From the first sound of rushing water, the rapids seem anything but serene.

But then, stretching as wide as the river bends, you see that smile.

"Sometimes I'll drag my fingers in the water right before a ride just to be one with the river," Katie Fankhouser of Lyons, Colo., said. "The river is just my happy place, and it's always been that way for me."

And how can it not?

At just 17 years old, Fankhouser is living life in the white water.

"I actually saw an ad in the newspaper in Lyons for the Lyons Kids Kayak Club," she said. "I learned how to roll and it sort of just took off from there and fell in love with the sport and have been competing ever since."

One competition seven years ago turned into two the next. Each calendar kept building.

"And then soon I was doing the whole Colorado tour and competing at nationals and I loved it," she said. "It was 'how far can I take this? How much fun am I having?'."

The answer could be found downstream.

Fankhouser is the reigning junior freestyle white water kayaking national champion. Last month, in her second World Championships representing Team USA, she paddled into the rushing water of Spain — placing third for all women under the age of 18 on the planet.

"That's actually my favorite aspect of kayaking is the places it's taken me, the people it's allowed me to meet," she said. "Meeting friends from all over the world — Ireland, Mexico, Canada, Spain, Argentina. And now I just have all these connections, all of these kids my age that share my same passion."

Like the flow of a creek, quickened with the fresh runoff from the mountains, Katie the kayaker is gaining speed on the global circuit.

"Because freestyle kayaking is not yet an Olympic sport, I'd like to continue to try to make the US team every year, keep training, keep learning new tricks," she said.

And she'll keep paddling — after all, her happy place fills her horizon.