Southern Olympians to Watch: Evy Leibfarth Making Waves for U.S. Kayak and Canoe Team
Evy Leibfarth might as well have been born on the river with parents who met there and spent much of their free time navigating water. But there are two moments in her life when the 17-year-old made it clear she was destined for a life paddling among the rapids and maybe even foreshadowing her future spot on the U.S. Olympic kayak and canoe team.
Evy got her first little pink kayak with a sparkly paddle when she was just four years old and had been going on family river trips with her dad, Lee, and mom, Jean Fogler, on the Nantahala River near their Bryson City, North Carolina, home ever since. Lee Leibfarth is a former competitive kayaker and coach of the junior national team, and Fogler had been a raft guide. The two met, of course, on the river.
One time when Evy was eight, they were all heading for a family river run when they saw a kayak slalom race already in progress.
"And I was like, 'I want to do that,'" Evy Leibfarth told Southern Living. "Like, 'I really want to do that.'"
"And we were like, 'Really?'" Lee Leibfarth said.
Really. They scrambled to register 8-year-old Evy for the race, and her father followed her down the river in his own kayak because she was so young that they worried about her first experience in a competitive race. She didn't win, or even come close, but she definitely learned something that day.
"I didn't really know how to go through the gates, but I had so much fun," Evy said. "And I just love -- I love competing." The seed was planted for her future in aquatic sports.
The next moment came around the same time in Evy's life when she desperately wanted to kayak one section of the river near their home in western North Carolina, called Nantahala Falls. In whitewater, the difficulty of rapids is labeled in a class system from Class I to VI, with one being the easiest and six essentially being waterfalls. Nantahala Falls is a Class III.
"As a young girl, she was pretty fearless," said Lee who also is his daughter's coach. "She would always want to do bigger rapids, and it was always me kind of holding her back a little bit."
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 -- a maneuver in which a kayaker flips over 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 said. "And that was really the first time that I saw that she was pretty dedicated to wanting to do more with kayaking."
What was it about kayaking and canoeing that captured Evy's attention, aside from being steeped in the sport since birth? She was also a competitive gymnast as a child, but when it came time to decide which path to take, the one leading to whitewater felt the most correct.
"I liked going fast," Evy said. "I've always loved going fast, whether it's on a bike, a skateboard, in a kayak. And I think that going fast through the water, there is just something that jumped out to me that I just really loved."
Just four years later, Evy was competing internationally and among the top kayakers in the country when she paddled in the 2016 U.S. Olympics team trials. She was only 12 years old, and couldn't even qualify for the Rio Olympics team—the age minimum is 15 years old -- but she still finished sixth in women's kayak.
Ever since, she's had her sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Games. Which is what made the postponement of last year's Olympics due to the coronavirus even more difficult.
"The day that she found out that the Olympics were postponed, there were definitely some tears," Lee said. "And after that, though, I think she was also a little bit relieved that it wasn't canceled and that it was just postponed."
The delay in the Games -- and the long period of coronavirus shutdowns—allowed Evy to focus on dry-land work that helped her improve strength for both kayak and canoe, in both of which sheis the defending national champion. In kayak, a paddler sits with legs extended and uses a paddle with blades at both ends. In canoe -- making its Olympics debut in these Games—an athlete kneels and uses a paddle with just one blade.
Evy finished fourth in canoe in the 2019 World Championships (the most recent) and 21st in kayak, and her father knew gaining muscle was something his daughter needed to work on to improve her standing.
"She's competing against women who are much older than she is and stronger," Lee said. "And that was something that we identified from the 2019 season -- even though she had some strong results, she just wasn't physically as strong as some of the other women on the circuit."
By the time the Olympic team trials were held at what she considers her home course of U.S. National Whitewater Center outside Charlotte, North Carolina, in April, Evy was the favorite to capture the single spot on the women's kayak and canoe team. She now spends half the year in the Charlotte area training at the Whitewater Center.
"I was really trying to get into that mindset of just 'Have fun, just 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."
And she added another title that she'll take to the Olympics: In July, Evy won the Junior World Championships in slalom kayak while earning bronze in slalom canoe.
Lee will accompany his daughter to Tokyo as her coach, and although these Games will be unlike any other with COVID-19 restrictions limiting time spent in the Olympic Village, Evy is excited to simply take it all in.
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"I'm not really going in with that many expectations," Evy said. "I really want to have a race I'm happy with. And I want to have fun because I just love it."