Before we start – just let our readers know a little about you, your family, background, etc.
My family is middle USA, Hard working, lower middle class, from Ohio. My dad was a Green Beret turned engineer, so a very black and white person, while my mom was a very kind, caring, soft hearted person. They were both excellent parents and examples for me. My dad taught me to think big and to always try to be the best and my mom taught me to always be kind to people. My sister was five years older than I was and was a horse person who became a life-long farmer and still farms in Massachusetts today. I moved to Pennsylvania when I was three, and went whitewater canoeing and kayaking there for the first time at age six with my dad and his friends from work. I also competed as a radio controlled pilot in our local club. At age 10 we moved to Florida where I became a bass fisherman, and still doing R/C flying but there was no whitewater. Finally at 15 we moved to New Hampshire where we picked up kayaking again, buying our first boats, Lettman Mark IVs.
Where and when was your first paddle?
My first paddle was at Pine Creek, Pennsylvania, known as the Grand Canyon of PA. It is a class 1-3 river and we always did it as a two day trip. My dad’s friend from work had a home-made kayak that I begged to use any time he would switch with me, out of the front of my dad’s canoe. I got to paddle it in the easier rapids and was hooked.
What and where was your first competition?
My very first competition was a canoe race in Florida that my friend Greg and I won and it led me to believe I was a good canoeist For whitewater, my first race was the Kenduskeg Canoe Slalom event in 1983. This was a 26-mile downriver race that I raced in a wildwater boat I borrowed from Jeff Wren, the swim coach at the University of Maine where I attended and I also borrowed a canoe from my calculus professor. I won every slalom event (single and double canoe, as well as kayak for slalom) but was second to a Canadian guy named Robin Lang in the downriver race. I got the bug, however, to begin racing.
What got you hooked on white water kayaking?
The freedom and the challenge.
What has been the biggest accomplishment in your life?
My biggest accomplishment? Really is a tough one. Certainly leading by example with my kids and having them become so successful is perhaps the one I am most proud of. Keeping my family together, travelling, living, and being best friends is my big life accomplishment, I think, so far. Certainly I am proud of my athletic accomplishments. My many years in racing, both slalom and extreme racing stand out for me, some of the hardest won events will always have a special place for me. My breakthrough year in 1998 in freestyle when in the Wavesport X was one of my most special seasons, as it was the beginning of a decade of domination, winning 11 events in a row. It was when my wife, Kristine, gave me my Norse Rhune the ‘Tyr’ for victory in competition on the front end of those wins. While I was already the current silver medalist in the worlds, it started a new era for me.
Of all the championships you have won in your career – does any one of them stand out above all others?
My 2005 World Championships win was one that was, in many ways, the sweetest for me. I started Jackson Kayak in 2004, and it was uncertain if I could compete at a world level and run a kayak company of my own at the same time. I believed I could (or I wouldn’t have started it) but, proving to myself, as well as winning the first world championships in a Jackson Kayak – a boat with my name on it, was special. The 2007 Worlds was also hugely special because it was the first big wave world championships. Winning the Gorge Games Extreme Races are also near the top as they were coveted and heavily stacked competitions. It was in the heyday of my racing career and being able to win a number of them back to back, both boater cross and extreme races was something I am proud of.
Have you ever been scared and if not – what would it take?
I have gone through the evolution of the, “I am the most bad-assed kayaker in the world” mental phase, which starts with the younger kayaker whom wants to be known as fearless and runs everything, plus more – that was me in the 80s-90s. Fear took a back seat to the desire to be first and best. It is, unfortunately, not a healthy way to live, and can kill or hurt kayakers. In 1997 I messed my back up really bad on a waterfall and couldn’t paddle for some time. It helped me understand the mortality of my body and that if I wanted to be doing this for my whole life, I needed to be smarter about it. It isn’t fear as much as deciding if I am comfortable with the chances of success on the rapid or waterfall to take the leap.
I leave some margin for error now, walk things that I would have never hesitated to run, but still run things that are big or hard from time to time if I am confident in the line and feel I have some margin for error. I also find that being a little more conservative around Dane, in particular, is important, as he’s on the wrong side of the fence, in my opinion, on leaving margin for error. He does run just about everything, and I don’t want him learning his lesson, like I learned mine. When I walk something, he at least knows that if he does too – he isn’t being wimpy. Not that it should matter, but it plays out in a 21-year olds head.
Favourite freestyle move?
Mcnasty, probably. It is just one of those super technical moves that when they go well, they really feel good. Being a creation of mine back in 2002, it also changed things quite a bit on the freestyle scene. It became one of the first ‘gymnastics’ type of move that really separated out the field.
Over the years, which event has left a lasting impression?
One of the biggest impression events, ever, was the 2001 World Championships organized by Luis Rabaneda in Sort, Spain. This event was heavily attended by the city people, by paddlers from around the world and had all of the elements of a crazy good time. There were raging parties during the event by the competitors who had been eliminated, as well as the locals and family and friends, night time semi-finals in a stadium type atmosphere and a very exciting competition. It set the new standard for freestyle events and it wasn’t matched again in terms of that atmosphere until 2009, in Thun, Switzerland.
What would a typical food day be for you?
There is no specific answer to this question. At home, (four months/year), Kristine cooks breakfast most days, four eggs, bacon, some kind of bread (often home-made), coffee, juice, milk. On the road in the RV (six months) 50% of the time is eggs, and 50% of the time cereal.
Lunch is also a variety – often cold cut sandwiches with Coleman’s mustard (compliments of Rhona Dempsey from England), or Kristine’s soup – she makes a whole range of different soups!
Can you talk about your training? Greatest inspiration? Role models/who/what kept you motivated?
Richard Fox, from England, was my first true role model in this sport that really affected my training. I was also influenced by Jon Lugbill, Davey Hearn, Kathy Hearn, Fritz and Lecky Haller, but Richard changed my thinking in one training camp in 1988 in Brazil, forever. Everyone always told me that Richard was simply the best technician, with the best technique and that is why he was the four-time world champion.
When I went to Brazil that year, he needed a training partner and asked me to join him and Miriam. We set up gates, and started training together and the sheer volume was double what I was used to. Three sessions a day minimum, which included long endurance paddles (70 minutes), lots of interval training, as well as technique training, running, etc. I raced him in every workout, every run, every day for six weeks! By the end I had improved so much that I won my first two events at home in a row, where beforehand, I had never won a single event (competing against the best in the USA). I owe much of my success to Richard and setting the bar much higher than I thought it could go.
At the half century mark – what keeps driving you in competition?
Being competitive, being in good shape, having fun with my family and team are all motivators. Simply put, I love competing. With that said, I like variety and therefore skipping some competitions this year that I have done many times before and taking part in some different ones. The USA team trials at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, will be super fun. The World Championships on Garburator (assuming I make the team again for my 26th season) will be my highlight event of the year for sure – perfect venue! I am adding Bass fishing competitions to my schedule this year, something I am also obsessed with and want to try to be the best at over time.
You suffer from severe hearing loss – was this a consequence of paddling?
No, I had Scarlet Fever at the age of two, which took away most of my hearing. I wear Starkey Hearing Aids, which make my life much easier. They are a family owned business and the founder, Bill Austin, still works hard, but most of his time is spent giving away hearing aids to those who can’t afford them!
I’m a paddler going on holiday, where would you recommend?
Two rivers that are going to be gone, forever – the Nile and Zambezi – they are bucket list under any conditions but it’s now or never!
To say you travel would be an understatement – is there anywhere you still regard as home?
My home is Rock Island, Tennessee. I have a nice house there, lots of land, my kids all still live at home, including Nick Troutman, my son-in-law and Tucker my grandson. We love coming home and hanging out here. Lots of fun things to do!
With your travels this year – what’s been your favourite experience?
Being on the Zambezi again, this past November, was perhaps my highlight trip. The entire family travelled, we went to Botswana for a safari, and the river was epic, of course. However, so many awesome trips – China was a first, Mexico was epic again, Austria was super fun this year, as we did some cool activities (paragliding, high ropes course, and the adidas Sickline race).
What are your plans for the next 12 months?
The entire plan? That is almost one event every weekend… I have seven major fishing tournaments to compete in, all of which are new! GoPro Games, USA team trials, time on the Ottawa River training for the Worlds, World Championships and the Sickline Extreme World Championships are some highlights…
What’s the most important singular piece of advice you could give to an up coming young paddler?
Paddle for fun! Training and competing can and should be fun first. Don’t make kayaking a job. If you’re doing it for the right reasons, because you enjoy it, you can learn faster and go further. Many young kids set goals, such as being on their national team. They focus all of their energy towards that goal and their enjoyment factor is specifically tied into how close they are getting and once they get there, they have a new goal and they are still not having fun. The key to having fun is to make every time in the kayak a game. If you are training, make a game out of that training. Get enjoyment out of that training session, every time, even if you lose the game.
Variety: change things around – try a C1, go to a different river, paddle with somebody different. Try different moves and techniques for the same objective. What makes kayaking so special are the things you do in training that you would want to do even if you are not training. This isn’t the case for most sports.
If you could paddle with anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be?
Pick two celebrities to be your parents…
Sorry – I want my own parents, but thanks for asking.
Cats or dogs?
Facebook or Twitter?
An ideal night out for you is?
A night in with Kristine.
What one luxury item would you take with you on a desert island?
What do you get really angry about?
I don’t get angry.
What would I find in your refrigerator right now?
Too much food.
If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?
Kristine has too many things to guess which one… likely something on the grill.
Bucket list top three paddling locations:
Zambezi, Futalafu, Grand Canyon.
If you could be a wild animal – what would it be?
Favourite sport’s team?
Team Jackson Kayak
Fill in the blanks: I am ______?
Final shout outs?
Thanks to all of my fellow boaters who have been a big part of my life, to Kristine for being the best life partner of all time and my kids for staying by my side even as adults!
Many thanks EJ for all of your help on this – we really appreciate it and all the very best for a successful 2015.