August 29, 2017

More than Metal: the rewards of Sprint Canoe & Kayak

I've just come back from the Canadian Canoe Association National Sprint Championships (CCAs), and the Canadian Masters Championships (CANMAS). In the case of the former, CCAs is a "thing" I've done before—first, as a teen, decades ago, and then again last year for the first time as an adult. In the case of the latter, I have now experienced CANMAS twice, being "of age" to do so. 


Recap video at bottom, if you want to watch rather than read.





Last year, I raved on this blog about taking home a single medal, and what that meant to me. It sparked something in me at the time, and that feeling lasted all year. It was more than enough to keep me motivated for an entire year--a year that was filled with broken ribs, ruined backs, missed regattas, cancelled regattas, disappointing para news (for a future post, OK?) ... the list goes on.


I could have said "let's skip it this year."





Instead, more sparks. It isn't just medals that make me love this sport.



I brought home gold and bronze CCA medals, and one gold and two bronze CANMAS awards this year, results beyond my wildest expectations, but I have taken joy from this years' event from more than just great results. I tried to live the event through the eyes of a few of the people I stayed at nationals, and have trained  and raced with this year.





Andrew is a 35 year-old kayaker. He and his family moved from Indonesia back in 2000. He's been a dragon boater, and through that sport, has seen many corners of the world. But until the CCAs and CANMAS gave him a reason to do so, in his 17 years in Canada, he'd never been east of the Rockies. So, sprint canoe & kayak has helped open up our nation to him. 


Andrew is my K2 partner this year. Together, as masters category paddlers racing against 20-year-old Juniors at CCAs, we experienced what it was like to get absolutely obliterated in the standings, yet feel full of pride for pushing hard and having the most solid races that we could. The CCAs were a spectacle beyond Andrew's expectations: having only done local B.C. racing circuit regattas for a few years now, he's never been to a competition that is 1,000 + competitors strong; never seen the sea of canoes and kayaks and the throngs of spectators crowding the finish line to watch The storied John W. Black race, or see the senior K4s blow through a 200 metre, or watch as nine C15 boats gasp for air as they heave across the finish line. 






During his week, Andrew took all that in for the first time. He also spent much of his time finding old and new national team members and Olympians to talk to, take pictures with, and feel inspiration from their stories and advice. Andrew's enthusiasm for the whole experience was infectious, and reminded me of why I loved coming to CCA's past and present. 


Thanks for that, Andrew.








Ydris is a 16-year-old canoer. He's new to the sport of flatwater sprint in the last few years. I first met him several years ago on the beach at Whonnock Lake in Maple Ridge on a regatta weekend; one of his first-ever competitions. He stood looking at every single boat on the water and commenting "OH! He's so fast!" Or "Look at how fast she is!"… or even looking at me, just standing there, exclaiming "duuuude you look so faaaast!" 
 
This year, Ydris is the fast one.

He picked up a medal in one of his races at CCAs this year; in his first-ever outing to a national championship, and made finals in four other races. Earlier in the summer, I was training with these kids down on False Creek in Vancouver. We were working on starts and short sprints that day. I remember going home after practice that evening, and telling my wife "Man, we have a canoer who is just blowing me away. He's taking all of us off the start line; canoes and kayaks alike." 






It was Ydris.





The same kid who spent that regatta in Ridge a few years ago marveling at "how fast" everyone seemed to be is now the guy at whom others marvel. What's more, based on his results at CCAs, he earned a spot on the Canadian 'Olympic Hopes' team travelling later this Fall to the Czech Republic, to test his mettle against some of the world's finest young paddlers.




In three years, he's gone from a wide-eyed bean pole to a determined, strong, passionate paddler. This is what canoe kayak can do, and has done, for many.  Thanks for the reminders, Ydris, of those days I was a wide-eyed bean pole, marvelling at all the speedy boats.




Anna is a 17-year-old Canoer. Since I first met Anna when she was a 14-year-old, she has impressed me. She was engaging from the start. Rather than staring at a cell phone in between races or chatting exclusively with paddlers her age, she approached kids and adults alike. Actually talked to us. Asked questions about who we are and what we do in this world. Actually got to know the people around her. Of all the kids on our team, she probably knows more about others than others do about her. She maintains a subdued energy, but a determination within it. She identifies as an introvert and is clearly not into crowd scenes, but one-on-one, you will find a charming, intelligent friend in Anna.



Last year was her first year at CCAs. She took her quiet, focused energy to the start line and boasted an impressive 7th place finish in her 6000 metre C1 race—she came back to CCAs this year to better that position by pulling in 6th place. This is no mean feat when you consider the hundreds of kids across the country who wanted to qualify for this race, and the 30 kids actually fast enough to be able to mass together on the start line at CCAs. To say that you are 6th in Canada in a 6000 metre event is nothing short of amazing.  To boot, she made two other finals in her singles races--she is a force!


Anna isn't sure where she will be in a year; she's entering grade 12, and as a high school senior, she has some decisions to make in the coming year about where she wants to do post-secondary, and how much paddling can or will play into that plan.






The future aside, here's what I know: Anna is a young woman who paves—and pays—her own way. You don't do that if you don't feel like this sport isn't in some way a part of you—it is expensive at times, and most definitely time consuming. I feel like I was in similar shoes when I was a teen (minus the introversion and quiet!).




Whatever choices I made then, I'm here, 27 years after I first picked up a paddle, still seeking that connection with water, with a boat, and with other people who want the same.  Thanks, Anna, for reminding me a little bit that where there's a will, there's a way.




The only real common thread between these three brief profiles: these people, "young" and "old", are all teammates of mine. Some people look at me funny when I tell them that most of my teammates are half my age, or younger. Whether you're a 16-year-old Ydris, a 35-year-old Andrew, a 17-year-old Anna or a 37-year-old partial amputee... there's an annual event (if you qualify!) where a thousand of us get together and remind one another that, no matter our core motivation, our age, our gender, sexual orientation, race or religion (and the list goes on), that this is an awesome sport full of amazing people, and it's worth hanging on to, for reasons that go far, far beyond those little pieces of metal. The CanoeKayak Canada motto is Per aqua ad fraternitatem (through the waters to friendship). 




How absolutely true it has been for me.




I said in my post-CCA blog last year that sprint canoe/kayak has always been one of my churches. This remains, in the denouement of another championships come and gone, as true today as ever, and I'll continue to pray at the pew of the paddle that, as I age, even if I don't have the chance to go to something like the CCA's every year (which, as life dictates, I most certainly will not), that I will continue to keep my eyes open to the new possibilities of motivation, like those that I found this year through the experiences of my teammates, young and old.




Thanks, friends (those named here, and many others), for your inspirations.
Much appreciated.
I'll see you on the water. 


Click this link for a full screen, https://youtu.be/T2wPO_4Dw90
or the thumb below, for a recap video! more photos below!













July 28, 2017

20 years later: a reflection of the Canada Summer Games experience.

Today, the 50th anniversary of the Canada Summer Games kicks off in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, as 20 years ago, at around the same time, I was prepping to go to the Canada Games as part of the BC Sprint Canoe & Kayak team. That year, the games were being held in Brandon, Manitoba.

The event stands out as one of the worst sporting events of my entire life. But maybe one of the best. We don't get to the 'best' before giving the context of the 'worst', first, so my apologies: it’s a long story.

Building to a games takes years. It doesn't happen overnight. Imagine my dismay, then, when a week before the games, my paddle was stolen from an airport, where I left it unattended in its travel case for a moment. Stupid, and costly. To lose your paddle is not insignificant. It’s not an off-the-rack item that you can just go out and buy a replacement for. With only a week left until the Games, there was no hope of getting a proper replacement. I was doomed to paddle at the Canada Games—the biggest competition of my life at that point—with a paddle that was too short for me, with a blade twist angle that I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.

Team BC Canoe & Kayak, gathered on an early morning,
waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the race course. 
Arriving at the games, there was another external pressure that was unnecessarily being put on my team boat partner and I. A coach, not associated with the games in an official capacity and who shall remain nameless, was relentlessly harassing us about some equipment related to a boat that we ultimately had nothing to do with. Maybe if I was a mentally more focused athlete at the time, I could have tuned out that noise. I let it bother me, and it didn’t help me prepare for my races. Our dorms didn’t help with focus, either. The basketball team staying directly above us bounced their balls on the room floors (our ceiling) hours into the night, where we were up at 5 am to get to our race course. Earplugs didn’t help, as you could feel the vibration. Pounding on the ceiling, even going up to their rooms during the day to beg for reprieve didn’t help. It was just another tiresome distraction we didn’t need.

I was not fast enough to be racing in singles at the Games, but I was part of a good four person kayak and two person crew (K4 and K2 respectively, for the uninitiated), and looking forward to my allotted races. Never mind that damned short paddle I was using, in our K4 races, things went badly for one of our crewmates. His shoulder went out during the sprint. He showed grit in finishing that race, but his shoulder was done. He would have to withdraw from his other race: The 6 km k2 race that he and I were to do together. We’d been a duo together for years, and this was going to be our biggest race together, ever. He was devastated, I was devastated.

An alternate from our team was chosen to pair up with me. The disadvantage, however, was that we were unfamiliar with one another as a fluid crew, having done way less training together. But, we did what we were supposed to do. On race day, we checked the equipment, went over our race plan, did our pre-race prep, and headed out on the water.

It was a windy day. Like, really. windy. All racers were having trouble staying on the start line as whitecaps pounded the boats. We frankly didn’t think we had any chance of medaling at any rate, as there were strong crews from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario (some kid named Adam van Koeverden was in the Ontario boat). 

So we just went out to do the best we could. The race began. and just like that, misfortune hit once more, inside our boat. The rudder cable snapped. We were barely into a 6000 metre long race, and we had no steering. On a calm day, that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing, but on a day with gale force winds, it pretty much spelled the end. Or could have. I was in the back of the boat, and didn’t realize what was happening when we first started to go off course, but my crew mate, with the rudder stick in his control, quickly explained the situation. We did a full stop to correct our course and see if we could do some sort of repair. Crews were passing us. we needed to decide if we were going to try to keep going. We decided to push on.

On long distance races, incidental contact between boats can occur, especially on corners as the course involves laps, instead of just the straight lines of the shorter sprints.
Then, just ahead of us, some of that incidental contact. Two of the top crews collided with each other. They dumped each other into the water... and started fighting with one another (remember that van Koeverden guy?).

It was a stroke of luck for us (pun intended). We did some quick math. With those two boats all of a sudden out of the running, the podium was wide open. The silver and bronze, at least. It put the wind back in our sails (pun also intended). We decided then and there, despite my short paddle, the unmatched crew that we were, and the broken steering system, that we were going to go for it. Like, really go for it.

Upwind, we gained ground, each and every stroke. Downwind, we suffered horribly. With the flapping rudder at the mercy of the tailwind, I, in the back of the boat, was forced to stop paddling and use my paddle every once in a while as a rudder, while my partner continued to grind away at pulling us forward. During these stretches, teams were able to pass us again. And so it went with each lap. Teams found their rhythm and it shook out that we seemed to be battling for a bronze with Team Alberta, who we would pass on the headwind, and then they would pass us on the tailwind. Upwind gains and downwind losses. Unfortunately for us, the finish line came on the downwind stretch. Alberta was able to get back ahead of us on the final stretch, and take the bronze medal position with open water between us.

I was crushed. It was the culmination of a week where I felt like everything had gone completely wrong. We returned to the shore, to explain to our waiting families and teammates about everything that happened during that torturous half hour on the water. And then, I just melted into a corner of the team tent and never wanted to come out again. I wrapped myself in a boat cover so that no one could find me and I quietly cried my eyes out. For that race, for everything that had happened that week. In all my sports endeavours, in all my losses, I had never, ever, felt one like that, and to this day, I never have again.

It took me years to see it this way, but I look back on that event, at that 6km race, as one of the best sporting performances I’ve ever given. Over the years, people have come up to me. People from across the country, who were at that event and saw us paddle, and battle, and retreat, and battle again, and lose ground, and gain ground. They use words like ‘gutsy’ and ‘inspiring’ and ‘incredible’ to describe what they saw that day. Some folks weren’t even there, they just heard about it. I didn’t get it then. I could only feel the sting of my own defeat. But I get it now. We had many moments in that race where we could have called it quits. Every time we lost the ground we gained, we could have just said ‘we’re not going to do this, let’s head in’, citing equipment failure. But we didn’t. We just kept going, kept pushing.

I’ve always loved sport, both for the participation and the competition. Competition, to me, doesn’t have to mean winning, but it does mean trying to do your best. If you’re going to show up, show up. I should have seen it sooner, after that day—that week—on Lake Minnedosa. I didn’t just do my best. I did more. In that K2, my partner and I, we pushed like hell with no promise of reward, because that’s what you do in competition. That’s what the Canada Games can be about. Being young athletes, many kids that compete at the Games do so without having ever competed against other provinces before. It’s their first chance (as it was mine), to compete against kids from across Canada.  Work hard for a team spot, have no clue if it’s going to bear reward at the end of the day, but race as hard as you can anyway.  

"Canoe believe it?!" I love a good pun
--at the Canada Games plaza, Brandon Manitoba
The Games, outside of the competition, were an incredible experience. The joy of going to watch other sports, as a team, to cheer on your home province: diving, basketball, wrestling… you name it. We made so much noise in some venues cheering on team BC that we even had coaches come up after matches and games to thank us for giving their corner of Team BC a boost. So much fun.
So, for the kids going to the games this summer, be proud that you worked hard enough to get there. Enjoy the multi-games experience. Take in the ceremonies.Trade all the pins and team gear. Eat all the athlete cafeteria food you can, make some new friends, stick to your game plan, and hope for the best. Know that your victories will be victories for many others, too.

But also realize that maybe, just maybe, (knock on wood) a crushing defeat that you  experience will be someone else's bit of lasting inspiration. Who knows. The Canada Games could be a major stepping stone for you to move up to something far bigger. It wasn’t the case for me, but for folks like that scrappy van Koeverden kid from Ontario…


Win or lose, have a great games, and GO TEAM BC!

Top row L-R: Paul Lovatt, Matthew Mikes, Leif Einarson, Doug Cameron, Stu Chase, Trevor Desjardins, Ashley Rowe
Centre row L-R: Catherine Trask, Kirsten Sudbury, Kate Ballem, Sherry Hunt, Merryn Sturgess. ?
Bottom Row L-R: Chris Taylor, Brian Metzak, Chayne Bradley, Chris Howe, Danny Rink, Aaron Howe
flanking: Aqua and Terra, official Games Mascots :P 




June 22, 2017

That man on my lawn

The usual after-dinner routine in our house typically involves a little bit of playtime for the kids, followed by bath, toothbrushing, stories, and bed. It doesn't usually involve hosing down a distraught man who had been pepper sprayed.

The man approached our house after dinner, stumbling around, and wailing from the sidewalk that he needed help. He needed water. He'd been pepper sprayed. Our daughter went into instant hysterics. The man was invited to the side of the house where we had a hose. Kate, in the meantime, called 911 from inside the house, and worked on keeping the kids calm. 

There followed a strange 20 minutes. Essentially, I stood, aiming a jet of cold water into the face of a shirtless, shoeless, bleeding, high/drunk young man. I talked with him as we stood there, to keep him as calm as I could. He called himself Paul Bear. Said two Chinese guys had pepper sprayed him. Wouldn't say why or where. He also had with him a bag of sealed, raw meat of some sort (later identified as squid). Wouldn't say why he had it or where it came from. Lots of money in his pocket, which he was now worried was getting wet (it most certainly was). His emotions swung all over the place. In one moment, he was expressing how disappointed his parents were going to be in him; how he had to stop doing this to his mom because it made her feel bad. In the next moment, he would growl aggressively and hit himself in the head. Then he'd be fearful. "Please don't call the cops, please don't tell them you know my name." (Kids, stay away from drugs, mmkay?) 

Emergency services arrived. There were a few moments of chaos. A paddywagon, two unmarked cars, two cruisers, a fire truck. Police and fire crew coming in the side and front gates. 

I was off the hook at that point, and became an observer to the scene. The police and fire were admirable in their behaviour. No matter the insults thrown at them, no matter the erratic behaviour. The man was placed in handcuffs, and was sat down in our yard. It was a long time before he was taken away. Paramedics couldn't get there in good time, busy with other calls. The man was eventually led into the back of the paddywagon. 

It was listening to the man swing through his emotions. That was the hardest part of the whole thing, I think. He was angry at police, and then himself, and then calm, and then sobbing, and then telling the police how he loved and hated them... it just went on like that. Despite his earlier requests not to call the police, he even took time out to admonish the police for taking so long to show up! And then, a deep, woeful cry, on his knees in handcuffs, at the feet of an officer, being hosed off (at his request)... "This is SO FUCKIN' HUMILIATING!" I felt that, for him. I'm sure the officers felt it, too. But then, back to yelling about his ruined $40 t-shirt, and yelling at the police. 

"The Good Samaritan, the man who lives here, he helped me for like, 20 minutes, and WHERE were YOU guys, huh?!" 

After he had been taken away, the kids were invited outside. They were the ones truly freaked out by this, our daughter in particular. Stickers from police and fire were handed out. Friendly chats with officers about what kind of animal a squid is. Pictures in front of the police cruiser (Sacha got to wear a tactical vest over his housecoat and PJ's). Encouraging words and 'thank you's' for all involved 

It wasn't over for us, of course, once the police left. It was bedtime, and there were questions. Why did the man have sore eyes? Why did someone do that to him? What did he do to himself? Why did he do it to himself?

There was lots of discussion of the choices we make, of problems we don't know about, of helping without judgement, of lending a helping hand if you feel safe to do so, and what to do if you don't feel safe helping. We talked about how we've helped before at our house, and we'll do it again if we have to, because that's what shapes you as a caring individual. There was discussion about our paramedics and firefighters and police officers who have chosen to rush to these situations as their life's calling, and how we can be glad there are people willing to do that for us. 

Our neighbourhood has presented more than a few moments that have chipped away at our children's (and our adult) innocence. I'm not blaming the neighbourhood, because there's no perfect place to live, especially in a big city. We've had fights. Gunfire. out of control partiers. Kate was confronted with a bike thief on our property once, and threatened with a knife. Car crashes. Domestic situation, with screams heard across the neighbourhood.

I make it sound like we live in a terrible place. We really don't. We live in an amazing neighbourhood, full of awesome, caring people. And we live in an amazing city, full of awesome, caring people. 

Long story made slightly shorter, we had a rough night in our house. Questions will no doubt continue to arise, and we'll answer them as honestly and thoughtfully as we can, as we always do. It is my son's 9th birthday today. The last day of his 8th year will no doubt go down in his personal history books as one to remember. My daughter wears these moments heavy in her heart and on her psyche, and for sure she'll be analyzing the situation for days to come. 

And at the core of it, we'll wonder, together, about "Paul" and pray that he finds some good help, and figures out a safe way forward in his life. Pray for Paul, indeed, and others like him. This wasn't the first call like this the police have had to respond to, and it won't be their last. 



April 13, 2017

For all that you've missed, you are missed.

Hey dad, it's been a while. This year is a bit of an anniversary.

It's been 10 years since you passed away. There's been a lot of change.

I remember back then, this sense of urgency that I had, that I wanted to have all these various pieces in my life in place. So that before you died, you could see that I was doing well, that I had some things going that would give you an idea of the life I was going to have.

Well, ten years later I've become smart enough to know that was crap. Life is a constant state of change.
When you died, you had one small grandchild to hold in your arms. Now, you have six. And they're all growing so fast, changing all the time.
When you died, I was working for the provincial government in what I thought would be a role for ages to come. Four organizations later, here I am, way far removed from that job.
When you died, Kate and I were plucking away at fixing up our house. The house that stands today is unrecognizable from the one you last visited.

One other thing that has changed in 10 years: the grief I, and so many others around you, felt back then. Sure, I have my 'you should be here' moments, and the 'I wish you could see these kids' pangs of sadness, but on the whole, you know what? I'm good...I really am good. And I'm thankful for that. For all the things I wanted to lock down, to have in place back then, grief over losing you was not something I wanted in my life as a constant. I didn't fight it--it's natural and important--but I didn't hold on to it.

Yeah, I'd love for you to be able to play with the kids, and yeah, I'd love to chat with you about the work I'm doing, or the garden, and have you be proud of me for what I'm doing with paddling. Maybe, somewhere, you are watching all those things. And I wonder what you'd look like now and how you'd be spending your retirement, and if you'd have figured out Skype, so the kids could see you on a Sunday morning call.

Instead, I keep close to the memories of who you were. I spin your old records and play oldies stations and think of you. I make dad jokes, because that's what you would do, and I make toasted sandwiches, because that's what you would do. I  embarass my kids by dancing in the kitchen, because that's what you would do.

I miss you, dad, for sure. But I don't grieve you, so heavily as I used to. I hope you understand that that's a good thing, and that you have an eternal life somewhere, just like you talked about having.

"When you die, dad, what you do believe? Where do you think you're going?"
"Stu, I think I'm going to go to sleep, and then I'm going to wake up, and I'm not ever going to know that I died."

And it's true, dad. That happened. You live on. In hearts and minds, and in photos and in music and in every piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken memorabilia I lay eyes on.

And I don't cry at the thought of these things.

I smile.

All my love to you, dad.

That, for sure, will never, ever change.



March 30, 2017

Hi, anxiety!




OK, something to get off my chest. I’m feeling anxious these days. It’s not usual for me. I’m pretty laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes.

But something about paddling has me a little tied up in knots.

In a little under a month, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) will release their research on classifications for paracanoe. That’s the boat I mainly race these days.

My anxiety lies in the thought that I might get declassified, yet again. Readers of this blog will recall that a couple of years ago, the ICF removed the tests for upper limb impairment from parakayak.

For the record, I think the removal of any upper limb test in a sport that requires holding on to a paddle is…uhh, well, kinda stupid.

I can, in any circumstance, still race in able-bodied kayak categories, and I will do that. But where the paracanoe is concerned, it’s sort of make-or-break where this classification stuff is concerned.
See, I like to have a good idea of what my year will look like. As a husband, father, and full-time worker, it’s actually kind of essential that I know what lies ahead. Vacation time needs advanced booking, family plans, etc.

With this reclassification coming up, I have two alternative routes laid out, and as yet, I don’t know which fork in the road I will be able to take.

Down one fork lies continued acceptance of upper limb impairment in paracanoe. That means thinking about getting to go to national team trials. Trying to qualify for worlds. Defense of my national championship title. There’s also the added carrot of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) consideration of adding paracanoe to the roster for Tokyo 2020, so there could be a long-term goal, too. 
That’s all a lot to plan for. 
More training, more focus. 
It’s a selfish route, I know.

Down the other fork lies rejection of upper limb impairment tests. That means racing either junior-level able-bodied (read: get my ass kicked by 18 year-olds!) or Masters-level able bodied (read: racing for old farts like me!). That (presumably) means the end of my provincial TeamBC spot, which would be the only reasonable thing, since I'm on the team based on my para results, not my able bodied racing. 
so all in all, this fork = less to plan for. 
I would likely keep my racing to the local regatta circuit, which I do, and would enjoy. I would not go to nationals for this. 
Obviously, this option opens up a whole ton more time for vacations and family time. 
Less time thinking about training camps and regattas in faraway places. 
Way more family time.

But if I’m here to speak my truth about this, I know which fork I would choose.

It would be the first.

My passion for involvement and growth in paracanoe is way up there. I know it means more sacrifice of free time. 
I know it means stress of making time for work, for training, and for family.
I know it still comes with uncertainty of maybe or maybe not making time standards and team spots. Life would be simplified without this sport.  

But I want it anyway.

I want it. Man, I want it.  

But right now though, I just want that decision, so I can choose a fork. So I can know which way this is all going to go, or at least, could go. One fork gives me options, the other, not so much.

It’s true what they say: waiting is the hardest part.

In the meantime, I’m just itchy as Hell to get on the water. Since we actually had snow and sub-zero temperatures for a few months this winter, here in Vancouver, our usual year-round paddling game was changed, and I haven’t been able to get out much even since the temperatures warmed up again. I'm still training in earnest, regardless of the decision coming my way!

So, keep your fingers crossed for me (hand amputee pun intended). All in all, I will continue to contribute off the water. It must be a sign of my age that in my roles as Canoe Kayak’s BC Athlete Representative, and Chair of the Canoe Kayak Canada Para Committee, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. I’ll keep contributing in those avenues.


With any luck, the ICF will make a decent decision around upper limb impairment, and I’ll be able to keep contributing on the water, too.