Profile of the Week: Scott Shipley (Olympic Course Designer)

Scott Shipley brings a varied background to the table. A three time Olympian (’92, ’96, ’00) and holder of four world titles, Shipley is among the best-known American kayakers in the world today. Having retired from elite competition Shipley went back to school to earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Shipley’s combined expertise in both Whitewater and Engineering Design has made him the go-to designer for some of the world’s most demanding whitewater design projects. He has been credited with driving innovation in the whitewater park industry by pushing the design envelope; his achievements in whitewater course design may just supersede his world titles and his accolade of America’s best ever slalom kayaker.

Shipley has also been involved in the design of the Whitewater Package Course—the world’s first purpose-built club training and instructional center as well as the Africa Club-House Project—an unprecedented design project tasked with bringing secure clubhouses for sports of all kinds, including kayaking, to Africa. His company S2o Designs designed the features in the Lee Valley White Water Center, the Canoe Slalom venue for this summer’s Olympic Games in London.

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INTERVIEW

What was the inspiration behind the design of the Lee Valley whitewater course?

The real challenge of any Olympic design is to define the new standard for the next quadrennium. In some ways this involves taking the sport to the next level but it has to be a subtle transition. Athletes need to be challenged at the Olympics but the whitewater needs to be manageable in a way that the athletes can still have a dominating run. You need to up the standard to a level that the athletes can match—so that the champions can paddle like champions. The Lee Valley Whitewater course will showcase our great athletes to the world.

Are there different considerations when designing an Olympic whitewater course as opposed to other courses designed for standard competitions and recreational use?

Interestingly the design of an Olympic course is not so different from the design of any whitewater park. An Olympic channel needs to be special and it needs to be a special challenge but it quickly needs to morph into a for-profit operation soon after the Olympic Games are over and I believe this has been accomplished in Lee Valley.

Your design allows adjustment in the pump powered flow which is different from the traditional whitewater park design constructions, how did this come about?

The RapidBlocs ™ moveable obstacle system was a real innovation that sprang organically from the task that we were given in London. We needed a system that provided a level of fine-tuning that you just couldn’t get with existing systems in order to make that channel work within the boundaries that we were given. This is a system that is more efficient, more adaptable, more cost effective and safer for rafters and kayakers than traditional obstacle systems.

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What are some of the unique features of the Lee Valley White Water Center?

The most significant features in the Lee Valley course are the adjustable wave features. We used our system to create a World Class Freestyle feature right in the middle of our Olympic Slalom Channel. We brought some of the top freestyle paddlers from around the world to the channel and it received rave reviews. The beauty of this freestyle feature is that it doesn’t have to be there! In this case the slalom paddlers prefer a breaking green wave that allows them to quick-surf across the channel or carry momentum over the drop into the following section (depending on the course that is set). For the Olympics, this feature will be tuned to be a breaking green wave. After the games I expect that Lee Valley, with a little help, will dial the feature into a world championship freestyle feature.

You have been referred to as “whitewater innovator”; do you feel there is the need to redefine traditional whitewater courses?

There are some real challenges for Whitewater Parks in the world today. The traditional channel is designed to mimic a natural river in terms of character and efficiency. This is the design ethic that we bring to our natural whitewater parks. In these parks the design challenge is to create a World-Class play feature and surfing wave while mimicking the river’s natural morphology. This means designing to minimize the effects of catastrophic floods, designing to pass sediment, designing for fish passage, etc. This is often a requirement in order to receive the necessary permits.

I believe the opposite about our pumped channels. In these parks the challenge is efficiency and defining not only the whitewater experience, but also the river lifestyle in the surrounding venue. My belief is that these are lifestyle centers as well as whitewater centers. This approach is paying off—roughly 4 out-of-five to nine out-of-ten of the visitors to parks like Charlotte and London come to view the river, walk the paths, and eat in our restaurants or take part in our canopy, zip-line, or ropes course experiences. It adds a lot of sweetner to our client’s profit margin.

The next generation of Olympic whitewater parks will be defined by their statement. They will be outdoor stadiums that boldly define our athletes as Olympians and Champions. They will invite a host of spectators to a venue that will be an anchor attraction of the Olympic Games. My vision is that they will be neither subtle nor traditional but rather make a statement as all great stadiums do. Do we intend to redefine the whitewater stadium for the next quadrennium? Absolutely.  

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You are arguably America’s greatest slalom athlete, was the transition from athlete to a pioneer of whitewater designs a seamless one?

One of the real challenges of going from champion athlete to engineer has a lot to do with ego. Kayaking is an individual sport and, when you sit at the top of it you can control your experience and lead a team. The truth, however, is that top athletes get to the top-of-their-game by eating a lot of humble pie and working their way up through the ranks until they become experts. The hard part for me was doing that again after I left competitive paddling sports and pursued my engineering degrees and necessary work experience. I literally dropped to the bottom of the heap and started to work my way back up.

To be good at anything, you need to start at the bottom and earn your way to the top. After my third Olympics I went back to school and spent my time answering to roll call and working on late-night projects with people ten years younger than me. I did the same when I was the gopher at an engineering firm gaining valuable real-life experience as a designer and engineer after school. By the time I earned my license and started my company I had years of experience in addition to my paddling background. I think the whole experience redefined me into a team player instead of an individual.

You competed in three different Olympic Games; therefore you have been on three different Olympic courses, which was your favorite?

My favorite channel when I raced was Augsburg—the 1972 Olympic channel! It is a channel that is very efficient, very fast, and very tricky. I felt like it really suited my paddling style and, on a good run, I felt like I was going a million miles an hour (still slow by today’s standards)!
 

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My favorite course since then is the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. This is a fast course as well that includes elements that mimic Augsburg. To me, this park defines the slalom experience for our athletes and showcases our sport for our TV audience. At the top of the course the athlete needs to be precise, and use the water efficiently to glide. This favors the most skilled paddlers. The middle of the course is slower and requires the athlete to work to move the boat, this showcases the athleticism of athletes, and the last part is big with a large drop. This part of the design matches the culture of Charlotte. America (and Charlotte in particular), needs a whitewater park to end in a big drop as we are a NASCAR culture, we expect our champions to either go big and win, or wipe-out trying.

If you could chose any location in the world to design a whitewater course where would you place it?

I am a firm believer in designing to the business model. The best parks are in the biggest cities with the best access to major interstates or freeways. They also need to be removed from existing whitewater rivers. Why build a whitewater park that you must pump when God has given you a better option for free?

The other question you need to ask is why build a whitewater park in the first place? What do they do? I’ll tell you what they do—if done right they bring world-class whitewater right into the middle of your town or city. You literally move the mountain to Muhammad. A whitewater park exposes millions of people to a wild flowing stream that might never experience an actual whitewater river. It brings events, athletes, and training centers right into cities where people can watch events, athletes can have a real experience, and the sport can grow. The best whitewater parks are the ones that have been located and designed to grow the sport.
 

 
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