Bennett Smith cinched his life jacket and secured his helmet before climbing into the banana-colored kayak perched on the bank of the Little Cahaba River.
Smith, like most freestyle kayakers, calls his small, rectangular watercraft a playboat. It is only 6 feet long, weighs less than 30 pounds and is designed with maneuverability in mind.
That’s what Smith needed most as he paddled away from the bank and over to a spot where the water level hovered around 8 feet. There, he transformed a patch of still river into a whirlpool.
Smith, strapped snugly in his kayak, tilted the nose of the boat toward the riverbed as he prepared to click off a series of tricks under the September sun. He performed flips and spins with names like Phonics monkey, McNasty and Tricky Woo.
All are moves that comprise the aquatic arsenal Smith will aim to unleash at this month’s International Canoe Federation Freestyle World Championships in San Juan, Argentina. Smith, an Auburn University junior from Vestavia Hills, placed third at July’s U.S. team trials in Buena Vista, Colorado, to clinch his spot on the American squad.
He was the youngest kayaker to make the team.
“I’m trying to come out here and do this as much as possible, and just put in as much hard work as I can to represent the U.S. the best I can,” said Smith, water dripping from his frame after his practice session on the Little Cahaba.
This will be Smith’s second time representing the United States at a freestyle kayaking world championship event. Four years ago he qualified in the junior men’s division by winning the 2013 national team trials, which marked the beginning of his professional career. After the victory, he received his first sponsorship from Jackson Kayaks. He was only 16.
“I didn’t really think I was going to make it or anything,” Smith said, “but I trained really hard.”
This world championship will carry special meaning, too, as it will be Smith’s first as a member of the U.S. men’s team. Two years ago he fell short at the national trials and missed punching his ticket to the event. That outcome didn’t sit well with Smith, who proceeded to partake in a two-year training blitz.
His investment paid off in Buena Vista.
“He was pushing himself,” said his mother, Tracy Smith. “He understands what it takes to set a goal and succeed.”
Bennett Smith’s potential to excel at a sport like freestyle kayaking, which he described as…