and her dad started coaching her full time, she began to win consistently. Within a few years, she was competing and training internationally. She and her parents started a schedule where they moved to the Charlotte area for the seven months of the year that the rapids at the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s manmade course were flowing.

By the time she was 12, she was competing in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The minimum age to compete in the Olympics for the team is 15, meaning she couldn’t go to the games if she won, but Leibfarth still finished sixth in women’s slalom kayak.

"At the end of the race, she took one of the signs or she was given one of the signs that said, "Road to Rio" on it. And every member of the national team signed it," Lee Leibfarth said. "And she has it in her room to this day. I think that was something that helped motivate her to train in some of the colder early mornings and get out there and really stay motivated."

Which is what made the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic such a disappointment. They were the first games Evy Leibfarth was eligible for, and she had been aiming for them for years. She seemed on track for a strong showing: In 2019, she was fourth in the world championships in women’s canoe and 21st in women’s kayak.

"The day that she found out that the Olympics were postponed, there were definitely some tears," Lee Leibfarth said.

But the delay in the games gave Leibfarth time to concentrate on gaining strength to compete against some of the older women she faces in her sport. Women’s Canoe Slalom is making its debut in the Olympics at Tokyo, and Leibfarth wanted to earn the single spot that the United States would send in both canoe and kayak.

At the Olympic Team Trials at Charlotte’s Whitewater Center in April, Leibfarth was heavily favored to win. And she did.

"I was really trying to kind of get into that mindset of just like, have fun, just like do what you always do, which really helped me in the race," she said. "And I cried going through the finish line when I realized that I made the team. It was so much and I was just so excited."

Now, she prepares for her first Olympics, which will be unlike any other in the event’s history. Coronavirus restrictions limit the number of days she can spend in the Olympic Village and prevent spectators from other countries. So Leibfarth's mom won’t be able to attend, but her dad will be alongside her as her coach.

She going into it all without expectations. But she also is bringing a fresh title -- last weekend she won the Junior World Championships in slalom kayak and earned a bronze in slalom canoe.

"I really want to have a race that I'm happy with," she said. "I want to have fun because I just love it. I think one of my goals in sport, you know, I'm going to be doing this for a while. I really want to win an Olympic medal, but I think I just want to focus on my paddling for this games."

This is her first Olympics and she’s just a teenager. If she doesn’t win a medal, she’s counting on at least a couple more Olympics appearances until she does.

Erika Brown

Age: 22

Sport: Swimming

Event: 100-meter freestyle

Notes: Brown attended Hough High School, graduating in 2016. She was a two-time state champion in the 200 freestyle and 400 free relay. … She attended college at Tennessee, where she was a two-time SEC Female Swimmer of the Year before graduating in 2020. … Earned bronze medal finishes at the USA Swimming Junior Nationals in the 200 freestyle in 2014 and 2015. … Finished second in the U.S. Swimming Olympic Team Trials in the 100 freestyle.

Anna Cockrell

Age: 23

Sport: Track and Field

Event: 400-meter hurdles

Notes: Cockrell attended Providence Day High School and graduated in 2016. … Graduated from University of Southern California in 2019. … At U.S. Olympic trials on June 27, Cockrell finished third after logging a time of 53.70 in the 400-meter hurdles. … Two-time NCAA champion in 400-meter hurdles, 2021 100-meter hurdles NCAA champion. … Won gold in the 2016 World Under-20 Championships in the 400-meter hurdles and 4x400 relay. Won gold in the 2015 Pan American Junior Championships in 400-meter hurdles. … Father, Kieth Cockrell, is president of Bank of America Charlotte and played football at Columbia. Brother, Ross, played football at Duke before moving on to the NFL, where he’s now a cornerback for Tampa Bay. Sister, Ciera, captained Davidson College’s volleyball team.

Gabbi Cunningham

Age: 23

Sport: Track and Field

Event: 100-meter hurdles

Notes: Cunningham attended Mallard Creek High School and graduated in 2015. … Graduated from NC State in 2019. Two-time All-American in 60-meter hurdles. … At U.S. Olympic trials, finished fourth in 100-meter hurdles, but was added to the team as a replacement for U.S. hurdles champion Brianna McNeal. … Ran time of 12.53 in trials, a personal best.

Zachary Lokken

Age: 27

Sport: Canoe/Kayak

Notes: Originally from Colorado, trains at U.S. National Whitewater Center and has attended Central Piedmont Community College. … Won Men’s Slalom C1 in 2019 Pan American Games. … Finished 38th in 2018 world championship. Has competed in world championships in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, with best finish being 21st in 2014. … Coached by Team USA teammate Michal Smolen’s father, Rafal.

Ryder Ryan

Age: 26

Sport: Baseball

Position: Pitcher, right-handed

Notes: Originally from Huntersville, attended North Mecklenburg High School. As a senior, he hit .597 with 29 RBI, and had a 0.28 ERA. … Drafted in the 40th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft by the Cleveland Indians, but opted instead to play at UNC Chapel Hill. … Drafted in 2016 MLB draft in 30th round by Cleveland, and signed with the Indians. … Has played for Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and Texas Rangers minor league teams, most recently with the Triple-A Round Rock Express. He’s 1-4 with a 6.17 ERA in 21 games for the Express.

Michal Smolen

Age: 27

Sport: Canoe/Kayak

Notes: Born in Poland, Smolen grew up in Sylva, went to Belmont Abbey College and now trains at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. … Second Olympics appearance for the United States. … Placed 12th in kayak in the 2016 Rio Olympics. … Dad, Rafal, was on the Polish national team. His father now serves as his coach.

Naya Tapper

Age: 26

Sport: Rugby

Position: Wing

Notes: Attended West Mecklenburg High School, where she competed in track and field and graduated in 2012. … Attended UNC Chapel Hill, where she began playing rugby. … Exercise and sports science major. … As a professional rugby player, Tapper has become the all-time leading try scorer for USA Women’s Eagles. … Participated in 2017-2018 world championships, finishing fourth in 2018. … Sells branded clothing on her website with the slogan NayaOnFiya.

 Ryder Ryan
Texas Rangers /
Ryder Ryan
 Michael Smolen
Team USA /
Michael Smolen
 Naya Tapper
Team USA /
Naya Tapper

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Jodie Valade is a Digital News and Engagement Editor for WFAE. Since moving to Charlotte in 2015, she has worked as a digital content producer for NASCAR.com and a freelance writer for publications ranging from Charlotte magazine to The Washington Post and New York Times. Before that, Jodie was an award-winning sports features and enterprise reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. She also worked at The Dallas Morning News covering the Dallas Mavericks -- where she became Mark Cuban's lifelong email pen pal -- and at The Kansas City Star.