Singles kayaking is a big part of the Summer Olympic Games.
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Kayak competitions run the gamut. You can compete in events from whitewater slalom racing, similar to slalom skiing, to river racing, which is whitewater kayaking without gates, to freestyle kayaking, which is judged like figure skating or diving. In addition, there were 11 different kayak events in categories for men, women and pairs in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, ranging from 500-meter sprints to 1,000-meter races to whitewater contests.
According to The Kayaking Journal, slalom racing, also called whitewater slalom, is likely the most popular form of competitive kayaking. You race downstream at high speed while navigating through a series of "gates" that are actually poles suspended by cables above the river. The best slalom paddlers are strong, graceful and cool under pressure. Unlike skiing, you can't touch the poles with your body or the kayak without incurring a penalty in the form of an addition to the time it takes you to complete the course.
Instead of navigating through gates, river racing competitions simply measure the time it takes you to complete the course. Races are grouped by the difficulty of the river rapids, which range from Grade 1, the mildest of rapids, to Grade 5, raging rapids suitable only for the most experienced paddlers. Usually the contestants start at one-minute intervals. The Kayak Journal says that river running might be the most exciting type of kayak competition for its participants.
Also known as playboating or rodeo kayaking, this form of kayaking competition is closer to gymnastics than racing. You aren't trying to reach the finish line before your rivals. Instead, your kayak stays in one place while you perform a variety of acrobatic moves and tricks. A different type of kayak, very short and stubby, lends itself to spins, rolls, cartwheels, aerial loops and other feats of skill and imagination. A panel of judges grades the contestants and determine the winners.
Kayak and canoe racing is an important part of the summer Olympic Games. Generally dominated by paddlers from European countries, North American racers occasionally break through and reach the medals podium. At the 2012 London Games, American Rebecca Giddens earned a silver medal in the Women's Whitewater kayak event. Canadian paddlers earned two medals, a bronze in the men's 1,000-meter race and gold in the men's 500-meter sprint. The Team USA website lists major kayaking competitions during the year, including races in the Special Olympics and Paralympics.