A Spritz of Glitz

Rodeo kayaking's effort to transform itself into a mainstream sport

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Glitz, Tanya Shuman thinks, is good—even when it involves 17 million pounds of water displacement per minute. Glitz, in fact, may be the future of rodeo kayaking. And certainly, as part of a movement to give performance-style kayaking more mass appeal, Shuman, 27, is staking her career on surfing the sport's rather kitschy wave of glamorization. "We're like snowboarding was five years ago," she exclaims. "Rodeo is about to break through!"

For those not fully drenched in whitewater argot, rodeo or freestyle kayaking involves paddlers dropping into a river hydraulic or hole, then pirouetting and cartwheeling for 30 seconds while music—usually upbeat, elevator-style pop tunes—blares from loudspeakers. When the sport first began about ten years ago, it emphasized power over grace, rewarding boaters who could, say, cartwheel 18 times before getting flushed out of the hole. Today, the emphasis is increasingly on style, nuance, and, yes, glitz. All of which play to Shuman's strengths. One of the top five women rodeo boaters in the nation, she embodies both the virtues and the controversies of her sport's evolution. A sometime fashion model, she is well-groomed, wide-eyed, and friendly (her nickname is "Smiley"). And she thinks rodeo should be the same. "We should have more river festivals," she says. "It would be like ice skating, only wet."

Not all of her compatriots share her Kayak Capades vision, however. "I don't want to see this sport turned into a Vegas floor show," says E.J. Jackson, America's top male freestyler. Nevertheless, when the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships convene this month in Taupo, New Zealand, Shuman and others will press the heads of the national teams to implement scoring that rates entertainment value over power. If they succeed, they'll set the agenda for next year's first-ever World Cup rodeo kayaking tour. "It's an exciting moment," Shuman says. "Next year, you'll see rodeo explode." And if not, well, Vegas can always use a good water routine.