It was at the tender age of 8 that our son Erik joined a small, merry band of frequently wet and shivering children paddling around Gig Harbor in improbably skinny boats, under the tutelage of Coach Jon Sousley. At first, it was all they could do just to stay upright. Actual forward motion came with time. Erik’s kid sister Kelly, then a preschooler, followed the action from the dock with an intensity of a rock band groupie. And so it began for the North family.
Twelve years and many soggy practices and breathless races later, I’m thankful—although maybe not in the ways you might think. What I’m most thankful for are not the skills gained or the ribbons won but rather the life lessons our whole family has gained from paddling. These lessons transcend the children’s experience on the water. It’s funny, but I think the North family learned the most from the moments that fell somewhere south of our expectations.
Celebrate Every Success
At Erik’s very first regatta, he fell out of a boat during a race. More accurately, he cartwheeled out of a four-man canoe (C-4) that was within a couple of boat lengths of a sure first-place finish. What made it more cringe-worthy as a parent was that he’d been asked to “race up”—he was a true novice in a boat of older, more experienced paddlers. With one swift motion, the older boys hauled the soaking newbie back into the boat. In the process, they drifted out of their lane and were disqualified.
In my mind, it was a debacle. I had no idea how my son, the older boys or the coach would react. As the boys made their way back to the shore, I was amazed to hear lots of good-natured chatter. I could hear them congratulating Erik on staying with them stroke for stroke, then breaking into gales of laughter as they relived the moment a larger boy’s knee block slipped and jettisoned young Erik out of the canoe.
Head Coach Alan Anderson hurried over to slap all their backs and commended them on their strong performance during the largest portion of the race. What Coach Alan knew, and the kids had already been taught, I was just learning: Success can be found in many forms. So celebrate the win. Negativity isn’t productive. If you keep your eyes open for it, there is success to be celebrated in almost every circumstance.
Finish What You Start
Then there was the time Erik and another young canoe paddler, whose combined training amounts to mere weeks, attempted to participate in a mass start with 100 other boats in a 10,000-meter long distance race on the wind-whipped, white-capped waters of Green Lake. All but a few boats were finished and off the lake when the pair completed the second of three required laps. The announcer, assuming they were finishing, blared out their names and congratulated them on persevering to the finish. I fleetingly thought that maybe if they slinked across the finish no one would be the wiser.
Nope. My son had more integrity than that. Though exhausted, they knew they had one more lap to go. They explained to the officials and paddled on. They knew if they finished, they would get points for the team. So they finished. Their effort contributed to what became Gig Harbor’s first national championship.
What a great lesson for all of us. If you are already on the course (no matter what it is), stay in your “lane” and finish, even if you’re last. Your effort affects your whole team.
Some Things Really are More Important Than Winning
In 2015, hopes were high when eight boys, including five from Gig Harbor, were selected to represent Team USA at Junior Worlds. There was a lot of buzz that, for the first time in years, the USA would have enough strong, capable athletes to include an entry in the four-man canoe race.
Then the setbacks came—the worst of which being when the boys arrived in Portugal for the event, their ordered C-4 boat was nowhere to be found. Sprint canoes are manufactured right there in Portugal, but their particular boat only existed on a paper order at the factory.
Two days before the race, their boat finally arrived. The glue was still warm. The seams pulled apart the first time they got in. The boat was ultimately held together with strategically placed tape, but the athlete’s spirits were frayed.
It was at this point we made an international call to our son. I asked if he thought they could still make the finals. With maturity beyond his years, he said, “It’s not about that now, Mom.” My son patiently reminded me that the actual race would last about four minutes, but the friendships of the athletes could be for a lifetime, if they figured out how to manage their emotions.
Team USA in the taped-up C-4 didn’t progress past the semi-finals. However, the boys in the boat remain the best of friends today.
The bottom line? Sometimes crazy stuff happens. If you can’t salvage everything from an experience, at least salvage the relationships. The rest of it doesn’t last long anyway.
Enjoy the Journey
At the end of any canoe or kayak race, there are just three spots on the podium. If you aren’t going to be happy unless you are holding a gold, silver or bronze medal, you may not be happy often. So, celebrate every success. Finish what you start. Remember some things are more important than winning. Be intentional to enjoy your journey, and treasure the people who make the journey with you.