Select Page

October 10, 2008

I wrote this while waiting for Kristine at the hospital yesterday. She is fine…

I am being inducted into the whitewater hall of fame…

In the grand scheme of things, being honored by the International Whitewater Hall of Fame will not change the world, nor will it change me. It won’t bring world peace or prosperity for all. So, it can be said, that it isn’t a big deal at all. Anyone who feels it is not a big deal, would be correct to say so; while also being 100% off base.

My life has not been about positioning myself to win an award, like this; but it has been all about paddling, paddlers, and the paddling industry. It has been mostly about personal growth and my struggle to be the best, while having fun and leaving a brighter world in my path. Like all struggles that you throw yourself 100% into, with lofty goals, I have failed often. My career and my life are interchangeable. While I have a family of my own, and friends, they participate in the kayaking part of my life in every aspect as well. For a poker player, the term to describe my life is that I am “all in” on every hand; playing many hands at one time. This is how I like it, but it took more than 30 years to get to this point.

In 1972 I watched Mark Spitz win 7 Gold medals in swimming in the Munich Games. Little did I know that the John Burton’s, Jamie McEwan’s, the Prijon’s, and Lettman’s of the world were racing their kayaks in the same Olympics. Yet, I was now a whitewater canoe paddler with my dad for the third year and was running rapids in a homemade fiberglass kayak made by Wilford Kling on Pine Creek in Pennsylvania. I decided that I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal that year at age 8. I joined the swim team and got as far as State Champion for New Hampshire at age 17 but the kayaking kept getting in the way. At 17 years old I had already subconsciously made the decision that paddling was more important than the end goal of an Olympic gold medal. I found myself coming back from a hard weekend of paddling, tired, sore, and showing up to swim practice on Sunday nights barely able to complete them. I began to question my resolve as a person. How could I go paddling, just because it was more fun than swimming, knowing that it would get me off track to make the Olympic team?

Settling into a more normal life at age 18 I headed off to college, quitting the swim team because of severe tendonitis in my shoulder and wanting more time to study for engineering at the University of Maine. I improved from a 2.7 GPA, to a 3.0 that semester and was now focused on the goal of getting 4.0 GPAs and getting a good job. I still paddled regularly for fun, and worked out religiously. Jeff Wren, the women’s swim coach, recruited me to work out with him for wild water racing in 1982. I started racing with him for fun, with my first racing being a 2.5 hour marathon called the “Kenduskeg Canoe Race”. I was second to a member of the Canadian wild-water and enjoyed the challenge. I kept the training under control and just paddled when the timing was right for school.

That all changed the next winter when my mother died. Wanting to be the person that my mom and dad wanted me to be was extremely important to me. I was a product of 1950’s Midwest mentality in parenting and me getting a degree in engineering and getting a good job was clearly what my parents wanted. At 44 years old my mother got cancer and died, when I was 18. A huge blow to me, and my father, it really shock things up. At the same time my father provided me with a set of 10 cassette tapes from Denis Whately called the “Psychology of Winning”. Through them and my own resolve, I was about to go from being an 18 year old kid to an adult and set my own path in life. The line in the tapes that was most influential for me was, “Are your prejudices your own, or are they inherited?” I had inherited many things, if not most things from my parents. Most of these things I have decided to keep as I was lucky to have incredible parents, but at least I was beginning to decide who I was for myself. Religion, work, school, paddling, where I live, and life in general became open for discussion and taking a 180 degree turn.

I decided that I was a paddler and I wanted to try to do something great in paddling. I chose the greatest thing I could think of at the time, being a competitor by experience, and that was to be on the USA Team. Dropping out of college made sense to me, as money was too tight, and I had already decided that being an engineer wasn’t my calling, even though I had just completed my junior year.

Making the USA Team was my new obsession and Bill Endicott was my mentor and coach in the process and he told me that it would take me 5 years to do. Being the optimist that I am, I figured I could do it in the first year. Five years later I made the team for the first time. Meanwhile, I had an advantage that I had never had before. That advantage was my wife Kristine who I married 9 months before making the team. Unable to tell the difference between a life and death struggle, or trying to win the workout for the day, I was willing to “sacrifice” anything to make the team and be a world champion. Kristine was the first thing I wasn’t willing to sacrifice to be a world champion. I wasn’t willing to stop training or competing at her request, but then again, she would never ask such a thing of me. That is another story. What Kristine brought to the table for me is the perspective that I am capable of so much more than just winning competitions, and even though I wasn’t winning yet, I shouldn’t treat it as the elusive goal that I am struggling to hit. She helped me begin to live my life with more to show for my life than my win/lose record. I was still 90% focused on the fact that, to date, I was far from my goals of becoming a world champion and the “Who” song “Bargain” described my feelings towards what I was willing to do and how I would feel about it with the line. “To win you, I stand naked, stoned, and sad… I call that a bargain, the best I ever had.” I wanted to be a bigger person, with more impact on the sport I loved but was duking it out in the trenches and had no clear advantage in the arena.

My next big break was when I was in Brazil for a training camp and then, 3 time world champion Richard Fox, my hero, invited me to train with him for 5 weeks along with his wife Miriam. I started off the 5 week camp getting my butt kicked in every workout, but was closing the gap so fast that by week 3 Richard and I were duking it out in many of the workouts and by week 4 I was physically more capable than he, and technically able to beat him on enough occasions that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. When I returned from Brazil, I was on fire and won my first two events; my first wins since I started training full time 5 years earlier. I can do this! My focus was quite narrow in my life, in that I wanted only to be the next world champion, and keep doing that until I was ahead of Richard Fox. This was still my biggest liability. After 6 years of being on the USA Slalom team (except for 1993) I was only going for an end goal and the means was to an end. Meanwhile, my playboating had never stopped and I was drawn to playing, extreme racing, etc. and it was my mistress that I secretly liked better. It just didn’t have the end goal of what was now “Olympic champion” as slalom made it back into the Olympics in 1992, a team that I made and my goals couldn’t have been any better known. It is funny how the world throws a carrot out there for you, waiting to see who bites. I always had a whole carrot in my mouth trying to pull it free. I never realized that chasing the carrot is the game, getting the carrot isn’t the game, not for a few long years.

From 1992-1996 after I failed to win the Olympics in Barcelona, placing 13th, I doubled my efforts to win in Atlanta in 1996. I ran fewer rivers, traveled less for playing, and honed in on a singular goal. Meanwhile I had two kids and lived in a suburb of DC, Brookmont, and was caught up in keeping up with the Jones’ while we had no hope of doing so with my kayak school and sponsors as our income source. When I failed to make the team in 1996, falling short by one place, paddling poorly on day one, and only good enough for second place on day two, I finally started to ask the hard questions. Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? The next year was a lot of soul searching and I finally, with the help of friends and Kristine, came up with the answer to a question I should have asked myself many years earlier. What do I stand for and what does that have me doing?

My answers were:

As a paddler: I am a kayaker that loves all kinds of paddling. I love to race flat-water, slalom, wild water, or class 5. I love to playboat and do rodeos or freestyle. I love to run rivers I have never seen and explore rivers that haven’t been run before. I love to travel as a paddler. And yes, I still love to compete and want to win.

As a person: I want to well for myself, so I can give myself away to others. I want to be honest, sincere, and trustworthy. I want to be the best husband, father, and friend I can be.

Kristine and I talked frequently during distressed times back in the mid 90’s about our future and we finally broke free from traditional constraints that keep people in a neat little box they call “life”. Those constraints were:

A Job

Sending your kids to school

Having a house or apartment to live in

We decided that without those things, we could be the people we really wanted to be and achieve our real goals which reward us daily, while we are moving in a direction that suits us.

Our real goals became: which turned me into a much more productive person; and they are still my goals are:

To be together as a family 100% of the time. No work, no schools.

Live on the road, and the RV became the obvious choice, so I could paddle where I wanted, when I want, instead of being tied to the same river all year.

Paddle for fun, while still competing to win. The end goal became secondary to the process. Today’s paddling had to be what I wanted to do, before I asked whether it would help me win or not. In most cases, they went hand in hand perfectly.

Make 100% of my money through paddling, without sacrificing my paddling to make that money. Teaching clinics, sponsors, prize money, designing boats with David, etc., being a sales rep on my own schedule, etc. all became enough drops in the bucket to float our boat. (this has clearly evolved to include designing boats with David, and having a kayak company)

It was November of 1997 when we moved into the RV. It was that month that my marriage, my parenting, my career, and my life all took a major turn for the better. I was finally my own man, doing what I truly dreamed of doing, without the world painting my life’s picture for me. We designed just about every aspect of our lives and they were all working, because we were having fun doing it and we had a life purpose that could be measured daily. Since then I have won three more world championships, a world cup, two pre-world championships, 6 Gorge Games medals for extreme racing, numerous Great Falls Races, countless freestyle competitions in the USA and abroad. My kids have grown to become some of the most impressive individuals I have ever met at any age. My wife has become one of the strongest, smartest, and most knowledgeable people in the paddling sport and has become my partner in every aspect of my life. We have become incredibly happy together.

I decided it was time to make my own kayak company as the one I was working with was constantly attempting to redirect my priorities and no longer stood for the things that I believed in. David Knight, Dave Olson, and Tony Lunt (and, of course, Kristine) were all there with me and believed in going “all in” with me on this next hand I was about to play. In three short seasons we became the number one selling whitewater brand in the world and have grown tremendously in the past two. Nothing is as good or bad as it seems at the moment, from the inside or outside, I have been known to say. While we are winning in the market-place, we struggle internally to create the same kind of success as a business. Each year we are progressing and this will be our best year yet, but we still have a far to go. My life has been an individual sport with me as the captain and star performer in my athletics for so long that I hadn’t any real team experience. Now I am on a bigger team, and am learning how to lead some of the most capable men and women the industry has ever seen. I am the student much of the time, and the moment we are in with Jackson Kayak at the moment, is one of rebirth. We have ended our time with EJ holding on too tight to what others’ are more capable of managing, and me letting myself run free in the areas I want to do, and am the best equipped to do. I was running the risk of boxing myself into a corner, one that many business owners do, and that was to become slave to the business, instead of master of it. I can thank my partner Tony Lunt, and right hand man Dave Olson for teaching me this, as well as Kristine for putting it in terms I can understand. The many great business leaders and authors are also my new teachers on becoming the person I want to be as the company president. The results are that I am leading a team, but not alone, as Tony Lunt and Dave Olson are leading along side of me, taking the lead where it is appropriate. For the first time in my history I am part of a high performance team in business. Team JK, my peers, and those who I have taken under my wing, who are now the best and most successful paddlers in the sport, are also the people that I keep the closest to me, because they assure I never get behind. Whether it is my kids or the rest of the team, they are high performance paddlers, who have hearts of gold and give back more than you can imagine to everyone they meet. They are expedition leaders or paddlers whom you trust your life with or competitors that win just about every major event they compete in, while they are as humble and approachable as anyone could possibly be. What a great life’s lesson for me to learn, teamwork. If you asked anyone if I was a good team player in 1999, the answer would be no way. You don’t truly get far in life on your own. Sharing success is as important as success is in of itself. Today I am learning more than I have in a long time.

The Legacy that I hope I am creating is not just my personal athletic achievements. I want to leave the paddling world better for everyone. I try to make my paddling an inspiration to others. Now that I am 44 years old, I can inspire those who see so many of their peers become physically diminished at the same age. I hope to motivate them to get out there and be active and achieve new goals; to become better today than ever before. I hope that by living my life with no compromises, staying true to what is important to me (wife, kids, paddling, business) in that order, and having outward trimmings of success for people to touch and see (kayaks with the Jackson name on it, competition wins, successful kids, and a happy successful wife by my side) that you truly can have it all. A dream is something that is something that is very personal and a cookie cutter dream is impossible to live your entire life by and be happy. It took me many years and false starts to realize that I haven’t created my own dream yet. I had goals that I called dreams (making the Olympic team, being a world champion, etc., having my kayak company become number one) but they weren’t worthy “dreams” as they were the obvious but not deep enough. My dream became to live well for myself, so I could give myself away to others. I am not financially able to help others to the level that so many other people are, so strengthening my financial position will ultimately help me live this dream as long as I stay true to it and never become greedy. My ability to compete and win is something I am able to teach to others successfully and I gain so much more happiness and am rewarded by helping others with my success there. I don’t lose on purpose, of course, I just create my strongest competitors myself. I give them every advantage I can to win, and hold nothing back, and then go head to head with them week after week, winning lots, but losing plenty too. I could win so much more by putting roadblocks in their way, but how would that make me a better or happier person? We have contributed many tens of thousands of dollars to American Whitewater and are now focusing a ton of time and money on World Kayak, where we are creating all kinds of new paddling opportunities for anyone who wants to show up. In 2008, alone, we created 63 new whitewater events to compete in with over $120,000 in prizes, and the events were free to the public. We will double that in 2009. Am I bragging? Hell yea I am, but it isn’t me I want to brag about. I get all jazzed up just thinking about that. Thank to James McBeath and Colin Kemp and our volunteer ambassadors who share my vision of a brighter paddling world year after year, we are achieving these goals. That I am in the position to initiate these things, is a testimony to the team around me. It shows that the opportunity is there for not just me, but for everyone who wants to live well for themselves so they can give themselves away to others. Is their opportunity as good as mine? Of course, but we are all somewhere on our path. However, it we are concerned about where on the path we are, instead of just being on the right path, we will not enjoy the path for what it is. Don’t focus on the fact that another point on the path might have greener grass, wrecking the journey from here to there. Are you on the path or not? Yes, then walk it happily knowing you are where you want to be. No? Then find the right path and walk it, but don’t stand on the wrong path and bitch about lack of opportunity. The path you are on is the only opportunity. How much money can a 20 year old EJ make being a full time slalom racer and a college drop out? Who cares, it is the path that I chose and while I have made numerous detours without knowing it, I have returned to the path and have been walking it for 25 years. Am I staying on the path because I have what others would now consider success? No chance, I am staying on the path because it is the path I feel I can contribute the most to the world on. I feel I can live well for myself so I can give myself away to others. I don’t have to be financially rich to enrich the lives of others. I can be a good husband, good father, good paddler, and good businessman walking down a path that started as a barely discernable trail in 1983 when my mother died and I decided I wanted to move to Maryland to become a paddler first, instead of an engineer. Unaware of the path I was creating, or where it was leading worked out for me only because I eventually stopped running long enough to get to the real important questions in my life, beyond wanting to be the world champion and wanting to be a millionaire. Even wanting to be happy is a bogus excuse for a dream or goal. Finding what is important in your life and never compromising those things and designing even the most fledgling idea of how to make taking care of those priorities a life direction is the first step to true happiness. When what you think, how you feel, and how you act are congruent, you are walking the path.

This brings me back to what I think about being inducted in the International Whitewater Hall of Fame.

It means the world to me.

Not because of the award itself. Not because the board decided to vote for me as an honored member, for my athletic achievements. It means the world to me, that I am still walking this path, cutting it slowly away, maintaining the lead much of the time, but having others in front of me cutting for me from time to time as well. It gives a stronger meaning to those with me on this path moving forward, knowing that the world is watching them too. Yes, there is a downside, too. If the award becomes the goal, instead of the journey, it will have distracted an otherwise happy person off the real purpose in their life. I am glad this award was a surprise to me and I don’t have to think about whether or not I will ever win it. I don’t need any distractions like that with so many others trying to pull me onto the super highway only a few hundred yards from my wooded, brushy, but beautiful path. May everyone find their path, and if it leads to an award such as this, I congratulate you, as you deserve it. Those of you who are being honored, at my side at this induction ceremony, congratulations, you have walked your own path for a long time, and your being honored is long overdue. Especially for my mentor, Bill Endicott, that told me in 1989, that a winner enjoys the whole process of what they are doing, not just the end product. You can see why Bill is being honored with this induction. He is incredible!

Thank you for this honor,