Freedom on water – Focus of Development

Freedom on water – Focus of Development

25/01/2022 Off By Risto Lehtinen

This framework is a tool to improve paracanoe development on several levels. First, this tries to identify the levels of process and project implementation, and then in focusing to roles of actors taken at different stages to support the paddlers with impairments.

This framework was an outcome from the workshop in October 2021 in Poland, where  the present project group discussed possible future projects for paracanoeing.

Level of implementation

At which level do we operate? The level of a suggested implementation is one of the first decisions, when a new development project is planned. The best practice in canoeing starts from a single club, and if a new tested practice is found good, then it is supported and spread at national level, and then to neighbouring countries (here “Regional”). Finally the new practice can be found at continental level, and even at international level. It’s useful to “think big” before implementing small. Some additional project resources could be achieved for this kind of pilot project implementation, if stakeholder networks and their interests are identified and requested to participate to support planned projects.

Club level

A club level is a permanent grass root level for daily based paracanoe activities. There might be some other local clubs with more or less experience in paracanoeing who have exactly the same problems or challenges to be solved. Joint or shared effort, like in training or canoe purchase or weekly races, could best improve their knowledge and resources and activities.

National level

Clubs belong to a local, regional or to a wider canoe union, or direct to a national federation. The knowledge of the club network is known and contacted best at a federation level. The more the clubs have activities with paracanoe paddlers, desto more there is a need to implement the paracanoe projects regionally or nationwide, and desto more we need a national federation and their resources and sponsors to promote paracanoeing.

Regional level

Neighbouring countries might be useful partners to give new cross-culture effects in canoeing. Every country has their own strengths, weaknesses and history of development. Ready-made best practices could be delivered and changed among countries. Grass root cooperation could happen at the club level only as regional country-wide cooperation like training camps and visits, competitions or recreational tours and other events.

Continental level

Every continent – like Europe, North America, Africa or Asia – has its own canoeing federation, and an office and officers, with events in most canoeing disciplines. The resources for any development are small, but a knowledge of the network is very valuable for contacts and in sharing experience between all federations, in their key resources like information sharing and net-publishing for a joint co-ordinated development.

International level

International canoe federation (ICF) has the paracanoe committee for world-wide development. They have best known experts to run classification and highest level of competition events. At least regional level activities are interesting from the point of view of ICF. Most ICF experts represent their own national federation, so their interest always returns to national level, too.

Process of Development 

There are more areas of development in paracanoeing than in typical sports. One of the main challenges is that many development projects are running parallel or are done for the first time ever. There are no known models and best practices. Paracanoeing reached the Paralympics at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Most of the development processes to improve the standard in canoeing have been inadequate or missing in most of the levels of implementation described in this document.

Equipment production / development

Paracanoe equipment is always tailored according to Impairment and level of athlete or prospect. Fortunately, there are some capable boat and paddle manufacturers, who will offer proper equipment, but fittings are personal and need special experts to finish equipment for athletes. The safety requirements bring additional challenges to equipment in different water conditions where training and competition will happen.


Athletes and especially beginners (prospects) can’t train alone. Personal freedom on water is achieved quite early, but assistants to get board and skilled coaches are needed to progress with individual impairments. Training programmes must be tailored and traditional “one fits all” coaching methods can’t be used to guarantee continuous development.


All stakeholders in different roles and at all levels of paracanoe sports require tailored education and field training, like those paddlers in canoes need many pairs of helping hands. There is no single person who has knowledge of requirements of all different kind of impairment we have in paracanoeing: Amputee, Polio, HSMN (CMT), Spinal cord injury, Autonomic Dysreflexia, Spina Bifida, Visual, SO-ID and some other, which are still out of focus of present classification of paracanoeing. 

How to identify volunteer experts and involve them in paracanoeing? How to get them a sufficient level of paracanoe-education and improve their knowledge at club level, where real athlete development happens daily? How to keep people in sport happy?

Classification of paddlers

Most national federations have no domestic handicap classifiers, or national races for classification, so classification will happen mostly abroad in main competition events. Handicap classification is under continuous development at the international level, so more impairments could be included in paracanoeing in the future. It’s very expensive to get athletes classified and regional classification would be an important goal to lower this threshold to allow more athletes to compete among equals.

Competition set-up

To have fair paracanoe competitions in safe venues is a common challenge from club level to international level. Traditional canoeing officials need more knowledge of limitations athletes have to adjust time schedules and safety organisations to a new level. More assistants, skilled rescue team members and motorboats are needed for paracanoe events.  


Research, measuring of performance, documenting the canoe fittings etc. is the backbone for all learning processes in paracanoeing. All the new actions ought to have a solid basis of science. Research covers equipment production / development, training, education, competition and classification. Research can be done only in few advanced countries, so wide delivery of all possible paracanoe research documents is essential to get forward in all the levels of implementation.


Roles involved in development

Identify your domestic stakeholders to recruit correct and adequate skills to the development process and daily activities.

Athlete / Prospect

The most valuable stakeholder is an athlete – and actually a prospect, possible beginner in paracanoeing. Some injured athletes, injured military veterans and para-athletes from other parasports might have a shortcut to paracanoeing. Young prospects might have strong motivation immediately when they have their first experience of freedom on water. They are more equal to fellow paddlers on water. The key question at club level is: 

How to get people with impairments on water?

Coach / Instructor

The learning curve to become a coach or instructor is shortest for existing coaches and instructors. Some extra education is needed to observe additional requirements of athletes and prospects. Clubs could cooperate with coaches and instructors and encourage each other to start activities with disabled people. The key challenge is how to encourage prospects to continue their hobby or more serious training for future challenges, like racing or touring or canoe camping.


How to minimize limitations of impairment with better fittings of equipment? How to get medical experts to be involved in new requirements of training with impairments? How to find education experts who understand better have to teach and educate athletes with different impairments? How to get consultation of possible foreign classifiers to prepare athletes better for certain groups of classification? How to contact researchers or find the latest research documents of challenging exercises, or training manuals? What is the cost of manual or semi-automated canoe launch from a boat house in water and back, operated by paddlers with impairments?

Manager / Administration

Few positive things happen, if management of paracanoeing is missing in any levels of implementation. It’s essential to identify, and to get two-way communication working between club administration and national federation, between national canoe federation and domestic Paralympic Committee and domestic organisation of Special Olympics, and finally all the way between national federation, regional federations, continental federation and International Canoe Federation ICF. Lively, continuous communication is essential to get things done in development and daily activities.


This document was composed by Risto Lehtinen. Please contact by email to for further questions or proposals.