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Posted: April 01, 2012

State of the state: Entrepreneurs

Olympian Kayaker designs courses for whitewater parks

Eric Peterson

Three-time Olympian kayaker Scott Shipley might not be paddling at this summer’s games in London, but he’ll leave a lasting mark on the city with the whitewater course he helped create for the paddling events.

Shipley founded Lyons-based S2O Design and Engineering Inc. in 2006, and now is at the forefront of the booming international whitewater parks business. "It’s crazy," he says. "My original plan was to design ships for the Navy." He got a pair of engineering degrees from Georgia Tech in the wake of the 2000 Olympics in Atlanta, then veered from his shipbuilding plans back to his whitewater roots.

"The heart and soul of S2O is my background in racing," Shipley says. "That brings a lot to the table." So does his engineering ingenuity: His patent-pending RapidBlocs are revolutionizing whitewater parks all over the world, from Durango to Prague. "Each block can be picked up by a person," he says. "Before that, you were moving a stone with a tractor."

Some S2O projects, many of them in Europe, involve manmade channels and $3 million pumps; others involve breathing life back into a natural waterway. In the latter cases, Shipley’s trace sits squarely at the intersection of environmental restoration, urban planning and outdoor recreation.

Of his current projects in Colorado, Shipley is most jazzed about a whitewater park on the Animas River near downtown Durango. "The park has its own water rights," he says. "Its flows are protected so it will always have water."

Shipley’s parks tend to cost $1 million or more but return several multiples of that annually to the local economy. In Durango, the $1.1 million park is expected to generate $9 million a year. "It’s a really neat thing," Shipley says. "This is a park that pays itself back."

He’s also working on the whitewater park in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, but is tight-lipped about the specifics. Another S2O park in Teesside, U.K., is driven by the tides. "When the tide is in, they shut the gates and pump it," Shipley says. "It generates more power than it uses."

"It’s all forward-thinking," he adds. "How do we design that next wave?"

It’s no surprise that Shipley spends a lot of time globetrotting to his projects, earning frequent-flyer miles by the figurative bushel. "At one point, we had a park under way in five time zones," he says. "The phone would ring all day and night."

Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at

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