Two kayakers from Chattanooga are representing the United States of America in the Kayak Freestyle World Championships in Nottingham, England, UK from June 27 to July 2.
Taft Sibley, 35, and Bennett Smith, 25, were both selected to represent the USA in the men’s squirt boat and men’s kayak category respectively. They are now both stalwarts of the US Freestyle Team in their categories and great ambassadors for Chattanooga that they boast about: “Chattanooga is basically the capital of outdoor activities,” Taft said.
Taft Sibley started kayaking when he was 14 on a City of Chattanooga outdoor program in 2001. “It was a great program, we were so lucky, and the coaches were really cool,” he said.
“They took us creek boating, it was crazy and we loved it”. Taft then expanded into downstream squirt boating and loves mystery moves that totally submerge the kayak and paddler.
Taft, now a property developer, has won three world champion titles in the Mystery Worlds. He said, “I’m a mystery move guy.” Taft also competes as an ultra-marathon athlete which helps him hold his breath for long times under water, essential when getting ‘downtime’ underwater. “Yeah I run,” he said. “I just like adventures and the great outdoors.”
Bennett started kayaking aged 13 when a friend came back from a summer camp at Falling Creek in North Carolina raving about kayaking. His friend, Jeremy Adkins, then taught Bennett white water kayaking and got him into freestyle. “I was good at gymnastics, so it just made sense to me to do gymnastics in a kayak,” Bennett said.
In 2013, the Freestyle World Championships were at Nantahala and Bennett set his sights on competing. He trained hard for two years before the competition. His hard work paid off and he placed fifth in the youth men’s category. Bennett Smith now works for the American Heart Association, and is passionate about his work. He is a great role model and freestyle kayaking keeps him super fit.
Bennett and Taft are now setting their sights beyond the World Championships and want to bring kayaking to the heart of the City of Chattanooga. “The only thing Chattanooga is missing in a white water park,” Bennett said. Taft has been volunteering as project manager for the development of Walden’s Ridge Park for mountain biking and now wants to team up with Bennett to deliver a white water park in the city centre.
It is early in the planning but Bennett and Taft have a strong vision. “We want a centre for white water that is also a park for everyone cantered around families,” Bennett said. “We want somewhere that has features for all water-sports so that people can tube, river surf, stand-up paddleboard, slalom, freestyle, race,” Taft said, “that’s safe for kids and that everyone can enjoy”.
“Ultimately we would love to host the International Canoe Federation Canoe Freestyle World Championships in Chattanooga, we would love to do that and make it accessible to everyone,” Bennett said.