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  • Writer's pictureGig Harbor Living Local

Olympic Dreams

Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team and the 2021 Olympics By Rachel Kelly

Courtesy of Coach Aaron Huston

Maybe it’s something to do with the water, or maybe it’s just because it’s hard, but the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team does a fantastic job at training athletes for the Olympics.

“This sport gives nothing back,” says coach Aaron Huston of Team USA. Achieving excellence in canoe and kayaking takes perseverance. When you fall in the water it’s cold, and there’s no shortage of falling. It takes up to a year to master just simply staying in the boat. There’s no doubt about it though, these athletes make it look easy.

The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team coasts through the water at an average of 13 miles per hour, sometimes breaking 19 mph. They consistently “sprint” in this way, back and forth across the docks off Skansie Park. Each paddler is semi-seriously out to beat their teammates’ times, or to hold their speed as a faster paddler tries to overtake their lead. These sprints add up to 10 to 16 meters a day, which is quite a distance; though, not as far as many coaches push their athletes. Regardless, there’s no argument that the methods of the coaches here in Gig Harbor are working.

The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team has trained many athletes who went on to win National Championships and is currently training six athletes with goals for the Olympics. Nevin Harrison, who recently became the first American to win a World Championship gold medal in the canoe at 200 meters, trained with this same team for two years before switching coaches for personal reasons. She is now a major contender for the 2020 (now 2021) Olympics in Tokyo. If Nevin wins, she will be the youngest female champion to win gold in an Olympic canoe or kayak event.

If more positions open up for this year’s games, 18-year-old Alena Wolgamot is up for the challenge. Though Alena won her races, open positions are highly unlikely. Positions for kayaking and canoeing in the Olympics have to be won for and granted; they are not held open here in the U.S. The sport is just not supported here in the states as it is in Europe. Up until recently, U.S. women’s canoe/kayaking athletes were simply not thought to be up for the challenge. Although, watching Alena kayak, it’s obvious that she is. Alena moved from Bellingham to train in Gig Harbor this year, the pandemic giving her the flexibility that she needed to excel both in her sport and her education. She began kayaking when she was 11 at a summer camp and has since never looked back. This next year she plans to pursue a degree in engineering at the University of Washington, which has the benefit of being close to the water. If she doesn’t enter into this year’s Olympics, Alena will contend for the 2024 and 2028 games.

Alena isn’t the only one with her eye on the future of the Olympics. Jonathan and Sarah Grady are both on the Gig Harbor racing team, with an older brother who also previously raced. Both got involved with the sport through their family and are supported by their parents as they juggle school with a major competitive sport. Sarah is only 17, the youngest on the team, and has been on the water since she was 8.

Competing with her brothers has pushed her to be better, but the racing team has also been a place where she’s found her closest friends. They both train twice daily around their school and jobs, and look forward to the 2024 and 2028 Olympics.

Jasper Caddell and Andreea Ghizila met through events geared at getting canoe/kayak clubs together. Jasper has spent this year as sort of an “off year,” where he’s done his schooling online and traveled. He went backpacking with Andreea and eventually found himself in Washington for the year, training in Gig Harbor. Jasper keeps a watch latched to his boat. When he breaks his previous fastest time, he yells it out to Coach Huston, who congratulates him before asking him to race to the docks. Jasper also has his eye on future Olympics but sees himself in the water for life whether he wins or not.

Andreea started out as a cross-country skier and got into paddling sports to stay in shape for the summer. From her first time in the water, she was in love. She never went back to cross-country skiing. In last year's Olympic trials in Europe, Andreea was recovering from a major back injury. But this year she is back and feeling strong. She also juggles work and school along with her sport, and she is looking to the 2024/2028 Olympics.

Lastly we have Kenny Kasperbauer, who is training in Georgia, along with Nevin Harrison (who is no longer on the team). Kenny is a three-time American record holder, and would have been in this year’s Olympics. However, his event was taken out of the 2021 Olympics due to the pandemic. This hasn’t got him down though! He looks forward to the Olympics in the future and is still training to break more records this year.

Nothing seems to get this team down; they seem to overcome every obstacle. And for them, there is a lot. Both Kenny and Andreea have had to overcome major physical injury. Most of the team juggles work and school, working in their practices around their busy schedule. The coaches work with them and communicate often to support them as they seek after their goals, while working around full-time jobs themselves. They also hurdle the lack of financial support for their sport. Since the U.S. has yet to make their mark in kayaking and canoeing sports, there is no international Olympic financing. All their travels and hard one places in the Olympics are achieved through winning their races. They get to those races through fundraising and a small scholarship fund started by the GHCKRT. Their parents and their jobs also keep them afloat. On top of all that, all their equipment is bought by them from Europe.

It is only through their local community that these young Olympians are able to succeed in such high-stake games against better financed, older and more experienced paddlers. The people behind the team, including founder Alan Anderson, are people who are passionate about seeing their athletes succeed in their pursuits. Even though the sport seems to take more than it gets— the water is cold, the rain doesn’t stop in the winter, and the equipment is expensive—the athletes and coaches on this team are in it because they love it. It’s because of this dedication that they succeed.

Good luck this year and all the following years in your endeavors, Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team. We’re behind you all the way!

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