There must be something in the water in Alabama. More specifically, there must be something in the white water rapids in Alabama.
Vestavia Hills’ own Bennett Smith and his Auburn classmate make up two members of the six-man United States Men’s Freestyle Kayaking team. And that’s not all—they are headed to the Rio San Juan in San Juan, Argentina, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 for the Olympics of the sport. The International Canoe Federation (IFC) Freestyle World Championships draws thousands of spectators and the world’s top performers.
Bennett placed third at the USA Team Trials in Buena Vista, Colorado, in May with a score of 1,256.67 to secure his spot on the team and his ticket to Argentina. Bennett, who at age 20 is the youngest member on team USA, began kayaking for fun in middle school upon a recommendation from friend Davis Moers, who is now Bennett’s roommate at Auburn University.
“Before I did kayaking, I did a bunch of flips on the ground—like gymnastics almost,” Barrett says. “So, I started [freestyle kayaking] and it came naturally to me.”
Freestyle kayaking, or playboating, is a relatively new sport that began in the 1980s and rose in popularity in the 1990s. A freestyle kayaker performs a 45-second routine of different flips and turns (or “loops”) while seated in a short, lightweight kayak on the water. Each skill is worth a different amount of points, and the athlete with the highest amount of points wins. Team totals are calculated from individual athletes’ scores. With ever-increasing international interest, freestyle kayaking insiders are optimistic the sport will be included in the Olympics within eight years.
With guidance from whitewater sports instructor Jeremy Adkins of Hydrenaline Kayaking, Bennett first took to the Coosa River in Wetumpka, Alabama, with confidence and ease in 2010. He began competing locally and then travelling to Colorado for larger competitions.
Lately, Bennett’s schedule has consisted of classes at Auburn where he is a junior majoring in business management and minoring in entrepreneurship and family business and working at Auburn Outdoors in the campus recreation center. After class and work, Bennett hits the river in his Jackson kayak.
His training regimen involves perfecting his routines, cross training and practicing tricks in the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia, with training partner Hunter Katich, the other US freestyle kayaking team member from Alabama. Hunter, age 21, hails from Auburn and was the 2013 IFC freestyle kayaking world champion.
The relationship between the two young kayakers is friendly but competitive. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’re really good because we train together and kind of push each other,” Bennett says. “We both want to see each other be on top,” Hunter says. “If I were to lose to anybody, I’d want it to be Bennett.”
Hunter expects both he and Bennett to make a strong showing at the world championship thanks in part to the unpredictability of the Alabama rivers and creeks they paddle almost daily. “The kayaking in Alabama is pretty much a mecca for freestyle,” Hunter explains. “It makes us more diverse kayakers.”
“Vestavia actually taught me to be a pretty good kayaker as well,” Bennett says, giving a nod to the floodplains around the city. “A little thing people may not always know is that there is some really good kayaking around Vestavia when it pours down rain.”
As a young athlete, Bennett competed in the 2012 IFC Freestyle World Cup in the junior division where he tied for fifth. That same year Bennett won divisions in the North Alabama Whitewater Festival and the Coosa River Whitewater Festival. The following year he placed first overall at the USA Team Trials and represented the country at the 2013 IFC Freestyle World Championships.
In 2015 Bennett was not selected to the national team for the world championships, but this year he placed fourth at the Freestyle Kayaking National Championship in Columbus, Georgia, before ultimately securing his spot on the US team. “There was a lot of hard work and practice that carried me along the way,” Bennett says.
According to Bennett’s mom, Tracy Smith, the executive director of the Alabama chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, one quality that has always stood out to her when she thinks about her son is his dedication and determination. “He is a very kind-hearted, positive, happy person,” Tracy says. “He’s very energetic and always wanting to do something new, which is, I think, why he found kayaking.”
Tracy revealed her and her husband Steve’s initial apprehension with Bennett’s kayaking. They were not sure it was the safest of sports, but once the nerves faded and they realized their son’s talent, they decided they would not hold him back from pursuing his goals.
“We had a conversation, and we decided we needed to quit telling our children ‘no,’” Tracy says. “If they’re wanting to do something that is productive and will be beneficial to them later on down the road, then we need to encourage them.”
Tracy and Steve helped Bennett get the proper equipment and classes to navigate his dream. “So, we just kind of embraced it even though we were scared to death,” she says with a laugh.
Bennett’s experience (and that of his younger sister Catherine, who is a freshman majoring in visual art at the Alabama School of Fine Arts) has been a life lesson for his parents. “If you trust your kids when they’re really passionate about something, and you support them whole-heartedly, then they just flourish,” Tracy says.
Bennett, in turn, expressed his appreciation for his parents for supporting his athletics and driving him to the river. He also credits the community of Vestavia Hills for rallying around him, contributing to his Go Fund Me project to help pay for airfare to Argentina and teaching him about “rapids” from an early age.
Bennett’s Favorite Runs
- Coosa River in Wetumpka, Alabama: Great for beginners!
- Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia: Bennett and Hunter’s regular spot
- Warrior River in Locust Fork, Alabama
- Little Cahaba River in Vestavia Hills, Alabama: “Just five minutes from my house!”
- Little River Canyon in Fort Payne, Alabama: Rapids and waterfalls