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May 4, 2006

It is kind of funny that I don’t spend more time thinking, or at least taking about my life as an athlete. It is like talking about eating breakfast to me. I do it everyday so it is such a part of my life that I take it for granted that I am an athlete at all, while I shouldn’t.

My mom took me to swimming lessons from the time I was 6 until I was 8. I don’t know why that was a priority for her, and since she died when I was 18, I can’t ask her now. When I was 8 the swim coach at the YMCA where I took lessons asked me to join the team. I had never been on a team before. My dad wouldn’t let me play baseball because of the “politics” of who plays what position in little league, and I couldn’t play football because he said it was too dangerous. I became a swimmer. I became a buttery and freestyle specialist, but also swam the IM even though I was weak at breast stroke. I learned about training in a sport that is as physically grueling as it gets. Anyone who has ever trained seriously in swimming knows that the physical drills that were used in the 70’s-80’s were full on. Interval training where in order to move up the ranks on your team you had to be able to do: 20 X 100 yd freestyle swims on 1:00 for example when your best time was a 50 for example. That means that you would be doing 20 minutes of interval training with no more than 10 seconds rest on each one, and usually if you were really pushing for better times, you had only 5 or less seconds each time. Then it would be 10 X 200 yd, or 20 x 50 yd, or 5 x 500, etc. etc. Everything but the warm up and warm down was done full on. It was pure pain for the sake of being faster. For me, I was into getting better. The carrot is always in front of me and I will chase it forever and never question whether or not that is the right thing. In high school my parents both worked and couldn’t drive me to swim practice during the summer season. I rode my bike instead, first to Allison’s house which was 45 minutes away, and then on to the YMCA in Nashua, NH which was another 45 minutes away. I would then train for 2 hours and often, I mean most of the time, I couldn’t walk my bike up the first hill, never mind ride it. I often threw up, and could never eat after the workouts. I had to hurry back to get to work where I was a life guard and swim instructor on Baboosic Lake which was more than 90 minutes from the YMCA. Work started at 10am. Swim practice was at 6am-8am. I left my house on my bike at 4:30am. Afternoon swim practice was at Baboosic Lake (summer swim team) from 3-4:30pm and then I life guarded until 6pm 4 days/week and until 8pm 2 days/week. What I learned about myself is that I can outwork just about anyone and I liked that idea, especially since my dad had told me that “you can beat 90% of everyone just by outworking them.”

I was a kayaker and my kayaking got me in trouble sometimes as I would be too tired to train well in swimming after a hard weekend of paddling, especially the Sunday night workouts. When I went to the University of Maine I was on the swim team and my volume increased as the coach had the idea that since he didn’t have the money of a big school he needed to work us harder than anyone else. Well he did that and I struggled with engineering in my first semester and then got tendonitis in my shoulders so bad that I couldn’t move my arms. Not understanding how tendonitis works put me out of commission for two weeks. My coach looked at me like a race horse that broke his leg and make little effort to help me work it out and basically said that if I miss any more training I was off the team. I quit, not knowing there was a solution (I know better now, but it was for the better). My swimming career was supposed to take me to the Olympics (according to my goals). I won several NH state championships but it was over in 1983 after 11 years.

The women’s swim coach, Jeff Wren, was also a wildwater kayak racer. He had me training for wildwater before I was over my tendonitis, but it helped not hurt it. Meanwhile, my friend and roommate in college Eric Van Leer and I ran and lifted weights to stay in shape and we did a good job at it. That spring my mother got cancer and died while I was at school. I saw her twice and didn’t realize it wasn’t a little thing that was going to go away. My desire to stay in school was suddenly much less, since I primarily wanted to impress her with my grades. It was a hard time to say the least. I didn’t miss much paddling though and when I wasn’t running the Kenebec for fun I was training in a wildwater boat. I went to my first race on the Mascoma in NH and we had to eddy out while a slalom race was happening. I asked Jeff, “why didn’t you tell me that they had that kind of racing, that is way cooler!”. I decide that I wanted to race slalom on that day. It was the spring of 1983. That summer, Wayne Hockmeyer from Northern Outfitters on the Kenebec bought me a slalom boat and took me to the Androscoggin slalom race in NH. I got second to chris Smith a USA team member and was jazzed. This was fun. Chris McCormick called USA coach Bill Endicott and told him about me (since I beat him and he was 5th in the world championships that year). I found out about Bill, got his phone number and called him to see if he would coach me. I was 19 years old. He had me come down to Wash,DC so he could “scout me”. After getting a ride down with my dad in the fall of 1983, he agreed to coach me. He told me that it would take me 5 years to make the USA team. I didn’t say anything but I intended to do it my first season. I moved down in January of 1984 and went to the University of Maryland while training in DC. It was a rough road at the beginning as Bill wanted to see how many pull-ups I could do and I over did it and got tendonitis in my arms from the sudden 2xday kayak workouts and weights. I struggled with tendonitis from then until 1996 on and off and was known and the Advil man. However, this time I learned what caused it and how to maintain and treat it. I am an expert on tendonitis and eventually learned to out train anyone and still not have it become an issue, if I got it at all.

Well, it took me 5 years to make the USA team. In 1984 I got 16th at the USA Team Trials in NH. In 1985 I got 14th, in 1986 I got 10th, in 1987 I got 8th (I think), in 1988 I arrived at the race but went into the hospital from taking too much Advil on an empty stomach (over several weeks) and was there for 5 days. In 1989 on my 5th year, I started winning USA races and made the team from that year until 1998 (except in 1993). My goal was simply to be the world champion. I was still a normal athlete with goals handed down by coaches and general media about what sports were about. My focus on the end goal kept me from achieving it. I could outwork anyone, and win most workouts, but I was always getting less than desired race results in the biggest races. I had a life plan that was to win the 1992 olympics and then start training full time for golf and become a pro golfer. I was (and still am) under the theory that if I was willing to work hard enough at it I could do that, or any such sport. Well, I didn’t win in 1992 but got 13th and I got home and started training for the 1996 Olympics. Here lies the problem. Instead of planning to have another great 4 years of kayaking fun with the secondary purpose of winning, I was simply planning to win a race that was 4 years away. So what happened? First off I was killing my kayaking fun by not planning enough fun kayak travel and river running. In 1993 I created the “Mega Plan” which was the most aggressive kayak training plan ever attempted, I’m sure of that. It included flatwater sprint, wildwater, slalom, and freestyle training. It included 12 in the boat workouts per week, as well as three weight lifting and 4 running workouts per week. Fast forward to USA Team Trials in 1996 on the Ocoee, I was so focused on winning the Olympics that I failed to make the Olympic Team by one spot. I was the alternate and was on the USA team for the world cup but at that moment I realized that the journey was more important than the destination. I failed to make the I-75 North exit but got on the I-75 South exit in Tn and headed to Disney World. I didn’t win but we were going anyhow. My life changed that day. I was now in search of the best life with my athletics becoming a part of the quality of life, not the reason for living.

Fast forward to today. Now I compete because I love it, because it is a measuring stick that determines if you are in fact at the top of your game, because I like to see if I can be the best, and because there is a lot of motivation that comes from knowing that you are going into battle and you have to be ready. Competing makes me stay in better shape, it makes me fine tune what I already know and keeps me striving to create new and better ways to do things. Competing is as natural for me as breathing. When I compete I am truly alive and my life has clarity. So simple, do your best and that is either good enough to win or it isn’t. Under my new overall logistical plan for training, which is to play harder than the competition on the water and do so in the best kayaking places of the world so that I am ready for anything; I can be the best on the water. I believe by simply not “sacrificing” for your sport you do better at it. There is too much unneeded pressure on yourself when you sacrifice today in hopes of achieving something tomorrow. That sounds like it is the opposite of what we are taught, and it is. I have learned not to sacrifice for my sport, but instead to practice my sport within my goals for my life in general.

I want to win every event, so do many people. I am excited about having Clay Wright, Stephen Wright, and Jay Kincaid trying to beat me. If they do better than me on any given day and win, well, then how cool is that! I got beat by someone who is paddling a Jackson Kayak too and is on my team. That doesn’t detract from the desire to win, however. There are more events than just freestyle events and each one brings its own fun factor:

Extreme Racing: Getting to the bottom of hard rapids in control is fun stuff. Getting to the bottom of a series of hard rapids faster than anyone else is a very sweet challenge. To go fast on hard rapids and win an extreme race requires being on line, controlling the pace as to not blow out and lose it all on one big mistake, etc. Lots of egos are in play in these things, since many of the racers have pigeon holed themselves as creekers and don’t want to be beat by a “playboater”. Of course if you know me, you know that I am no more a playboater than a slalom racer than a river runner, than an instructor, coach, creeker, park and playboater, etc. etc. I prefer to simply be a kayaker that likes to do it all.

Slalom Racing: 12 years of full time slalom racing was enough for me for awhile. 10 years of no training for slalom and very little time in a slalom boat was just right to get me hungry again for some. Since both of my kids are into the idea of training for slalom to some degree, I am back. My goal is to learn my new boat, the Ricochet (awesome!) and combine coaching my own kids with my own training and reinsert myself on the USA Team for slalom in 2007. I forget what happens in 2008… oh yea the Olympics, sweet. I am into the idea of putting a little pride on the line and going head to head against the youth in the sport on that one. Perhaps Emily and Dane will have some fun going for it too.

Boatercross: It is like throwing the dice, but I love the challenge of trying to win something where the odds are so stacked against you that it takes more than just speed and skill, but strategy, and psychology too. I organized the first big boatercross in 1996 at Great Falls on the Potomac (fish ladder). It was so much fun that I was hooked. Since that time you can find some great ones to compete in like Teva Mountain Games, Reno, Great Falls, Gorge Games (for many years, but gone now). Lining up with 3-5 guys who all want to get off the line faster than you and most who have some kind of plan for taking you out because they figure you are faster off the line than them anyhow is exciting. Last year I lost 5 weeks of paddling due to getting the bow of a boat in my back at the bottom of a 20 foot waterfall where I was well on my way to winning the finals before the accident. I am ready for this year though!

At 42 years old it is obvious that I am the older guy in just about any competition. That has never been a challenge for me and I like the attention it brings as if I am handicapped and overcoming it. I believe that you let yourself age according to what you decide is normal. I believe you get slower because you slow down, you get weaker because you stopped pushing yourself as hard, etc. etc. Obviously nobody that I have heard of has live forever so somewhere the body and mind must give out, but I think people do it prematurely by buying into what is normal. Even my dog is often are mistaken for puppy and he is 11. I am not going to keep him home while I go out and exercise.

Being an athlete is the fountain of youth for me, it challenges me to be capable of what is necessary to win, against the young guys. That is enough of a reason to do it forever.

🙂 EJ