Samantha Stewart had never even heard of the Washington Canoe Club until she had a former sprint-kayak Olympian as a patient four years ago. A physical therapist and avid SUP racer, she was intrigued by how dreamy eyed Theresa Haught got talking about her life at the WCC and racing outrigger. Later, the two would see each other at SUP/Outrigger races, and then one day they ran into each other at their local gym. When Theresa suggested Sam carpool down to the WCC to try sitting down to paddle, she accepted. “I wanted to know what made it so great [for Theresa],” says Sam.
Last August, “I came and I loved it, so I kept coming back,” she recalls. She finds it the perfect combination of a team sport and being on the water—two things she loves. “There’s something about having to dig in and work hard and knowing everyone else is relying on you,” Sam says. So she and Theresa commute from Annapolis several times a week to paddle at the WCC.
Theresa had teased her that she could only come down if she were good and Sam did not disappoint. In April she raced OC-1 in the Carolina Cup and won. She loves the challenge of reading water and enjoys it even more than SUP racing. But her ability should come as no surprise. Brought up by a single mom, she nonetheless had a closet of sports equipment bought second hand—kickball, softball, lacrosse. She even played lacrosse her first year for her college but found the physical therapy program too demanding for her to continue.
Instead she started running and after four months entered the Disney half marathon. The fireworks at the start and the cheers hooked her. Marathons became routine—she’s done 11. Locally, her whole family, including her 78-year-old grandfather do support, honking their horn at her as she speeds by. Then once a year she races either a half marathon at a different national park with about 15 friends--some runners and some not--camping and hiking as well as racing for a long weekend.
It’s a tradition Sam started while in doing a 4-month rotation for graduate school in Phoenix, Arizona. In those few months, she convinced her running and hiking partners to combine both at Yosemite. (Hiking and traveling are other passions for her). The next year, they headed to Zion, where they rented a 50-acre ranch with its own fishing pond. This June, they went to Grand Teton National Park.
Looking for a new athletic challenge in 2017, she signed up for a 6-week SUP course in Annapolis. “Being out on the water was a new challenge—it’s more unpredictable and you really have to work with it and read it,” she says. At the beginning of her second year, she bought a race board, a 14’ x 23” NSP Sonic, and competed in 12 races before discovering how much she loved outrigger.
Her marathon experience really helped her through her first OC-6 practice, a 2.5-hour, hot run toward Wilson Bridge and back. As with many runners, miles 20 to 23 are the hardest part for her—“you are getting hungry and you know you are not really done,”-- Sam explains. But finishing them has really taught her “there’s always a little bit more in the tank.” She dipped deep into that tank that day. One our her earlier practices coincided with the memorial service for Frank Havens, which further impressed Sam. “I didn’t know anyone, but I could feel this was a strong community, rich in history,” she recalls. “I fell in love with it as much as Theresa.”
by Lanny Shepherd
A lot of WCC club life revolves around racing. But nearly every member also loves being out on the water for another reason - the peace, quiet, solitude, and sense of renewal it can bring. And those of us who spend more time paddling recreationally, especially in solo boats, get to experience the best of this. Recreational paddler John Tambornino, with his passion for both nature (and restoring it) and the kayak his late father made for him, can teach all of us a lesson in finding peace on the water.
John joined WCC in 2010, after walking past the club and asking a member about it. His initial reason for joining was simply to find a place to store his kayak as he was living in a condo in the city, but he quickly came to value his membership far beyond the convenience of it.
Now about that kayak? John’s personal craft is an 18-foot sea kayak, handmade by his late father out of beautiful wood. John’s father passed away unexpectedly shortly after completing it, before he could deliver it to his son, and before John could thank him for it. At first, John was reluctant to even use the boat, but he managed to get it from Arizona to DC, and two years later, finally decided that his father made it for him to enjoy, so he took the kayak for its maiden voyage. John was amazed at how smooth, agile, and fast the handmade boat was in the river. His father was truly a skilled craftsman, and it’s easy to understand the deep emotional bond that John has with his boat.
Besides his unique and gorgeous kayak, John stands out as well for the large hauls of trash he collects from the river each time he goes for a paddle. He says that collecting trash was never his intention, but he can’t resist collecting it, and once he got started, he couldn’t stop. He says he has often returned with more than 100 pieces of slimy, floating trash after a paddle. But even though the image of dirty, used styrofoam cups isn’t exactly appealing, John has a different perspective. “Picking it up is not a chore,” John says, “but instead brings me peace, like tending a wound, or helping someone. We become connected through caring, whether to other people or to nature. So for me picking up trash is part of the experience of connecting with nature, in the same way we tend to ourselves and those we love.”
When asked what he’s noticed over his years of collecting trash, John notes that the quantity in the river may have decreased a bit in recent years, but the amount is still “shocking” and is highest after storms, when rainwater runoff carries all sorts of things into the river.
John enjoys taking friends out paddling, but he looks forward to his solo paddles on the Potomac the most. John says nearly every time he goes out “something magical happens.” He delights in seeing the local wildlife in their natural habitat, and the change of seasons and weather while afloat. He calls being on the water “often a spiritual experience” and takes comfort in the quiet, stillness, sense of peace, and wonder of nature that it brings. He says that after his kayak trips “everything feels different, it’s like I come back to myself.”
John offers a few tips to all the rest of us. First, help care for the river which we all enjoy. Avoid using Styrofoam or plastics bags in your personal life, since these are the greatest blight. When out paddling, pick something up when you see it. Every bit helps, you likely will feel better for having done so, and others will see you, and be inspired to pick something up. Then someday the river will be as it was, and how it belongs; peaceful, wondrous, and free from human debris.
His other advice concerns refinishing a kayak (or any other water craft). He encourages anyone considering such a project to start by first seeking advice. There’s always someone with experience who can help guide you and avoid mistakes. John has made several while working on his boat which could have been avoided in hindsight.
Finally, a member profile is not complete without a good story. John actually has two:
One afternoon last summer, John was kayaking down to Anacostia when he got caught in an intense storm. It was impossible to paddle, and massive wakes being caused by the large boats that were trying to get off the river quickly didn’t make it any easier. Logs and debris collided into his kayak and visibility was near zero. He finally had to climb up the concrete wall at East Potomac Park and lift his boat over the chain-link fence to get out of the storm. A very nice park maintenance crew offered to drive him and his boat back to WCC in their truck. He says it was a harrowing experience, as it was the kind of situation where even experienced paddlers could drown, and his boat easily could have been smashed against the concrete wall by the waves.
Another time, somebody tried to steal his kayak! He was on the shore with a friend, not paying attention to the shore, then when he looked up, someone was towing his kayak away, tied up to theirs. John caught up with them in his friend's boat and asked why they were towing his boat; they said it was floating free and they were trying to find the owner... Perhaps they were telling the truth, John says, but it may have been the end of his kayak had he not caught them.
We are proud to have John as one of WCC’s recreational paddlers. So next time you see him around, stop to say hi - and be encouraged to pick up some litter on the river as well. All of us will appreciate it, but none more so than John.
By Liz Pennisi
When Kelsa Gabehart first showed up at the Washington Canoe Club last July, she was immediately impressed by how nice the boathouse was. (Just think what she would have thought if she'd seen it before it was closed down). She learned to paddle in Hawaii, where many clubs are no more than a spot on the beach--and the WCC had showers (outdoor ones) and indoor boat storage. Then when she went on the Potomac the first time, she was further surprised by how beautiful and green the landscape was. And when she began to get to know club members, she was hooked. "Paddling and being on the water is my life," she explains. "It's like finding the same crazies as you."
This "crazy" had just come off two years on the SUP racing circuit, where at one point she ranked 14th in the United States. But her paddling days began in an outrigger canoe in 2003, with the Wakiki Beachboys on Oahu. And paddling was a offshoot of competitive swimming. In all three sports, she had excelled, as she did in her first local race, the Frank Havens 10K, three months after she and her husband Nate moved here from Denver because his company, Boeing, promoted and transferred him.
The Frank Havens Race is a fun, but for some WCCers a highly competitive end-of- season event named after two-time Olympic medalist, Frank Havens. Kelsa and Sean Havens beat all the local favorites save Havens' dad (and Frank's son) and Jim Ross, who high-kneeled across the line just seconds before them. Though he comes from a strong paddling pedigree, Sean had just come back to paddling after several years hiatus. Kelsa was in her first race in an Aluminum canoe. But when the gun went off, her focus was knife-edge sharp and her power astonishing. "I really love the zone--being out there in the moment and focused on one thing, the feel of the water," she says.
For more than a decade, that feel yearly earned her a spot, sometimes as stroke, annually in the Wahine O Ke Kai 6-man outrigger change race, a 42-mile run between Molokai and Oahu.
Twice--in 2011 and 2014--her team has crossed the finished line as the first open women's crew. Her best doing that run in OC-1, was second in 2015.
She attributes these successes to years of competitive swimming. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, she was 5th in the state for the high school mile distance and also raced the 400 meter individual medley and the 200 meter butterfly. "I learned fairly early on in swimming how grab the water and to pull through it and that was translated to paddling, she recalls. At Brandeis University, a division 3 school, she broke records for the mile and other distances. "The longer and harder it was, the better I was at it," she recalls.
Being on a team meant a lot: at the end of one season, with a bribe from her male teammates, she let them shave her head, just as they do for themselves, just before a race. "I looked terrible," she recalls, "but I knew it would grow back and it was kind of fun."
After getting her masters degree in molecular biology, she headed for Hawaii, supposedly for a gap year, but stayed seven, becoming addicted to paddling the very first day she tried it and eventually earning a Ph.D., specializing in asthma and allergies, at the University of Hawaii and meeting and marrying Nate
Paddling with husband Nate
In 2009, they headed to Denver, where she had landed a postdoctoral fellowship at a research hospital specializing in airway diseases. There she started looking into the role of environmental factors in triggering asthma. She bought an old outrigger locally and trained in a lake, returning to Hawaii each year for the Molakai race. Nate was paddling SUP there, so to do something together, she joined him in 2012. Even with a beginning board she was winning local races, and she upped her game with better boards and won even more. When her fellowship was ending, Nate suggested she try paddling full-time.
The first year on the SUP circuit, she averaged about a race every other week, and the second year, "I realized I needed more training than racing time," so she would go to Hawaii for 6-week stretches (Nate, too would be on the road for more than 200 days that year for his work). Her advice for SUP paddlers: Work on footwork, balance and sprints. That means going out in rough conditions, and also in conditions where falling in is not an issue, and balance on an edge until that's what happens. As for SUP paddlers who want to try outrigger. "The biggest thing you have to worry about is timing," she says.
Her favorite SUP races were in Abu Dhabi and Brazil. Different paddleboard makers supplied her boards, so she raced with a wide variety. She was eighth on the SUP Molokai to Oahu crossing in both 2014 and 2015. Even so, she found sponsorship hard to come by: "I wasn't good enough that people were coming to me and not outgoing enough [to attract them.]"
So her plan in coming East was to get a staff scientist job and put paddling on the back burner. "It's not really worked out that way" --yet, she says. But while she job hunts, and more recently house hunts, she's been planning a startup business with her two sisters--she's the middle one. They are setting up an online company, Test Flight Foods, that sells "Tasting Boxes," where monthly a box will contain a half dozen or more of a kind of food or spice with histories and recipes for comparing the different brands. That suits Kelsa's love of baking and cooking -- desserts are her specialty. "We cooked as kids," she says, and her dad was an excellent dessert maker. She uses many of his recipes. And her sisters can take care of sales and marketing.
Asked what it's like to be racing solo, she smiles and talks about how during a race, especially toward the end, it's easy to get upset when something goes awry. In a team boat, it's easy to blame and forgive someone else, but alone, "the only one I can get grumpy-pants toward is myself, and you have to be able to forgive yourself," she says. That takes a lot of mental discipline."
by Liz Pennisi
On Ed Rackley's first long-distance sea kayaking adventure, a five-year-old saved his life. A relative novice, he'd gotten bored of paddling on Washington, D.C.'s rivers, so in November 2010 headed to the Outer Banks, by boat. "I didn't know how to roll, to deal with a tail wind or even surf my boat," he recalls. "But I felt you've got to do it to learn it." His naïveté caught up with him as he was trying to cross over to the intracoastal waterway right where the James, Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers meet off Newport News, Virginia. There the water was a turbulent mixing bowl much worse than the Potomac and Anacostia junction on a windy Fourth of July afternoon.
His flimsy spray skirt let water in, so soon his boat was filled with water and he couldn’t stay upright. It was a sunny day, but only 40 degrees, compounding his problem. Motorboaters would wave back at his urgent hand signals, not realizing he was doing more than saying hello. "I thought I was going to die in sight of all these other boats." Finally, a little girl watching him from the bow of a pleasure boat told her dad she thought the kayaker was in trouble, and they picked him and his boat up. They covered him with all they had to combat his hyperthermia and deposited him safely at a marina.
The next day he headed out for the final two weeks of the trip, but stayed out of the ocean and close to shore. He'd run marathons before, but this trip was "like running a marathon a day with just a can of beans at night" and he wasted away and was quite sick by the time he was done. Nonetheless, "it was a good trial by fire--you learned what you didn't know," he says now.
Trial by fire is his M.O. In 1991, Ed went into the Peace Corps in Zaire, where he took his first serious interest in paddling; dug out canoes are a key form of transportation in that country. Not wanting to come home to a desk job, he stayed in Africa and worked in Somalia and Sudan to help Doctors Without Borders set up shop there. Now he works as a consultant in disaster relief for that organization, the World Bank and other groups, focusing on conflict areas. But in between then and now, he spent two years practicing and teaching yoga at an ashram in India, and time in New York City getting a doctorate in philosophy. His dissertation topic: the moral logic of humanitarian intervention.
In moving to Washington, D.C., he discovered sea kayaks were much more to his liking than dug out canoes. "I love the sensation of being flush with the water," Ed says. With the sprayskirt, the kayak "is an extension of your body." He bought his first boat in 2008, took a few lessons on the Anacostia River to learn wet exits and bracing, but wanted to experience the boat as it was meant to be – deep in ocean waves. That prompted his death-defying trip to North Carolina.
After that journey, he sought mentoring and discovered sea kayaker "meet ups," where groups get together with expert boaters for symposia to learn survival skills and practice in rough water. Now he does both "park and play" and "source to sea" trips all over the Arctic--Alaska, Greenland, Iceland--and the East Coast, always cognizant of his skill level and trying to push himself just beyond those limits. His trips sometimes last a month, as when he and some buddies paddled from Seward to Homer Alaska, around the Kodiak Islands.
Once he and a group of other boaters kayaked 12 hours across the Irish Sea to Cornwall, England from islands 30 miles offshore. It was his first blind crossing, so the group had to calculate the course by figuring in the current and tides, and they stopped every hour for five minutes to eat and get their bearings. "It was very methodical, not like the Blitzkrieg, Tarzan approach, which is the way I did my first trip," says Ed.
He paddles year-round, enjoying the solitude: "That's my cheating path to the wilderness--go when nobody in their right mind will go out." Just this February, he decided to hone his cold water prowess and paddled from Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac across the Chesapeake Bay, stopping overnight on a spit of sand that proved full of worn ceramic shards and sea glass. Later he discovered it was the remains of Holland Island, one of the most photographed disappearing islands in the bay. These were once inhabited but have since sunk. Where he spent the night with a roaring fire once housed 350 people fishing for menhaden. There, Victorian houses had slowly toppled into the sea for reasons that are unclear. "That was really cool to bump into," he says.
Ed is also a bike racer, focusing now on cycle cross and training with Squadra Coppi (Fausto Coppi was a legendary Italian cyclist) more than 120 miles per week. In February he spent a week on a lung-busting trip up and down high-altitude passes in Colombia.
But paddling still tops his list. "Using paddling as a form of adventure has been a great thing in my life," he says. "I can just jump in my kayak and go and spend a night on disappearing islands. That matters a lot more to me than saying I paddled the north coast of Iceland."
Solo trips are fun, but he prefers company, if nothing else, for safety. Alone, "you have to be on your game all the time," he says. And he's also coming to enjoy the companionship of being a Washington Canoe Club member. He used to rent space at what was Jack's Canoes, just downstream of the WCC, along with Tom Cooney. Then Tom joined the WCC and in 2012, convinced Ed to do likewise. For the first four years, he didn't really know or interact with anyone at the club. Then someone got him to try outrigger last year, which he did. "The club opened up to me," he says.
"The WCC culture and community has enriched my life."
by Liz Pennisi
When Lisa Ramm turned 30, she decided she needed to change her ways. Her girlfriends were all running, but her questionable knees prevented her from joining in. She had a recreational kayak, so googled "kayak," "Olympic," and "Washington DC." The search yielded the Center for Excellence, a D.C.-based whitewater slalom training group and the Washington Canoe Club. Leary her "just do it" personality would lead her to precarious waterfalls in a whitewater boat, she instead called up the canoe club. "Just do it," has made her an integral WCC member, in multiple sports and as the entertainment committee chair. Yes, she’s the one to thank for the great oyster roasts, crab feasts, and so forth.
But back in August 2012, her first sprint kayaking experiences involved a lot of swimming; yet she was drawn to the challenge and to the friendliness of the WCC Masters' group. By the new year, she'd joined the club.
Come spring 2013, she was flipping regularly into the chilly water, having shifted to a tippier kayak, the big yellow banana boat. But all became worth it, as in her first race—in a sprint K2-- "it was really neat to be out there and pass others," she recalls. Paddling "has given me a way to be active and compete."
For several years now, she splits her training time between the sprint team and the women’s outrigger team, having been hooked by the prospect of racing in Hawaii and by the challenge of a “change” race where she was part of the mixed WCC OC-6 team that took first in the Catalina Crossing from Newport Beach, California to the Catalina Islands 26 miles offshore.
She appreciates the differences between the two sports: in sprint boats, 500 meters often seem long, but in an outrigger, 26 miles was a blast. Not just the distance hooked her, but also changing in and out of the boats along the way. Changing "adds an extra element of excitement," she explains, especially because she's not a very good swimmer. "I like the team effort that comes with the OC-6," Lisa explains. "It's mentally harder for me to push myself in a single boat than to push for the rest of the team."
In 2014, the club became much more than just a place to work out. The camaraderie helped her weather some personal challenges at that time. One her favorite activities became sitting on the dock, watching the sunset and sharing a drink with other WCCers. "The canoe club has become my family."
Right now, she's giving back to that family in spades. As entertainment committee chair since 2016, she's been organizing several events a year, including the annual banquet, food for the semi-annual meetings, crab feasts, and oyster roasts. She doesn't really cook--even for herself, "but I love parties," and has proven herself quite capable of organizing events, and acquiring food and drinks, even though each one takes approximately 20 hours of her time. "The hardest part is picking dates" --WCCers have so many events, she says. One of her favorites is the annual banquet, held in late November or early December. "It's a big celebration and you get to see what the club as a whole has accomplished."
She loves that each event draws a crowd--some loyal WCCers--particularly team members-- show up at every one, rain or shine. But she would like to get a wider variety of members to come and share in the fun. She’s trying to better publicize activities to encourage everyone in the club to participate. Maybe, she’ll even bring in a band one day. Bottom line, she says, “"I enjoy everything about this club!"
by Liz Pennisi
Ten years ago, Jay Gopal’s idea of a long paddle was a few miles cruising through coastal mangrove forests, watching birds and gazing at turtles. Now tens of miles are well within her reach. In May, this 41-year-old Indian native raced the General Clinton Canoe Regatta—a 70-mile downstream run on the Susquehanna River in New York. “When I first came down to the club, I was not expecting canoeing to be a serious,” she recalls.
WCC member Doug Brooks used to live in Jay’s building and had been taking her down to the WCC since 2012--she joined 4 years later. Meanwhile, in 2013 Doug joined Herb Howe for Herb’s 25th 70-mile Clinton, and in the ensuing several years convinced Jay to be part of the “pit crew,” furnishing riverside beverages and food to Doug and his partner as they paddled by. Jay and Doug decided to try to do the Clinton in 2014, when injuries forced Herb to bail. But she too got injured that year and because of travel and other distractions, it took her until 2018 to finally commit to trying it.
As with everyone who tried to train this winter, the cold, windy weather greatly curtailed time on the water. They did manage a run to Wilson Bridge and back in an aluminum canoe—a feat Doug said was equivalent to 30 miles because of the 14 mph wind. Before race day, their longest was the Little D race on the Monocacy.
For the Clinton, they used a much lighter but still quite stable boat called the Susquehanna. On race day, they held back at the start to avoid flipping as Doug and Herb had done Doug’s first Clinton. Even though Doug and Jay did go over once mid-race, their 6-year-old friendship held them in good stay. “We kept teasing each other and laughing all the time,” says Jay. And at the bridges, WCC members cheered them on, and that “was like a boost of energy.” (Doug dubbed her spurt of power “people speed.”) Still, “at one point I just wanted to get it over with.” A blister was forming; her eyes were stinging from the flies because they forgot to apply insect repellent, and she’d lost her sunglasses.
They finished in just under 11 hours—and were not last—she emphasizes. “My back hurt and I got out and just rolled on the grass.” Two hours and two pain pills later, she had recovered.
Her advice for other first-timers: Train and be in good shape. She did well because she hikes weekends and spends a lot of time on her bike, with a 185-mile ride down the C&O canal in the works. But “it’s more of a mental activity than a physical activity,” she stresses. “You need to focus on the finish and not think about anything else.”
Now she’s spending ever more time at and for the WCC, paddling and volunteering. She manages the club’s Instagram account, is setting up a WWC store, and will soon take over the newsletter. “Whenever there’s a volunteer opportunity, I try to help,” she says.
When Jay first joined the club, she was very intimidated by the serious paddlers. But her past is one of “breaking walls,” having left her conservative family in 2000 for the United States and worked her way up through several jobs to now being a consultant. So now she’s working toward becoming one of those serious paddlers and toward helping others who’d like to do the same. Toward that end, Jay’s at the club three or more times a week, often at the women’s outrigger practices and on Monday nights, at the novice OC-6 program. Jay has even learned to steer to help out there. She wants to buy a boat, though has yet to decide which kind. “I’m trying to see what would be my passion going forward.” As for doing the 70-miler again, she says, “Maybe next year.”
By Liz Pennisi
He started out on a kayak erg with Darek Oborski, who showed him proper technique in 2011. He quickly got frustrated with the slowness of a Kirton, a stable sprint boat and so bought a Nelo K1, spending the first year falling in the water every time he got into this boat. He didn’t feel he really made progress until he joined EJ in a long-shot bid for an Olympic spot. Paddling daily, having a goal, and having a faster partner all played a role in his improvement, he says. He now races yearly in the Nationals and has been to the Canadian Masters Regattas twice. In between he enters local races such as the Bennett Creek 7-miler in Virginia Beach and the Broadkill river race in Milton, Delaware. That event’s 10 miles is his limit—“After 6 is when it’s painful for me,” he says.
Leo was on the Team Madruga relay team, and paddled first with Linda Aragon, a veteran Hawaii outrigger paddler who last year moved to Washington, D.C., and later, with Pam Boteler on the fourth leg. The start was little chaotic—they didn’t hear the gun and so were slow getting off the line and as a result got stuck behind T-boned canoes. But he and Pam made up some of that lost time in their 4th leg shrinking the gap to the next fastest boat to 100 meters. “It’s supposed to be fun, but many WCCers take it really seriously,” he jokes. But after his team came in 7th, Leo is eager to come back – and do even better. “I want to learn how to steer,” he adds.
So he was in awe Memorial Day Weekend when he attended his first General Clinton Regatta, a race WCC has been competing annually in since 2006. WCCers who generally focus on sprint, outrigger, marathon, SUP, kayak and even recreational paddling all join forces to make the Clinton trip each year, racing in memory of WCC paddler, Mitch Madruga, a US Marine Veteran, on Memorial Day weekend. Traveling up to Oneonta, NY with 52 WCCers forming eight teams for the annual 35-mile aluminum canoe relay, he got to see firsthand how popular marathon canoeing is.
His transition into paddling coincided with a career pivot. For nine years he’d been a graphic designer for Miller Lite, coming up with the posters and VIP passes for concerts and other events the beer company sponsored. After he was laid off in 2010, he set up shop in his living room, printing banners and posters for concerts and other big DC events. Another line of business is making wall paper prints. This wallpaper, Sweet Pea Wall Design, is a big improvement over wall paper that’s glued down, as the fabric is sticky on the backside but can be removed and repositioned, he explains. And he’s lent his graphics expertise as well as his muscle to the canoe club, designing business cards and making big banners about the boathouse restoration effort.
Water is in his roots. Leo was born in the Philippines and grew up in Virginia Beach. A track and field runner in there specializing in 100, 200 and 500-meter dashes, he could do the latter distance in under 60 seconds. So in his kayak, “I’m always motivated to try to go faster,” he says. “I think I should go as fast as I am running.”
When he’s not at the club, he’s still not far from water. His neighborhood borders Lake Barcroft in Virginia and, at his local beach he keeps five craft –two canoes, two John Boats and a paddleboard. He works at home and watches his 5-year-old daughter, Camille, and his 3-year-old son, Cyrus, so heading to the canoe club is a much needed outing. “The challenging part is going to practice,” Leo admits because it means turning the kids over to his wife, Courtney, as soon as she walks in the door in the evening. “But I want to have my own free time.”
The graphic arts are in his roots as well, though he wasn’t always in touch with them. His painting of an Egyptian mask still hangs in his elementary school in Parkway Elementary. However, he headed to college to study engineering and was very slowly making his way toward a degree when friend’s sister informed him that graphics design could be a career. “I did a 180, from math and physics to drawing and painting,” he recalls. In a couple of years, he graduated with skills in computer graphics—a new media--and while few thought he’d be able to get a job, Miller Lite took him on right away.
While there he started a soccer team, and one of the players eventually became his wife. And when kids came along, soccer’s night games were too hard to keep up. So he gave up the soccer team and reconfigured his life as a stay-at-home dad. “It’s the best job ever,” he says. He keeps up his business and is constantly thinking about new ways to make money from home.
Meanwhile, he’s no longer down at the club every day, but is very optimistic about the future of the masters sprint paddling group at WCC. He’s seen it decline to less than a half dozen paddlers and is pleased with the recent resurgence in interest. There’s a new coach, Itzel Flores, on Saturdays, and at least a dozen masters regularly practicing. He’s pushing for a sub two-minute 500 meter time. “I want to be the fastest masters paddler in the United States,” he says.
The first time Ann Armstrong came down to the Washington Canoe Club and paddled, she couldn’t get over how incredibly wide the Potomac was. This native from Wisconsin was much more used to narrow, twisty streams. Now she plies that water daily in one of the most tippy, fickle boats—a high-kneel canoe. And although she has only been high-kneeling a little over a year, she’s already made the U.S. National team and raced in Europe. That may seem like an incredible rise to paddling excellence, but in some ways, it’s par for the course of this 23-year-old U.S. Navy computer CTN rate. Over the past 5 years, she has proved herself on many paddling fronts.
It all started in college. A lover of horses since childhood, Ann was on the Albion College (Michigan) equestrian team and life-guarding on the side. Assuming life-guarding meant Ann could swim, a fellow horse-rider recruited her to fill out a relay team headed to the College Whitewater Nationals. “She said all I had to do was stay in the boat,” Ann recalls. She was hooked. She’d paddled canoes before on family outings, but racing was much more exciting. At that race she met Keith Havens, cousin to WCC’s Dan Havens and nephew of WCC’s Olympian medal winner, Frank Havens. They became white-water racing partners—she paddled the bow of their 18’6 Oldtown Penobscot open boat--and were mixed open canoe champions at the 2014 whitewater nationals.
Then she heard about the AuSable, a 120-mile marathon race in Michigan. Intrigued, she asked Keith to teach her how to paddle a marathon canoe. He instead referred her to the Bruce Barton, who lived near her college, and brother Greg, who had won four Olympic medals in sprint kayaking. The Barton family took her under their wing. Mastering a marathon C1, however was quite challenging. After she had spent some chilly fall months flipping quite a few times on the Kalamazoo River, Bruce Barton (another Olympian) paddled behind her one day and called her huts. She paddled up and back down the river, often no wider than her 18-foot canoe. Afterward, his wife, Roxanne, (a sprint kayaker and successful marathon paddler) told her, “If I could paddle a C-1 there, I could paddle a C-1 anywhere.”
With whitewater paddling, she needed to be able to read the river well but didn’t necessarily need to be in as good of shape—marathon paddling placed a higher emphasis on taking the right lines and required training—something she thrived on. She continued to improve, enough that Barton asked an AuSable veteran, Dwight Walker, to consider her as a partner. It was a tough race, in which at some point in the middle of the night, Ann interpreted tree stumps as pit crews and was asking for a cheeseburger. But they came in 54th/84 overall and top 15 in the mixed division, with a time of 17 hours, 19 minutes and 18 seconds. With just over 200 hours training under her belt, “It’s one of the few races where I felt I had done everything to prepare to be there,” Ann recalls. That was in 2015.
Finished with college, she joined the Navy and was first stationed in Florida.. There on weekends she would foster a dog from the Pensacola Humane Society and go canoe-camping. Because of her love of animals, she’d been a veterinary intern in high school, and college but knew she couldn’t have a pet of her own.
At the end of her Navy training, she picked orders to come to Fort Meade, Maryland, hoping to paddle at WCC. She’d heard lots of stories about Uncle Frankie, cousin Dan and their sprint racing from Keith. She showed up at the WCC the morning after arriving in Maryland in the summer of 2016. She was honored to get to paddle in the WCC team boats, with the women's outrigger team, and in marathon boats, but ultimately was taken by the grace and power of the Ross brothers in their high-kneel sprint canoes, and the challenge it entailed.
At a crab feast, Jimmy Ross let her try one of the old Delta sprint canoes. She fell in immediately over and over and over again, but eventually she did manage a 10-meter wobbly half circle up past the outriggers. “A sprint canoe is very honest,” says Ann. “It tells you when you are doing it right or wrong.” From that point on, she paddled the high-kneel canoe every opportunity, practicing with the juniors, getting coaching from Ian and Gavin Ross, and eventually working out with Teresa Haught, another WCC former Olympian who helped Ann develop training plans, a work ethic, and set goals. Ann would gauge her success by how few times she would tip over during a practice and remembers how thrilled she was when she paddled up to mile rock and back dry. “My legs were shaking so much that I fell onto the dock,” she recalls.
Her first races were at the 2016 Middle States, and the following May, she tested her progress at the U.S. sprint national team trials. Her first two races she came in 3rd and 4th, too slow to earn a spot, but on her last 200-meter try, after a bad J-stroke, she put all caution aside and paddled as hard as she could, winning that race and a spot on the national team. “I won that race because I was strong, not because I had good technique,” says Ann–and lucky not to fall out of the boat. Over the summer, she earned respectable rankings at international races in Europe given her level of experience. At the U.S. Nationals she was thrilled to get to represent WCC, and contribute to earning points towards the SR Highpoint trophy named in honor of WCC.
Her season concluded in the Czech Republic, at the World Championships. After flipping over her C2 at the start of her first race, “I was really disappointed with myself,” Ann explained. Still when Ann returned to Washington at the end of the summer, she was ready to learn more and wanted to focus on solid technique.” While slowly regaining her confidence in the boat again, and with the patient help of Gavin and Theresa, Ann began her fall training and looking towards next year. With that she set her goals for 2018, “I want to focus on proper paddling, good technique, and strength endurance.” Ann laughs explaining she hopes if given the opportunity, to do better in the C2, and qualify for finals. “I learned a lot about myself, and the sport this year, I am very grateful for all the help from everyone, and look forward to taking it with me next year.” For the rest of the fall, she paddled four to five days a week often with coaching from Dan and Theresa, and spent a lot of time in the gym. “I don’t want anyone to be stronger than me,” she says. “With sprint racing, the whole point is to make an Olympic team.” And in 2018, if she meets those goals, she will give that a try in 2019.