By Jake Verhaegh
When I was three years old I stood in a canoe for the very first time and pointed to my parents the direction I wanted to go. Little did I know, fourteen years later I would be pointing my finger towards an even bigger picture: Canoe Slalom Age Group Nationals. I have been paddling for fourteen years — all thanks to my parents. Canoeing — unlike kayaking — involves a single blade with the person kneeling on his or her knees. From the first stroke slicing through liquid to the splash of coolness that calmed me in clarity — I was hooked. Canoeing became a passion, pushing me towards peace with nature. There is a gentle rush you get when on the river — like the rocking of a hammock or the swaying of trees in the breeze that manifests itself into a tingling, powerful sensation that runs rampant through the veins as body and canoe become one — and then the canoeist and nature become indistinguishable from each other altogether. It is this rush of completeness I strive for. It is this excitement I extend my boundaries towards.
I love to camp with my family and friends. I love to not care about time and to be as slow as water on a delta; as calm as a lake without wind. To laugh with people I love — and to feel our energies combine through the passion of paddling. My canoeing takes place on rivers ranging from Washington to New Mexico to Montana. We would go on long road trips to rarely seen destinations in the quiet calmness of the wild. This was achieved by camping in canyons away from civilized life, or driving out to remote routes far from the chaos that is common and into a home of harmony. A place of peace. However, this calmness of canoeing changed when I turned sixteen.
A year ago everything for me became new. I came into contact with a canoeist and kayaker: Sage Donnelly. She introduced me to the adventures of canoe slalom. Canoe slalom consists of a river that has rapids. Two poles — which form a gate — are strung out along the course and the object of canoe slalom is to go through the gates — in both the right direction and the right order — in the fastest, cleanest time possible. From there I competed — a novice — in my first canoe slalom competition: ACA Open Boat Nationals. People, stretching from California to Colorado to New York, conglomerated in Montana for my first official canoe race and I discovered the thrill of competition on the water. I ended the week with two bronze metals and a heart of passion.
Now canoeing is not my hobby — but my dream. It is a part of me as I am a part of it. I am connected to canoeing like my boat and body are connected to nature when I run the rapids of whitewater in the hidden gem of the wild.
I spent two weeks in Colorado after Montana and became a part of Team Colorado, thanks to Nate Lord — who took interest in my skills, and discovered my athletic ability in the sport that gave me joy. I learned new skills and made new friends — and had a totally new cultural experience that marked just the beginning of my travels. I began to compete in California after just two weeks of training by a coach. After Colorado I had no coach, no team that was close to me, and no slalom courses. I became better through hard work and dedication without supervision. No team to motivate me. No coach to instruct me. Just my family, the river, and myself.
Texas was the next big break for me and I met more friends from Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado — learning the uniqueness of each American state and town. With three weeks of coaching under my belt I competed in more competitions — winning more medals. In the summer I went to Salida, Colorado for another week of training and racing — and won my first paycheck as a prize for second place.
Then came my biggest test: USACK Age Group Nationals. With only four weeks of coaching I flew into Wausau, Wisconsin to compete with athletes of my age from all across the country. I felt the excitement. I saw the passion and pride. And at the end of an amazing week I saw myself upon the podium with two third place medals and a glowing heart.
It has been an amazing experience being able to compete and travel in the sport I love. It could not have been done without the support of my family and friends from across the globe. From Spain to New York to Montana to Colorado. With Age Group Nationals gone, and after a break for varsity soccer, I am training harder than ever before, taking two weeks off of school to gain knowledge from a national coach. I drove down to Sacramento on my own, camped on my own, and trained with friends — us bonding through a hobby that has a home in our hearts. My canoeing is my sport and my passion. I learn not only new skills but new cultures and each competition is a rapid for me to overcome and move to the next big thing. The next big thing is US Team Trials. I am hoping to make the Junior US Team in spring. Even if I do not succeed I still enjoy the relaxing, peaceful moments meandering the waters with my family: the headwaters of this wild expedition into the wonderful wilderness of whitewater canoe slalom.