When the Ocoee Whitewater Center was constructed in southeastern
Tennessee in 1995, rocks were hauled in to create man-made rapids
in the Ocoee River, and a portion of U.S. Highway 64 that runs
alongside the river was converted into a parking lot for the
venue. Last weekend Eric Jackson put the rapids and the parking
lot to good use. In addition to being the only kayaker to compete
in both the freestyle and slalom portions of the Ocoee Whitewater
Games, Jackson parked his 33-foot motor home in the lot, where he
set up camp with his wife, two kids and two Dalmatians.
It's a safe bet that Jackson is the only athlete at the top of
his sport who lives in an RV. In 1997, tired of being away from
his family for weeks at a time as he chased whitewater in some of
North America's most remote corners, the peripatetic paddler
persuaded his wife, Kristine, and children, Emily, 11, and Dane,
7, to join him on the road--full time. The RV has 136,000 miles on
the odometer, a good payday is still hard to come by, and
Kristine must home-school the children, but Eric has no regrets.
"Best move we ever made," says the world's most famous whitewater
kayaker. "If you want to kayak all the best places in the U.S.
and Canada, having your house on wheels is perfect. If we lived
in a real house, it would be harder for me to say, 'Let's go to
Oregon.' We'd have to get the kids and dogs in a little truck.
That wouldn't work."
At 37, Jackson says he wants to be known as the world's greatest
all-around kayaker. That explains his decision to compete in the
trials for the U.S. national slalom team, which for the first
time were held in conjunction with the Ocoee Games' annual
freestyle rodeo. Though his bid fell short--he was eighth in the
slalom, which was won by three-time Olympian Scott
Shipley--Jackson loomed as a huge presence all weekend. Not only
did he win the rodeo, but he served as a bridge between the
slalom racers, representing kayaking's old school, and the
freestylers emblematic of the sport's new, younger wave.
Once upon a time, back before Gen Y freestylers started showing
up on the banks of the Ocoee, California's Kern River and
Colorado's Animas River in search of big water, Jackson was, in
addition to being an elite freestyler, one of America's best
slalom kayakers; he was the top U.S. finisher in the slalom in
the 1992 Olympics. For the last five years, however, he has
dedicated himself to rodeo, a hip offshoot of slalom in which
paddlers are dropped into swirling pockets of whitewater, or
"holes," where they execute flips, twists and sundry other
aquabatics during their 45-second runs. Like their surfing and
snowboarding peers, freestylers are judged on the variety and
difficulty of their moves. (Along with rodeos, some freestyle
competitions, including the Ocoee Games, require paddlers to run
through longer stretches of rapids, performing tricks as they
move along what Jackson calls "the liquid conveyor belt.")
May 27, 2001
Because it is an Olympic sport, slalom has a much higher profile
than freestyle. Still, Jackson had his reasons for going full
time on the rodeo circuit, whose competitors are, for the most
part, at least 15 years younger than he. For one, making a living
in slalom was next to impossible. In 1993, while living in
Bethesda, Md., he raised roughly $1,500 a month by going
door-to-door in the area, introducing himself as "your local
Olympic kayaker" and handing out newspaper clips and
self-addressed stamped envelopes. "Anything over 32 cents will
help me out," he told potential donors.
Needing to raise enough money to get to the '93 national team
trials in Colorado, Jackson dressed up in his Olympic uniform and
lugged his kayak down to the corner of Connecticut Avenue and K
Street in Washington, D.C., where he peddled autographed pictures
for cash. "It was very controversial," recalls Jackson, who still
relies on the money he gets from designing kayaks for Wave Sport
to supplement his modest prize money. "The U.S. Olympic Committee
was not impressed. I called it grassroots fund-raising. They
called it panhandling."
His other motivation for the switch was a need for excitement.
"It's easy to get bored with slalom," Jackson says. "I always
considered myself a play boater, and a freestyle competition is
all about who has been playing the hardest. We're doing all this
stuff because it's the coolest, most fun thing on the water."
While slalom and rodeo competitors at the Ocoee Games got along
swimmingly, the cultural divide between the two camps could not
have been more obvious. Typical of the rodeo camp was Nick
Kleminsky, a 17-year-old Alabamian who said that he had tried
slalom once earlier this year, only to return to freestyle
because, he says, "it's much more fun." Like Kleminsky, many
freestylers, especially the younger ones, have known no other
form of kayaking. West Virginia's Jimmy Blakeney, 29, who was the
rodeo runner-up, has never raced competitively. His background is
in skateboarding and snowboarding, the cutting-edge sports whose
attitude freestyle most closely resembles.
Rodeo is in no rush to shed its mind-if-I-crash-here,
make-up-the-rules-as-you-go-along mentality. Free of the rigid
regulations of slalom, which is tightly controlled by the
International Canoe Federation, freestyle shuns official
rankings, and paddlers run their sport as a virtual democracy.
If, for example, a paddler comes up with a new move, it is
introduced and demonstrated to other freestylers, who vote on
whether it should be accepted for use in competition. Jackson has
devised three near-death moves in the past two weeks alone, most
notably Body Shots, in which a kayaker pins his head to a
vertical rock face and does cartwheels with his boat. "You try to
make circular scratches on your helmet," he says.
It's unlikely that rodeo will become an Olympic sport, and
paddlers like Jackson and Blakeney think that's good. "The goal
is definitely not to be in the Olympics," says Jackson. "The
second it becomes an Olympic sport, whatever rules are used for
the Games become the standard, which means the sport stops
progressing, and everything that's good and fun about the sport
of freestyle kayaking comes to a halt."
All that is good and fun about the sport isn't limited to what
goes on in the water. With its stunningly high sandals-to-socks
ratio, the rodeo road show gives you an idea of what it would
have been like if the Grateful Dead had routinely played places
like Ducktown, Turkeytown and Copperhill, three hamlets a stone's
throw from the site of the Ocoee Games. During breaks between
slalom runs last weekend, the mellow sounds of bands like the
Dixie Chicks played over the loudspeakers. Meanwhile, a few
hundred yards up the river, the freestyle competition was taking
place to the accompaniment of some bass-heavy tunes pulsating
with such fervor that one got the uneasy feeling a rave was going
to break out any minute. "They're the Traveling Wilburys of
whitewater sport," says Shipley, the slalom winner, of his
freestyle counterparts. "They caravan around the country doing
cool events in cool places. For slalom athletes it's
different--we're an Olympic sport, we fly places, we rent cars, we
stay in hotels."
As a former rodeo competitor, Shipley knows all about the
differences between the two disciplines. "I once did a rodeo and
a World Cup [slalom] at the same time, in Germany in 1993," he
says. "The World Cup is intense. It's me and five or six of the
planet's best, and everybody's in his own world. Then the next
day before the rodeo, I got in, warmed up, got out, and I swear
to God, I was the only one in the rodeo who didn't smoke a
cigarette before doing the event.
"The satisfaction in slalom is that it's an athletic challenge.
We're out there as many as 14 to 16 times a week, all year, and
our workouts are much more physical. But when I go on vacation, I
do rodeo. To be honest, I enjoy the rodeo world more."
Shipley found plenty to enjoy in the slalom last weekend. The
Ocoee Games were a homecoming of sorts for the 30-year-old
Georgia Tech senior. (He will graduate in August, 12 years after
he enrolled.) As a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, Shipley
spent countless hours paddling on the Ocoee, which was the
kayaking venue for the Atlanta Games. Before those Olympics, his
teammate Joe Jacobi bought a bed-and-breakfast in Copperhill.
Vacant lots were on either side of the inn, so Shipley got a few
trailers and created a mini- Olympic Village where national team
members could stay as they trained. Shipley fondly recalls how
he and his paddling brethren passed much of their free time
listening to Doris and Grace, a couple of longtime townies who
sat in rocking chairs on their front porch, spinning yarns about
the sometimes violent strikes in the nearby copper mines in the
days of yore. "Ever see Popeye?" says Shipley. "They both look
like Olive Oyl. Like 90-year-old Olive Oyls."
Shipley, who also competed in the 2000 Sydney Games, looked very
much like a 30-year-old Popeye on the Ocoee, winning the trials
with ease to earn one of four spots on the national team. As he
came off the river on Saturday following his fourth run, a
flawless effort that effectively clinched the championship,
Shipley walked over to the results board to check his time, his
13-foot-long kayak in tow. Another reason freestylers say their
discipline is superior is that their boats are about half as long
as slalom kayaks and thus easier to carry. But the expression on
Shipley's face indicated that he didn't mind. As Shipley set the
boat down on the river bank, he grinned and said to no one in
particular, "Now that was fun."
Many freestylers, especially the younger ones, have known no
other form of kayaking. Blakeney has never raced competitively.
"The satisfaction in slalom is that it's an athletic challenge,"
says Shipley. "But to be honest, I enjoy the rodeo world more."
With its high sandals-to-socks ratio, the rodeo road show gives
you an idea of what it would've been like if the Dead played