Can Anything Stop Kenny?
Local paddler now three-time U.S. record holder
By Colin Anderson
Photo by Cathy Kasperbauer
Kenny Kasperbauer began his career on the water kind of on a whim. In 2011, a good friend’s sister was part of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team, and Kenny’s buddy encouraged him to come along for a development camp. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I went and almost instantly fell in love with the sport,” he recalled. Within days Kenny was all-in and would soon devote his young life to single-man sprint canoe (C1) racing. Being around decorated athletes in the club motivated Kenny, and he set a goal of making the U.S. team by the age of 15. His first goal was achieved, and before he was driving a car he was on his way to the Czech Republic to compete against the best 15- to 17-year-old paddlers in the world. “It was frightening at first,” said Kenny. “Seeing these huge Latvians, Lithuanians, Czechs, all lined up with me and realizing, ‘Whoa! This is real now.’”
Kenny did well in his first taste of international competition but wanted to do better. He left playing soccer to devote his time to becoming the best paddler he could be. He continued to train and work out at an incredibly high level all throughout high school. He was in his absolute prime when he received news that would completely alter his world. “They discovered a life-threatening benign tumor on my pancreas, and that cut my final high school season short,” he said. Kenny would have to go under the knife. He lost 25 pounds while also having to relearn to walk. “I couldn’t even do a push-up or sit-up,” he recalled. A situation where many might give up on their dreams and goals, Kenny took the other route, determined to come back stronger than ever. Getting back to a competitive level took Kenny nearly three years of intense physical therapy and training. “The recovery was the darkest time of my life, but I pushed through, and that made getting the record even more sweet,” he smiled.
The record he refers to is his time of 41.14 seconds in the C1 200m World Championships held this past September in Hungary. Kenny previously set the junior and senior level U.S. records, and with his time in the under-23 qualification round, he now holds all three. Kenny finished third in the heat, which qualified him for the A-Final. “I was jumping around and screaming,” Kenny said. “Others were looking at me strange, but it was a goal I had worked so long and hard for. It was just amazing.”
There are factors that vary with each race, from water depth and temperature to wind speed. There was a headwind on the course up until about 30 minutes prior to the heat, but that changed to a tailwind, and Kenny knew this might be his only shot at setting a new record time.
Last year Kenny qualified for the B-Final and ended up finishing in 16th. This year he finished ninth out of nine in the A-Final and saw himself in a similar position to his first international competition. “Looking left and right and seeing my role models, Olympic and European champions, people I’ve looked up to, there was a little bit of imposter syndrome I was feeling, but I didn’t let that get to me. I told myself I deserve to be here, I’ve worked hard. I might not medal this time, but I’m definitely catching up,” he recalled.
From learning to walk again to becoming a three-time American record holder, Kenny’s journey has been amazing—but he’s not done. He was dealt another blow when his event was taken out of the next Olympics, now scheduled for 2021 in Japan, but is hopeful it might return to future games in Paris or Los Angeles. In the meantime he wants to make sure his name stays atop the record book. “I want to make this record unbreakable, make another A-Final, and place in the top six in the championships in Copenhagen, 2021,” said Kenny.
Kenny’s training schedule varies by season but includes on-water exercises, time in the weight room, and equally important sessions of recovery, stretching and flexibility. He eats healthy, sleeps eight to 10 hours per night and takes naps, which he believes are just as important as the intense physical training. “You can work out seven days a week, but if your body isn’t able to recover, you’ll never really improve,” said Kenny.
When asked about his commitment and achievements, Kenny happily shares his experiences, especially with kids who might just be starting their athletic journeys. "Every NFL player or NBA superstar once stood in the same shoes you will stand in when trying a new sport! And for intermediate athletes, the best quote I ever heard while growing up is: ‘Nothing easy was ever worth doing.’”