Writer: Guy Dresser
Brexit may not quite have happened at the time of writing, but among its early victims are the World Paddle Awards, which will be announced online this year instead of in front of an audience of the great and the good of the canoeing world, as in previous years.
The 2019 ceremony, due to have taken place in London at the end of March, would have been “difficult” to stage in the current economic and political environment, with visa requirements for the worldwide gathering of canoeists testing the British immigration authorities at just the wrong time, according to the organisers.
“We took the decision to hold the event online,” says Dutchman Rob van Bommel, the former financier and canoeist who is the driving force behind the award. “It’s not ideal, obviously, but there is a lot of enthusiasm, support, and sponsorship behind the awards, we’ll be back in a physical form next year.”
To all intents and purposes, the WPA goes from strength to strength. Conceived as a way of celebrating excellence in paddlesport and bringing together all 15 paddling disciplines, the awards are now in their fifth year and have more than filled their niche in the international sporting arena, generating huge media interest and a strong online following.
“There are already numerous sports personality awards held by broadcasters, some sports associations even hold their own annual events too, but canoeing had nothing,” reflects van Bommel. “Our sport is a really diverse one and there is much to celebrate in it. I think the World Paddle Awards meet that need to recognise excellence and, in doing so, help bring the sport in all its guises together. It’s been likened by some to a United Nations of canoeing, just without all the politics!”
Last year’s awards, held in the icy Danish town of Silkeborg, recognised Australia’s 19-time World Champion Jess Fox, voted Sportswoman of the Year, Slovenian Olympic silver medalist Peter Kauzer as Sportsman of the Year and, among other champions present, Hank McGregor, the South African ten-time World Marathon Kayaking Champion, was inducted into the WPA Academy.
The first-ever World Paddle Awards took place in Augsburg, Germany, in The Golden Hall, a venue adjacent to the town’s Olympic slalom course and arguably the spiritual home of German canoeing. Since then, they’ve also been held in Spain and Portugal, attracting large audiences and even bigger crowds online.
The votes have two key parts – all the nominees are put forward by public vote. Although some sports personality awards have been subjected to online campaigns, and the WPA is no exception, with some countries and federations pushing candidates in each category, a filtering process takes place with a public vote taking place in parallel to two rounds of voting by members of the WPA Academy, the august body of paddling experts and enthusiasts, who ensure that they are representative of their disciplines and also worthy of nomination.
British Canoeing President and WPA Academy member Ivan Lawler, who has compered the awards evening for the past two editions of the awards, says the shortlisted candidates are all genuine stars in their own right: “You could read the biographies of the final few in each category and they all have that ‘wow’ factor. Deciding who’s going to win is an incredibly difficult decision, and even being shortlisted is of course a real honour.”
With categories diverse enough to reflect the sporting stars and those who make it all possible, from event organisers, to venue managers, media personnel, photographers, and club coaches, there are few aspects of the sport that are not represented. Bringing them together is what makes the awards unique – there is no other convening event for the entire paddling world.
“A World Championships is just that – the top event for one discipline,” says Lawler. “Where are you going to get multiple champions from different disciplines together in one place at the same time? It never happens!”
Julie Pearce, Technical Lead with the English Institute of Sport, works with five Olympic sports, including GB Canoeing, agrees. A member of the WPA Academy for more than four years, she believes the awards have succeeded in creating a community that didn’t previously exist.
“The awards have brought together many different people from the paddling scene. They’ve helped create an awareness of the dedication and passion towards the different branches of the paddling world. It’s one sport, but with so many disciplines the enthusiasm would otherwise be fragmented.”
The awards have also attracted strong sport and sponsorship from numerous paddlesport businesses, including Dansprint Ergometers, NELO Kayaks, Jantex Paddles and many other equipment providers.
Andre Santos, Chief Executive of NELO Kayaks, said the growing momentum of the awards after four successful editions was ‘remarkable’, given the fact that many canoeists practiced their sport away from the media spotlight for most of their careers.
“In my experience, paddlers are very modest and do not shout out about their achievements. These awards provide a stage for them to be seen and recognised internationally. NELO are big fans of the awards, and we hope they will continue to go from strength to strength.”
The awards recognise those in front of the camera but also those behind it – photographer and journalist Nina Jelenc won Media Professional of the Year last year, reflecting her work at the European Canoe Association and for the International Canoe Federation’s Planet Canoe magazine. For Jelenc, recognition was not something she craves, but it was a ‘buzz’ to be acknowledged: “For me it was an honour to be recognised because, like many in our great sport, it is not often that this happens. It was a privilege to meet some of the real stars in our sport and to celebrate with them in Denmark”
Each awards ceremony is different, the location or environment adding more colour to an already dazzling event. In Portugal, the event was crowded with ocean racing aficionados on a NELO-sponsored training camp. In Augsburg there was a chance to see slalom on the original 1972 Olympic course, the first time in Olympic history that slalom had made it to the Olympic programme. And in Silkeborg, the awards guests marvelled at the sight of youngsters from the town’s kayak club training in K4s on the partly frozen Gudena river.
The 2018 nominations are many and varied. They range from club officials, such as Zbigniew Miazek, founder of Krakow Kayak Club, who’s coached many world champions and Olympians in canoe slalom, to Terence Saramandif from Mauritius who excelled at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by becoming his country’s first ever Olympic champion. Such is the diversity of the awards that there’s much room for the non-competitive – Team Essequibo, a trio of female kayak adventurers led by Laura Bingham, who carried out the first 1,014km descent of the Essequibo, South America’s longest river, are shortlisted.
Former International Canoe Federation Vice President Richard Fox, himself a five time World Slalom Champion, said the mix of shortlisted candidates was a reflection of paddlesport’s success in being inclusive and truly global.
“It’s of course great to see amazing competitors recognised,” says Fox, “But for me it’s also the range of people who win that’s remarkable. Having been in this sport for many decades, the sort of innovation that the World Paddle Awards represents is to be congratulated.”
The nominees for the 2018 World Paddle Awards are:
Finalists in Bold
- Academy Awards: to be announced. This year three athletes will be presented the Academy Award, which is up to the discretion of the WPA Academy. So far only three people have had the honor to receive this award: Jessica Fox (2014), Sebastian Brendel (2015) and Hank McGregor (2017).
- Sportsman: Cory Hill (AUS), Curtis McGrath (AUS), Fernando Pimenta (POR), Jack Playford (GBR), Jose Ramalho (POR), Quim Fontane Maso (ESP), Steeve Teihotaata (PYF), Team Slovakia C1 Slalom (SVK)
- Sportswoman: Danuta Kozak (HUN), Emma Wiggs (GBR), Helena Ripa (SWE), Jessica Fox (AUS), Laurence Vincent-Lapointe (CAN), Martina Satkova (CZE), Oceane Lucas (FRA)
- Lifetime Achievement: Claudia van Wijk (CAN), Csaba Szanto (HUN), Jackie Dillon (AUS), Peter Micheler (GER), Roberto D'Angelo (ITA), Sabine Eichenberger (SUI)
- Foundation Award: Alicia Casas Zaragoza (ESP), Aniol and Gerd Serrasolses (ESP), Bradley John Fisher (RSA), Colin Radmore (GBR), Joe Mornini (USA), Kate Culverwell and Anna Blackwell (GBR), Myriam Fox (AUS), Rob Thompson (GBR), Zbigniew Miazek (POL)
- Junior: Barbora Dimovova (CZE), Benedek Kos (HUN), Eva Alina Hocevar (SLO), Doriane Delassus (FRA), Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (GBR), Sophia Jensen (CAN), Terence Saramadif (MRI), Thorbjorn Rask (DEN), Tom Dolle (FRA)
- Media Professional: Carolyn Cooper (AUS), Craig Freimond (RSA), Daniel Stach (CZE), Joe Jacobi (USA), Julien Billaut (FRA), Ken Whiting (CAN), Olaf Obsommer (GER)
- Team: Essequibo (GBR), Germany Canoe Polo (GER), Outer Harbour Warriors (CAN), Shell Va'a (PYF), TR HIKO (CZE), TR OMEGA (CZE)
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