Monday, July 26, 2010

A Paddler's Recipe

Traveling in Europe I had the opportunity to watch many different people from all over the world paddle, live, travel, and eat.  One of the most interesting things that I have found is that a person’s paddling style is usually reflected in their cooking inspirations.  This does not mean that if a person is an amazing cook that they will be an amazing racer.  But rather that the process of cooking and eating can be strikingly similar to the training and racing process.

While everyone has their own style and personality that comes out in cooking as in paddling there are many different ways to reach the end goal of edible food and the finish line.  For some the answer is to get there as fast as possible because they are driven by the need for immediate gratification and hunger.  From personal experience, I grab the first thing in the pantry that either does not require cooking or can be quickly heated in the microwave.  I will admit that while I am no longer hungry, there was little creativity involved in the process and I probably did not eat healthy food.  In that same vein, when I am in that mode on the water getting from gate to gate on the shortest line possible is my focus, however like with food, not necessarily the best option. 

Mom and I enjoying amazing ice cream at Gerbeaud while exploring Budapest: the quintessential immediate gratification!

On the opposite end of the spectrum is cooking organically to create a fresh and unique meal.  For me this process normally involves a pile of random fresh ingredients that get combined in different ways.  I began to discover this process while in France living and cooking with Nic Borst and Caroline Queen.  On the water this style of paddling seems to manifest itself in athletes reading the water and using its natural properties to do most of the work.  This creativity has a caveat as well.  While the product is never what you originally expect, half the time it is horrible and a quarter of the time it is inedible and takes forever to create.

I spent a lot of time in France learning how to cook and worrying that my roommates wouldn’t be able to eat the food that eventually came out of the pan.  What I learned is that there is a healthy and productive medium between the two styles.  Hungry people and racers want the best results in the fastest time, but know that truly good things take time and patience.  While coaching in France I spent less time worrying about the stopwatch and focused on how the athletes were solving the gate combinations we gave them.  The fastest line was always the one that used the natural qualities of the water while keeping as close to the straight line as possible.  For me this realization means that my love of playing and learning by playing will continue for a long time to come.  But I will be looking at the water that I race on very differently.

Stop and smell the roses.  Or cook yourself a good dinner every once in a while.  I promise you will love it!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Found Respect

I have paddled almost every day for the past two years.  Last Thursday was the first time I got back in my boat after my two-month trip to Europe.  Holy Shnikes!  That about sums up the reaction of my nervous system and muscles.

While I was in Europe I knew that I would come home out of shape.  What I did not plan on happening, especially after spending the entire time coaching others and learning so much through watching, was to come back and be so shaky.  I felt like I was learning to paddle all over again!  I was stern happy and catching edges all over the place.  I could not control my angles for the life of me.  And my new paddle– now a long straight shaft instead of the previous short bent shaft – threw me for the biggest loop.

While relearning to paddle is a daunting task, there is a bright side.  After being out of the boat so long my paddling is purely instinctual.  It has given me a chance to go back to my personal habits and reevaluate what I need to focus on and make new habits of. 

I have also found a new respect for the other paddlers that I train with.  What we do is hard.  It is hard fitness wise.  My muscles are screaming at me.  It is hard technically.  I can’t seem to control my boat right now.  It is hard mentally.  Realizing how much I have to work on and doing it from what feels like the very beginning is daunting. 

While my new found respect is showing me how hard my goals really are to achieve and my old habits are showing their true colors I am excited to step up to the challenge.  This should be an interesting end to summer training.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Trip of a Lifetime

Sitting on the floor of the Prague Airport waiting to check in to my flight, I realize my trip is coming to a close.  In less than 17 hours I will be back in the United States; in less than 24 hours I will be back in Charlotte, NC.

Eight Weeks.  Ten Countries: Andorra, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Serbia, Spain, Turkey.  Countless cities and adventures.  Family.  Best friends and new friends.  It started out as a return to family heritage and ended as a paddling extravaganza.  When my dad planned this trip over a year ago, he referred to it as “The Trip of a Lifetime.”  He was more right than he will ever know! 
I have never been on a trip quite like this and I don’t know that I ever will again.

The thought of going home is comically surreal after two months.  Not that I wont get home, see my bed, and thank goodness that I finally made it right before collapsing for a long nap, but rather that it feels like just another temporary stop on this crazy trip.  Forgive me in advance for philosophizing, but I believe life, like this trip, is a series of momentary stops.  Staying in one place too long is not good.  And getting lost is a distinct possibility.

Thank you Dad for the Trip of a Lifetime!

2010 Junior World Championships Foix, France

Sitting in the back of Toby, the little red Skoda Fabia car that I rented about a month ago, I realize that the four-day affair that was the 2010 Junior World Championships is over.  Hailey, Jean, and I are making our last cross European drive from Foix, France back to Prague, Czech Republic to catch flights home tomorrow morning.

Every single US athlete raced their heart out and made us proud this weekend.  Hailey Thompson stood on the podium at the end of the weekend finishing in third place.  This marks the first time that a US C1 woman has ever been on the podium at a fully contested international event.  Michal Smolen, in control of his race all weekend, finished fourth in the men’s kayak division.  Peter Lutter and Simon Ranagan finished 41st and 51st places respectively in the men’s kayak as well.  In the men’s C1 class, Tyler Hinton finished 12th, Zach Lokken finished 30th, and Liam Malakoff finished 35th.  Caroline Queen finished 26th in the women’s K1.  All of our athletes defied expectations!

Watching all of the kids from around the world race this weekend was a privilege and an honor.  While we may not have won the most medals, I am proud to say that I was a part of Team USA.  That group of athletes, coaches, parents, and support was one of the best groups I have ever been a part of. 

Not only are all of our kids great athletes, but wonderful people.  For two weeks I got to watch these kids grow and learn.  All of them had been abroad before, but for many this was their first international paddling experience.  I got to watch them make friends both with each other and with kids from other countries.  They learned what it is like to paddle with 40 boats on the water each training session.  And they learned how to be independent and responsible.

It is for all of these kids, their love for kayaking, and the experiences they can have through it that we as a community support them.

Congrats Team USA on an amazing trip and successful race!

P.S. I wrote this yesterday while I was actually in the car, but couldn’t find internet to post it.  Sorry for being a day late.

Michal Smolen, Liam Malakoff, Hailey Thompson, Peter Lutter, Caroline Queen, Bug Lokken, Simon Ranagan (Not Pictured: Tyler Hinton)                    

Friday, July 9, 2010

Watching to Learn

As of approximately 4:22 this afternoon I had watched 294 slalom race runs.  Today is the second day of the Slalom Junior World Championships in Foix, France.  I watched the men’s and women’s canoes and men’s kayaks race to advance to the semi finals on Sunday morning.  Yesterday was the qualification runs for the men’s double canoes and women’s kayaks.  Coaching this weekend alone, I estimate that I will watch a grand total of 680 individual race runs.  In addition to the Saturday team runs, race runs from the first and second Slalom World Cups, and all practice time from the last four weeks of racing.  Whether you count number of runs or minutes that is a lot of watching.

Looking around at the coaches here you see a handful of successful former racers, fewer Olympians, and even fewer World Champions.  If that is the case, how can these other people (including myself), who have never been counted amongst the greats, coach and develop our next generation of amazing racers?  They watch.  Not the mesmerized watching enthralled by the magic of grace and strength, but the harsh analytical watching of a critic looking for the slightest difference.

Active watching.  The process normally begins with the basics and steadily advances to minute details.  It includes analyzing individuals, but more importantly making comparisons between two racers or even the same racer on different occasions.  The key is to notice the differences and decide which is faster.  The most important step, in my opinion, is to take what you have learned and compare it to your own performance.  This part requires completely honest self-evaluation.  Asking questions is a great way to enhance anything and everything discovered.

I am learning that active watching is one of the best, not to mention fastest ways, to improve performance.  There is no prerequisite of greatness as an athlete to be a great coach.  The only skill required is that of active watching and a willingness to learn.  While coaches are credited with an eye for analysis, athletes themselves should be regularly focused on active watching and include it as a part of their training.  It is important to realize that the learning gained through watching is an organic process that is unique for each individual.  There is no right or wrong and no defined sequence.  Everything is open to interpretation as it applies to each athlete and the skills that they lack and own.

While I cannot quantify all that I have learned on this trip from merely watching the best in the world and those up and coming racers vying to take their places, I know that it has to do with: lift, free speed, gravity, patience, hip tension, bouncing, pulling like there is no tomorrow, smoothing out edges, paddling in a box, single stroke ups, cadence, flexibility, being gymnastic, releasing edges, eyes, fall lines, noise, neuro pathways, and so many more intangibles that I am sure I will focus on many of them through fall and winter training as I experiment with them.  While I have not been able to regularly paddle since coming to Europe I am extremely excited to try my new tricks the moment I get home!


Monkey see as Monkey do: Nic and Bug playing in the rain at Camping du Lac, Foix, France 2010

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Learning to Coach

I have spent the past two years of my life focusing on learning to paddle and race a slalom boat.  I have met a great many number of paddlers and proceeded to wrack their brains about how to do moves faster, smoother, better than the next.  I have also met coaches who I have mined for information about everything from racing schedules to nutrition to training plans and beyond.  However this past week I have started to discover a new phase of my life: Coaching.

Starting this past Monday I arrived in Foix, France with the US Junior National Slalom Team for the 2010 Junior World Championships.  I came with the intent of supporting the team and learning more about improving my own paddling by watching and interacting with others.  What is actually happening is that I am being called on by both the other coaches and the athletes to serve as another coach.  The first day that this happened the athletes were doing a thirds workout down the course and each coach was given a section to watch and provide feedback.  Meaning: I got my own section!  While that may not seem like a daunting task seeing as I have devoted a fairly large portion of my time to being one of the athletes, it is.  It requires me to focus on each run and analyze to most minute detail in a split second.  In addition to my own analysis of what the athlete has just done, I must understand the water and what is happening independent of the boat on the water.  Then I must put them together and analyze the relationship between the two.

The technical aspect of coaching was only my first great fear.  The second great fear, and possibly more important, is that in terms of ability I am more of a peer to many of these junior athletes than anything else.  While I have developed relationships with them as a mentor, friend, and occasional training partner, earning the respect of a high level athlete and providing constructive criticism is completely different.  As an athlete myself I look for people that I believe have the most experience, communicate in a fashion that I relate with, and understand me as a person and an athlete.  There is a respect involved in a coach athlete relationship that is unique to anything I have ever encountered before.  Here I was asked to not only develop and gain that respect from the athletes, but to have it immediately. 

Gaining the respect of the athletes has been the easier problem to tackle thus far.  Although I feel that this always an ever evolving situation, for myself it has proven more manageable this trip.  I am coaching an awesome group of kids between sixteen and eighteen that I first met several years ago.  I know them extremely well.  This makes my transition from athlete to coach much easier.  Instead of calling athletes over and telling them to fix a stroke or a line, my tact has been to generate a thought process. I ask them what they think of a certain move.  Then I ask them to look at the water with me and analyze it.  Lastly we consider their strategy to come up with best solution to the problem.  In essence, I am having a conversation with them, almost athlete to athlete, about the best way to solve the gate sequence.  This not only takes some of the pressure off of me to solve the entire problem by myself, but forces all of us to actively think of appropriate solutions. 

Thus far I believe that my thought generation method of coaching is working well.  I do not presume to tell the athletes what to do, and they respect that.  But I do take time to look at the problem and help them break it down from a different perspective, which they again respect.  Hopefully, with a little more experience, some more knowledge, and a little confidence this can evolve into my own real coaching style.

Learning the more technical aspects of coaching is far more difficult than creating relationships with my athletes. Slalom is an experienced based sport.  When you look at top racers, you realize that they are late twenties to early thirties athletes who all started racing at the age of ten.  Many things are naturally learned through touch and feel, however there is a different side that must be learned through pure analysis.  This is the part I struggle with the most.  Having spent the last two weeks in Europe helping the US National Slalom Team compete at the first and second World Cups I have watched numerous athletes.  I have learned a lot by analyzing and comparing, but as one of my best friends Erik Amason once told me, “You do not know, what you do not know.”  He meant that at a certain point you exhaust the obvious basic knowledge and need the help of someone more experienced to share their wisdom. I reached that point earlier this week.  I realized that I was telling athletes repeatedly to push farther into eddies, drive harder, stay in the center of the gates, and all of the basic things that you learn as an early racer.  What I was craving, and still am, is a more analytical, deeper look into how to analyze the water, athlete, and then the combination of the two. 

My solution was to sit next to another one of our coaches, Nic Borst, during a free session.  We gave the athletes the afternoon to explore the water wherever they wanted.  Nic sat down and I followed him to the water side where I listened to him tell athletes different things about the water and particular moves.   As the athletes flowed down the course I began to ask him about each one.  Why does athlete A do this?  Why don’t they do this?  Why are some smooth and others bouncy?  What’s the different between being a bow or stern paddler?  Where can athlete B gain speed? And so on until I ran out of questions and just asked him to tell me everything he knew.  At which point he looked at me confused and said that wasn’t possible because there was just too much. I needed to ask a pointed question to get an appropriate answer.  I respect that.  What I have decided to do is continue in my quest for knowledge.  Ask questions whenever possible and generate conversation.  I believe that is the only way that I am going to become a better athlete and coach. 

What I have really learned from all of this however is to respect my coaches!  Their job is much harder than I ever gave them credit for.  Period.

There is a wealth of knowledge out there that is mostly untapped.  For any of us to be better racers and coaches we must learn to ask the right questions and take advantage of it.  We must also work to pass it on to the next generation if we want to see this sport, or even just the finer points of paddling, survive.  I sincerely want to be a part of that knowledge transfer.  I want to turn everything I have learned into helping me become a better racer, but also one day, maybe sooner rather than later, be the one standing on the bank with a video camera and stop watch creating endless problems for my athletes to solve.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


This blog has been a long time overdue.  I have been thinking about creating one since the first day that I started training and traveling to race kayaks back in 2008.  What actually got me in gear was coming to Europe for the summer this year and realizing how hard it is to keep in touch with everyone back home.  Hi Mom!  Hi Dad!  Hi Nishi, Ashley, Otso, Jessica, Monica, Makeda, Val and everyone else!

My goals are: for everyone to join me in my adventures, share the love of kayaking that I have found, realize what the life of a training athlete is like, and to give back - whether it be to guide those coming behind me, teach someone totally new to kayak, or just allow people to fall in love with a crazy idea and adventure.

Before I start writing on a regular basis I feel that I should catch everyone up on where I have been and what I am currently doing.  In 2006 I was dared by the infamous Erik Amason to learn to kayak.  Having grown tired of throwing me down waterfalls in a plastic boat he challenged me to learn to race slalom kayaks.  I took the challenge and fell immediately in love.  I started racing in 2008 and it has been love and war ever since.

Currently, I have been in Europe for over a month.  I started out traveling with my family on the legitimate trip of a life time.  We started in Dubrovnik, Croatia and traveled through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Holy Athos (the boys - only men are allowed on the island), Budapest and Istanbul (the girls - we wanted to play while the boys were being entertained by monks).

I then flew to Prague, Czech Republic to rendezvous with the US National Slalom Team where World Cup number one was held at the Troja Slalom Course.  The Slalom World Cup is a series of races held throughout the world that qualified countries may enter their top boats in. The grand finale is called the World Championships and is held in the early fall.  This year it will be in Tacen, Slovenia.  Basically, it is the best of the best racers from around the world gathering to find out who is actually the fastest.

I then grabbed a car with Hailey and Jean Thompson and drove cross continent to La Seu d'Urgell, Spain for the second world cup at the Parc Olimpic del Segre.  This was the most beautiful drive I believe I have ever seen.  We drove across Germany and stopped at the famous Irish Roman baths in Baden Baden, Germany.  We then continued through France where we decided to drive the national non-toll roads instead of the major highways.  I have never seen such beautifully peaceful country side in my entire life.  Or wanted to vomit so much from sitting in the back seat of a tiny European car loaded down with paddling gear and suitcases on crazy windy roads through the mountains.

We even made a point of driving through Andorra and stopping to get groceries.  This grocery store was bigger and better than any Walmart or Target I have ever seen.  It was so big it had escalators for the baskets!

Hailey, Jean, Michael Thompson(who joined us in Seu), and I then drove across the Pyrennees to Foix, France where we met up with the US Junior National Slalom Team.  The bi-annual Junior World Championships will be held here next weekend and I am helping to coach our amazing athletes.  Junior World Championships, like the Senior World Championships, is the best athletes 18 and under from across the world racing to see who is the fastest.  We have a group of eight awesome kids that are at the top of their game that are ready to race it out, just like the senior team, to find out which of the juniors is the best in the world.

So there, you have it.  I am exploring Foix, France with some of the neatest teenagers I have ever met.  While I wish I was on the water myself, coaching them from the side is just as rewarding.

Oh!  And today is Canada Day!  We are going to celebrate by cooking and hanging out with the Canadian Junior National Slalom Team...should be a blast!