With sponsorship money drying to a trickle and the pro freestyle tour treading water, some observers last year were preparing a eulogy for freestyle kayaking.
But if paddling was indeed in its death throes, then consider local Strongwater proprietor and curl connoisseur KB Brown a sort of whitewater ER doc. When he submitted a bid this winter to bring the USA Freestyle Kayaking Team Trials and National Point Series Championship to Brennan's Wave in Missoula, it was the equivalent of taking a defibrillator to a sport that hasn't seen a proper pro-circuit tour since 2002.
In January, Brown got the news: Missoula was the winner.
Landing the event was a definite coup, and Brown is expecting some 200 competitors to take to the Clark Fork between June 30 and July 2, competing for an $1,800 purse and a chance to represent the United States at the 2011 World Championships in Plattling, Germany.
Likely competitors include some of the biggest names in whitewater—folks like perennial rodeo booster Eric Jackson and kayak porn impresario Rush Sturges—plus a couple dozen local hopefuls.
Together with co-organizer and Missoula paddle junkie Karl Moser, Brown spent the spring galvanizing sponsorships from local businesses, working with the city to improve wave access, and planning a carnival atmosphere around the event, complete with big air contests, gear demos, live music and face painting.
There's even talk of network television coverage. And with 600 spectators predicted to show up, a streamside JumboTron is already in the works.
"It's going to be a huge event, with a level of athletes that's just insane," says a jubilant Brown.
For pro paddlers and the brains behind the sport's governing body, USA Freestyle Kayaking (USAFK), the Missoula event represents more than just a swinging few days in Caras Park. This summer's team trials are the first step in a major push to make freestyle an Olympic event by 2020.
Recent USAFK administrative changes and a newly standardized scoring system mean the competition holds up to Olympic specs, and five of the country's seven certified judges are flying into town to score the contest. Today Missoula, tomorrow the world.