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  • Writer's pictureGig Harbor Living Local

International Success

Local paddlers bring medals back to the harbor

By Colin Anderson

Photo by Cathy Kasperbauer

Alan Anderson remembers the days when the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team (GHCKRT) was only just an idea. “When I started the program, it was just two 11-year-olds, my son and his friend,” he recalled. This was 2002, and just a couple years later, in 2004, the team, now consisting of seven members, took home its first championship.

The success and uniqueness of the sport continued to bring in more and more young regional athletes and with it more program success and podium finishes. In 2012, the National Championships were held in Seattle, and the team took home the title in their own backyard. “It was at that moment that we really made the commitment to a winning program,” said Anderson.

While not without some bumps along the way, this team is now year in and year out a national powerhouse in the sport of paddling, and recent results show that the training and commitment of its athletes is paying off at the highest levels.

It was a whirlwind end of summer for the team as it began its travels with a stop in Oklahoma City for the ACA Sprint Canoe and Kayak National Championships, held August 21 through 24. Having been crowned national champions in all but one of the years since the 2012 victory in Seattle, expectations were high once again, and the team did not disappoint, taking home the team title once again. While many athletes hit the podium, one race of particular note was the 1000-meter U14 race. Members of the GHKCRT finished in the top six places in the final, a sign that things are looking good for the future, and that young athletes entering the program early are already seeing great success at the highest levels of competition.

Next up for the team was a trip to the U23 World Championships held in Portugal in early September. Of the 23 athletes chosen to represent the U.S., 11 are from the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team: Sarah Grady, Aaron Small, Kenny Kasperbauer, Jasper Caddell, Benji Blanck, Jonathan Grady, Andreea Ghizila, Emma Albrecht, Zoe Libner, Elena Wolgamot and Weston Hester. Current Head Coach Aaron Huston was also selected to lead the group at the international championship.

It was 2007, when the team got its first taste of international competition. “It is a whole ‘nother ball game over there. It (canoe/kayak racing) is like soccer or baseball here. They really love it,” explained founding coach Anderson. He says that for years the team sort of “beat its head against the wall” and didn’t see much success at the international level. It was then that Anderson decided the team needed a change in leadership to reach its goals of competing at the biggest world competitions, and Huston was brought in to bring those goals into focus. “He has been the biggest difference in our team and athletes. He’s brought a wealth of experience, and even kids from around the country to Gig Harbor, and he now operates what I would call a training center,” said Anderson.

Coach Huston brings experience as a top competitive weightlifter and has also coached highly competitive swimmers before taking the role with this team. “He’s brought a lot of science and technique and other tools to the team that they really needed to compete at the world level,” said Anderson.

A trip halfway across the world for the highest level of competition during a global pandemic certainly presents a lot of challenges for young athletes. Raucous stadiums are also something the team doesn’t always see stateside. Still, coaches prep them far in advance of these competitions in order to best prepare them for race day. “We get them into a routine here at home that they can then carry over when they compete internationally,” remarked Anderson. “It was really gratifying to see them handle the pressure of the event and the full grandstands.”

Up against the toughest competitors in the world, the team continues to see improvements. Several tandems and individuals landed in ‘B’ finals, putting them within the top-20 finishers of the event. One tandem did make a huge statement for the program, as Jasper Caddell and Elena Wolgamot teamed up on the mixed gender 500-meter K2 race and captured the silver medal. Their time was just six-tenths of a second from gold; a truly impressive showing at the highest level of competition.

Finally, another set of competitors was off to the Olympic Hope Regatta, September 10 through 12, which was held in Račice, Czech Republic. Those chosen to represent the U.S. were: Jake Galvan, Conner Peterson, Peyton Kusche, Sarah Grady, Zella Wells Parkinson, Benji Blanck, Noah Larsen, Weston Hester, Stella DeSantis, Lana Weigelt, Zoe Libner and Emma Albrecht. Coach Alyson Morse would also accompany Coach Huston for the Regatta. These young athletes, again, made their mark, especially on the women’s side in which DeSantis, Albrecht and Grady each brought home bronze medals in their events.

While standing on a podium at a national or world championship is a dream come true, most athletes will attest that doing so during the Olympics would be a dream truly realized. That dream was realized in Tokyo for 19-year old Nevin Harrison, a former team member who shocked the world and took home the gold medal in the Women’s 200-Meter Canoe Sprint, besting a six-time world champion by nearly a second and becoming the first gold medalist for the U.S. in women’s canoeing at the Olympics. According to team USA, Harrison’s gold medal is the first Olympic canoeing medal of any kind for Team USA since Greg Barton took bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games in the men’s K-1 1000. And it was the first Olympic medal for a U.S. woman in canoeing—before 2020, all women’s Olympic events were in kayaks—since 1964. It is just the fifth Olympic medal for Team USA in a canoe event and first since 1948.

Anderson says that Harrison’s win has kicked off a rush of interest in the team, especially from young girls not just in the harbor but from all around. “We tell these young ladies that the door is definitely opening for them. It’s a very exciting time, especially for young women, as we look towards the ’24 and ’28 games.”

Paddling one of these boats is in itself a major challenge. It’s when paddlers learn the balance and begin to go fast that Anderson feels gives athletes the hook needed to pursue higher levels of competition. The team makes it clear that it’s not a recreational league team, and you need to be willing to put in the work in order to accomplish great things. The results this summer are proof that the right attitude and commitment along with buying into the program will put these young athletes on a path to success.

“If you have a dream and are willing to work hard, you can accomplish anything. Here you get to challenge yourself against the best in the world before you’re even 18,” said Anderson. “It’s really something special.”

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