As she has done so many times before, Nevin Harrison paddled her way to past the finish line and held up one finger to signify her victory.
Only this triumph had a much larger significance. Her win in the women’s 200-meter individual event last month at the world championships in Szeged, Hungary, propelled Harrison to earn her a spot on the US Olympic team to represent her country next summer in the newest Olympic sport in Tokyo.
Her journey to Japan began years ago on the calm waters of Western Washington, where the canoeist honed her skills as a member of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team.
“We launched the club 17 years ago to give kids in this community the opportunity to dream big dreams in pursuit of the Olympic model of excellence,” said Alan Anderson, who founded the team with his own 11-year-old son and the first boy he saw walking along the waterfront.
“When I finished my own competitive career, I turned my attention to my own son. He never had a choice,” he said with a smile.
The original team quickly expanded to include Alyson Morse and Bryse Paffile, who were teenagers when they were introduced to the grueling sport.
After more afternoons and cold nights at the edge of the water than they wanted to admit, Anderson, holding his binoculars and stopwatch, firmly believes it has been worth the sacrifice of accepting his hectic personal schedule.
Anderson competed in canoeing himself for more than 10 years, including his victory in the Adventure Race in Canada in 2001 and qualifying to race the world championships in Melbourne, Australia.
He had high hopes for the local team that day on the dock but was hesitant that his dreams may have been too ambitious.
The team’s founder explained that canoe and kayak racing is as popular in Europe as soccer. He stressed the importance of introducing young people to human-powered watercraft before they become teenagers when they no longer have the time or the capacity to “dream they can go on to achieve great things.”
Harrison was not the only representative of the 50 teenagers on the Gig Harbor team to achieve personal bests in Hungary. Para-canoeist Mike McCallum set two personal bests on the water, while brothers Ryan and Jonathan Grady reached the finals in the 200-meter two-man canoe race and the semi-finals in the 1,000-meter competition.
In addition to the bright-eyed Roosevelt High School student’s spot on the Olympic team, her achievement represented the culmination of 17 years of dedicated effort by the coach of the team that has captured national championships in seven of the past eight years, Gig Harbor’s own Aaron Huston.
After 17 years of competition at the highest level, the Gig Harbor contingent has captured the USA National Championship in seven of the past eight years as well as represented the United States in Junior and U23 regattas around the world.
But the day in Hungary belonged to Harrison, who won the 200-meter sprint finals with a time of 49.30 seconds, almost a half-second in front of her closet rival.
“I have no words right now,” the winner said as she came out of the water. “It’s so unreal. So much more than I ever thought.”
She followed that statement with an uncharacteristic, “Wow, what a moment.”
Huston, the head coach of the Gig Harbor team, said he is especially proud of Harrison and what she has been able to accomplish.
“Nevin is a true high-performance athlete. Her dedication is exemplary,” said Huston. “It depends on the time of year. Some days she commutes from Seattle just for practice, while at other times she will stay in Gig Harbor for a few weeks at a time.”
Huston said each member of the racing team considers the squad their family. Individuals, he said, soon realize they are part of something much bigger than themselves.
But the future Olympian’s success did not come without sacrifice. Harrison and the balance of the squad from Gig Harbor have nine scheduled water times every week in addition to three to five dryland workouts in the gym.
“My job is to build support for these kids who are getting their shot at competing at the highest level,” said Anderson. “It’s exciting to have one of our own athletes poised to compete in the Olympics.”
Prepared for life
The founder of the team could not say enough about how Coach Huston prepares members of the team to compete in on the water and in life. Anderson praised the partnership he established with the head coach.
“With him (Huston) coming in and taking over the head coaching position, his job is to get these kids ready for the next level, international competition, and my focus is on the kids.”
In addition to the hours of dedicated leadership from their coach, Anderson said the success of the team would not have been possible without the unwavering support from parents and the entire Gig Harbor community.
“Like all activities with young people, we’ve had our share of fundraisers,” Anderson said with a sigh and a smile. “But we have also had an incredible amount of (financial) support from civic groups.”
The team’s head coach explained that the long-term plan the city had proposed for the waterfront included separate facilities for commercial fish operations and space for “people-powered craft.”
“We want to pay our fair share,” said Huston. “But it did not help our cause when the city council introduced the idea of kicking us out of our space just weeks before nationals.
“We try to be an integral part of this community. Residents seem to be proud that we represent Gig Harbor.”
The 2019-2020 season for the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team began anew on October 1. The new year, said Huston, holds the promise of more accomplishments and the possibility of adding to the team’s collection of titles and trophies.
Huston hopes to have at least three other members of the Gig Harbor team qualify to compete in the Olympics next August.
“We are eager to share the success we’ve had with our community,” said Huston. “People tend to smile when they see us on the water.
“Our boats and the paddlers streaking across the bay are a pretty cool sight to watch.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis and has received acclamation for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. Aznoff is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in Washington. He can be reached at email@example.com.