It’s been over 20 years since boaters started getting together on rivers like the Ottawa, Caney Fork and the Ocoee, queuing up to surf waves and ride holes, throwing spins, enders and pirouettes instead of running downriver. Volunteer judges—often paddlers themselves—kept score; spectators by the hundreds crowded the rocky shores to watch. In the early days it was called rodeo and similar to its Western namesake, the events were spectacles, equal parts party and friendly competition to assert bragging rights on and off the river.
As with any upstart sport and competition, a faction of paddlers wanted whitewater rodeo to go bigger. The very first world championship was held in 1993 on the Ocoee River in Tennessee; in 1997, the worlds came to McCoy’s rapid on the Ottawa River; and by 2001, the event engulfed the Pyrenees village of Sort, Spain, in a boisterous festival.