MCHENRY, Md. — The rushing, boulder-strewn river at the Adventure Sports Center International looks nothing like a level playing field. But it is, for athletes in this week's canoe and kayak whitewater slalom world championships.
Man-made and painstakingly engineered, the course is a far cry and 12 miles from the Savage River, where Maryland last hosted the event 25 years ago. Unlike that natural stream, the ASCI course offers consistent flow and turbulence, which makes a big difference to the paddlers competing Thursday through Sunday, said USA Whitewater Slalom Coach Silvan Poberaj.
"There's a reason that all the big events are on artificial courses like this one these days," he said. "In the river, it's always challenging and then — you never know — you can have some rain overnight and you have no control."
The recirculating course, one-third of a mile long, is a public-private venture that opened atop Marsh Mountain near Deep Creek Lake in 2007 with a goal of making far western Maryland the epicenter of whitewater sports.
Instead, the course 150 miles west of Baltimore, has become part of a triangle of East Coast venues that also includes the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, which opened in 2006, and the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center in the Potomac River near Washington.
This week's event is the biggest ever held at ASCI. It's also a factor in a bid to bring the 2024 summer Olympics to Washington, about 2 1/2 hours away.
"This is a perfect opportunity to showcase Maryland and showcase our capabilities as a destination to host world-caliber events," said Terry Hasseltine, executive director of Maryland Sports, a state agency that works to attract international sporting events
Organizers expect the International Canoe Federation event to bring up to 10,000 spectators to ASCI, and they have made more than $2 million in largely state-funded improvements to prepare for it.
Spectators paying $5 to $20 for daily tickets will sit in bleachers or a grass-sloped amphitheater to watch athletes in 300 boats from 46 countries try for the best time in maneuvering one- or two-person craft through a series of gates — actually pairs of lightweight, vertical poles suspended just above the water.
The sport is dominated by Europeans. The United States hasn't medaled in Olympic whitewater slalom since 2004, when kayaker Rebecca Giddens took a silver in Athens. America last won Olympic gold in 1992 with the two-man canoe team of Scott Stausbaugh and Joe Jacobi, now chief executive of USA Canoe-Kayak.
But two Europeans who recently joined the U.S. team have done well. Slovakian native Dana Mann placed fifth among women kayakers in the world championships in Prague last year. And Fabien Lefevre, who won Olympic bronze in 2004 and silver in 2008 as a kayaker for France, joined the U.S. team last year and placed fourth in Prague.
Lefevre will compete this week in both kayak and canoe. The boats look similar but kayakers sit and use double-bladed paddles while canoeists kneel and use single-blade paddles.
Lefevre lives with his wife and two children in Bethesda, Maryland, near the Potomac whitewater center. He said he moved to give his kids an American education and leave what he considered an overly political and restrictive state-funded organization in France.
"For many people, it was surprising to leave such a huge system like the French one and go to the U.S. but, you know, freedom has no price," he said.
Garrett County Commissioner Gregan Crawford, co-chairman of the organizing group, projected a $20 million economic impact from the championships.
Lisa M. Jan, owner of the nearby Blue Moon Rising vacation cabins and Moonshadow Cafe is among dozens of local business owners helping to sponsor the championships.
"It's pretty cool that our little town is hosting a world event," she said.