THE RISE OF EUROPEAN PADDLING REACHES NEW HEIGHTS
It was a stunning result that put the surfski world on notice.
For the first time in the ICF Ocean Racing World Championship’s nine-year history, three European paddlers finished inside the men’s top ten.
Germany’s Gordon Harbrecht was fourth, Spain’s Walter Bouzan fifth and France’s Valentin Henot ninth.
That saw Europe outperform heavyweight nation Australia, who only managed two paddlers inside the ten.
It also saw the continent smash its previous best Championships, having managed one athlete inside the mark at each of the four previous full-field world titles.
On the surface, it seems like a steep climb.
But for those on the ground in Europe, it’s been a long time coming.
GALLERY: Gordan Harbrecht, Valentin Henot and Walter Bouzan at the 2022 ICF World Championships. PHOTOGRAPH: © Photo Duarte & Nordic Kayaks.
“It wasn’t too much of a surprise, I think,” Gordan Harbrecht reflected after the race. “I was pretty sure we could mix it up depending on the conditions.”
“I feel my improvement in the ocean, and still, I have not won a European Championships. Everyone is improving together.
“It was just a question of time. Now I feel we are there.”
There have been plenty of European paddlers at the front-end of races over the years.
Frenchman Yannick Laousse was seventh in Tahiti in 2015 with Sweden’s Emma Levemyr ninth, and Spain’s Amaia Osaba was seventh at the 2017 edition in Hong Kong.
Now, however, its athletes are challenging for international titles, and the benefit of that rise in standard is being felt right throughout its racing community.
It’s something Valentin Henot noticed when he returned from his new home in Australia to compete – and ultimately win – the 2022 European Championships.
“I was very impressed,” he told The Paddler. “Not only has it grown in numbers, but also in speed and density.”
“The European ocean-paddling scene is now unlike anything I’ve witnessed before: more countries are getting involved, even places in eastern Europe like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where there’s no sea or ocean, are turning-up to races and delivering good athletes.”
“Spain has imposed itself as the world surfski development leader, showing us that the sport can attract girls and juniors in big numbers.
“I don’t know what they do or how they do so, but it would be worth the national federations from other countries going over there and finding what attracts all these people into the sport.”
Valentin Henot on his way to winning the 2022 European Championship.
While Spain may be leading the way in development, Portugal is now laying claim to one of the region’s brightest talents.
Bernardo Pereira is still a teenager but is already mixing it with the sport’s best, having claimed the bronze medal in the Under 23 division at the recent ICF World Championships – and impressively, finishing 12th overall.
Unlike almost all other European paddlers, Pereira didn’t begin his paddling career in a kayak – instead, he started in the surf.
And the time he’s spent in the ocean certainly shows.
“I think in Europe and especially in Portugal there is a big pressure to do K1 and sprint kayaking, because that’s what our tradition is about,” Pereira says.
“I began paddling because my dad used to paddle, so basically I just went with him to training.
“It started slow but then I noticed I was enjoying it and kept going. It’s a tradition that my father passed on to me.
“We have great athletes in sprint kayaking, but I felt the pressure when I started. Most Europeans start with kayaking because surfski is a newer sport to us.”
“Of course, when you look to the big guys like Gordan and Walter… all of them started in K1.
“I just managed to avoid the pressure to do that, and I started with what I liked the most, which was surfski.”
Bernardo Pereira proved he is a paddler on the rise at the 2022 ICF World Championships. PHOTOGRAPH: © Photo Duarte
Another factor behind Pereira’s meteoric rise through the ranks is the influence of Oscar Chalupsky.
The 12-time Molokai Champion now lives in Portugal and has been a vocal proponent of European paddling.
Pereira says Chalupsky’s knowledge has had a huge influence over his career.
“Oscar came to Portugal some years ago to work with NELO and I think he has been a crucial part of my development as an athlete, as I have his experience that he passes on to me,” he says.
“He does exceptional work with that and I feel I am very, very prepared because I have him on my side and coaching me.
“I am from an island and he is from the mainland, so many times I go to train with him and I feel a big, big advantage when I do. It has helped me a lot and I am very grateful for him.”
The benefit Pereira has received from Chalupsky is emblematic of what’s occurring all across the continent.
With each season, paddlers are growing considerably in skill and knowledge, then sharing it with their communities.
Gordan Harbrecht is the perfect example of that.
Over the past decade, he has transformed from one of Germany’s leading sprint kayakers to an out-and-out downwind paddler, a journey he told The Paddler about in a ‘Surfski Spotlight’ feature that you can read by clicking here.
Now he’s using his experience to foster the same improvement in Germany’s next generation of paddlers.
At the 2022 ICF World Championships, countrymen Claas Gebhardt (16th) and Nordin Sparmann (18th) joined him inside the top twenty, in an incredible breakthrough for the nation.
“It’s very rewarding,” Harbrecht says. “Especially with Claus, because I am his coach.
“I sent him around for some training and we [Nordic Kayaks] now sponsor him. It’s so cool to see.
“Just to see the race entry numbers in Germany, which is around 300 now. 10 years ago, it was 20. It’s really coming.”
“There’s nothing in the DNA of Aussies and South Africans that makes them good surfski paddlers. It’s just experience and years of training. And Europe is starting to see that now.”
“It was just one minute for Walter and me to the top guys. This minute could be the other way around on another day.”
“We’re coming. And it’s so fun to see.
Claas Gebhardt is one of many German paddlers on the rise. PHOTOGRAPH: © Photo Duarte
The success of Harbrecht and Bouzan is something Peireira identifies as a huge source of inspiration to himself, and many other young paddlers across the continent.
It’s also proven to be a source of confidence when it comes time to match up against the best South Africa and Australia have to offer.
“Walter and Gordan are two of my surfski idols, without question.
“When I started going to international races, they were the guys I wanted to be when I was older.
“Now, I can directly race them and I feel like the European Championships was a very good race for me [finishing third overall]. I was there in the pack, which I had never done before.
“It is very intimidating but it was quite an experience and there are a lot of things that will help me improve next season. Hopefully next year I will be able to do it more.”
For Harbrecht, there’s no doubt.
“I think It’s good for these youngsters to have some role models, some faster European paddlers who they can compare themselves too,” he says.
“If they are very close to Walter and I they know they are going OK worldwide.
“The big podiums are still missing for the Europeans, but let’s see how we go over the next few years.”
“I just chatted with Walter about how strong his season was, even though he is 44, he just gets better and better.
“Not only in surfski, he’s also fast in his K1. He was second in the 5000m metres at the European Championships and had a good 1000 as well.
“I asked him what his training looks like, and he said he honestly doesn’t know himself. He is doing the same thing as the last few years but also having fun, enjoying the process and doing what he likes.
“Now to see he raced at the surfski World Champs but skipped the marathon champs because he has more fun here and wants to focus on what makes him happy… that’s really cool.”
Bouzan isn’t alone in making the transition.
Two-time Marathon World Champion Mads Pederson was a surprise entrant in the Ocean Racing World Championships this year.
The Danish star finished 26th overall, after taking up the sport as a cross-training tool for his kayaking.
Mads Pederson was a surprise face at the 2022 Ocean Racing World Championships. PHOTOGRAPH: © Photo Duarte
Through the influence of former kayakers like Harbrecht and Bouzan, more and more elite athletes are now hopping into the ski.
“When we catch up, I’m always chatting about surfski,” Harbrecht laughs.
“I introduced Mads a little bit and gave him a boat, now he’s really hooked. And Mads has introduced Phillip Knut now, who is hooked too.
“All of these guys are asking about joining training camps in Fortoventura, so hopefully there is some improvement for them next year.
“That’s something that makes me proud, to have helped put it in the minds of
“I feel stronger than ever in my K1 now and that’s because of surfski.
“I know Walter feels similar. Paddling in the ocean improves your strength and fitness in the K1.”
The fact that Europe is the stronghold of kayaking, both in numbers and performance, means it’s only a matter of time until the discipline of surfski follows suit.
“I think we are on the way,” Harbrecht believes. “The clubs are still old-school and have old coaches and managers who are all about the Olympics. All their salaries come from people getting medals at the Olympics, so it will be tough.
“But maybe that path isn’t necessary for us. People around the professional sport are really jumping on surfski. More and more people are joining the races.
“In Germany I must say it seems less and less people are going and enjoying kayak races. It seems like just the professionals doing it.
“The rest are now going to marathon and surfski and just enjoying it.”
A huge contingent of German paddlers turned out for the ICF World Championships, seen here alongside other NK paddlers.
That’s the shift in attitude supporters of Europe’s surfski scene have been waiting so long to see.
And it’s also crucial to unlocking its potential.
“I guess Europeans have always been seen as a lower-class surfski competition, barely to be considered,” Valentin Henot reflects. “This is engrained in the mentalities, and we’re looking up at Australians and South Africans.
“This will become a strength when young paddlers from across Europe will realise there’s no good reason to feel this way and stand up for what they are, win races and inspire a whole generation.”
“I’m really looking forward to see races with just as much juniors and U23s than masters, more girls than boys and everyone having a great time on and off the water.”
The surfski paddling community is an amazing one to be a part of – you get to travel to amazing places and meet the most beautiful people.
“It’s a great school of life, and I hope many more people will be lucky enough to walk into a paddling club and jump on a surfski.”