We’re all guilty of sneaking in a little YouTube session during a lunch break to check out the latest adventure porn. But what you don’t see in those sick skiing videos of Ingrid Backstrom or the unbelievable biking stunts from Danny MacAskill are the countless times they crashed and burned.
The road to success for four of our top regional athletes was also chock full of bumps and detours. Here are their hard lessons learned and their advice for taking your training to the next level.
Imagine showing up to the Oregon Cup, one of the premier freestyle kayaking events in the country, with little more than a Prijon kayak, some gear, one friend, and a silly amount of stoke to simply be kayaking. That’s precisely how Virginia’s Stephen Wright made his entry into the competitive freestyle kayaking scene.
The year was 2004, and no one had ever heard of Wright. But that all changed after one of his impressive rides bumped Wright into the top three, second only to Eric Jackson himself.
“I learned a lot at that event,” Wright remembers. “Even though I was competing against the top athletes in the sport, I was just blown away by how nice and supportive they were.”
Wright left a lasting impression on Eric Jackson, who had just launched his Jackson Kayaks. Later that summer, Wright would join the Jackson Team and train with EJ himself at his home in Rock Island, Tenn.
“That was really the beginning for me,” Wright says. “He let me work at the Jackson factory to make a little bit of money, but mostly I just kayaked every day.”
Wright grew up on the banks of the Potomac in the Great Falls area. He always loved the outdoors, but as a kid, his interests were more in backpacking, caving, and rock climbing. It wasn’t until he was 19 years old that Wright decided to take the leap and try his hand at kayaking.
“A friend of mine knew how to kayak and worked at an outdoor shop,” Wright remembers. “He told me they were going to have a sale and that there was a boat at the shop for $300. He told me if I bought the boat and all the gear, he’d teach me how to kayak.”
Wright purchased the boat and all of the gear without ever having sat in a kayak before. His first day on the water, though, Wright knew he’d made a smart decision.
“It was the most fun thing I’d ever done in my life,” Wright says. “I learned how to roll in half an hour and since that day, I’ve only swam maybe five times in the last 17 years [of kayaking]. I took like a duck to water.”
Wright has since gone on to be a four-time U.S. National Freestyle Champion, a two-time World bronze medalist, and a two-time Teva Mountain Games Freestyle Champion. Wright’s also quite the squirt boater, regularly staking podium finishes at the annual Mystery Championships. He’s paddled around the world, from Canada’s Ottawa River to the Nile in Uganda. It’s obvious—Wright’s happy place is on the water.
So how did he take his hobby and make it not only his career but also his way of life? Lucky for you, Wright has a few tips for prospective paddlers.
HAVE FRIENDS WHO ARE BETTER THAN YOU.
Now this may seem like a bite to your self-esteem levels, but according to Wright, paddling with people who are astronomically better than you will only help you learn more quickly, especially if you’re taking the self-taught approach.
EMBRACE THE UNKNOWN.
If you want to throw loops in the hole, stop flat spinning. Spend your time practicing the tricks that you’re not good at instead of continuing to do what you already know how to do. This seems like a pretty basic concept, but you’d be surprised how many kayakers cartwheel until they’re too dizzy to roll instead of flailing at their Phonics Monkeys. Failing is good—it means you’re trying hard.
GO BACK TO THE BASICS.
Each time you get on the water, spend a little time practicing fundamental kayaking and freestyle skills like front strokes, backstrokes, sweeps, and braces. If you do this every time you paddle, you’ll target good habits and develop new skills much faster.
And not just in competitions. Play competitive games with your friends when you’re paddling. The game HORSE can be applied to most every sport; freestyle kayaking is no exception. You can also set challenges for the group—who can do the most tricks in 30 seconds or who can get the most air.
While kayaking is Wright’s career, he’s made an effort to separate his self-imposed expectations from his genuine love for paddling. “One pitfall of aspiring competitive kayakers is thinking that they’re going to make a lot of money kayaking, which just doesn’t happen to anybody, even the few of us who get paid by sponsors,” Wright says. “We live very inexpensive lives and we do it because we love it.”
“Feeling as though your competitive results are a measure of your self-worth as a kayaker is dangerous,” he adds. “The people who last in this sport are people who are able to enjoy learning and accomplishing personal goals rather than worrying about where they place in competition.”
Maryland Chute Out
Washington, D.C., Aug. 2015
For the past 17 years, the MD Chute Out has attracted some of the most talented up-and-coming playboaters in the region, a number of whom have gone on to compete on the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Team.
Tri-Cities Nolichucky Hometown Throwdown
Erwin, Tenn., Summer 2015
Pending water levels, the Tri-Cities HTTD is held at either the Jaws rapid or at Big Rock and goes throughout the summer. This is where Pyranha paddler Mike Patterson cut his teeth, so don’t be surprised if there’s someone in a Jed showing everyone up—it’s probably Patterson.
World Kayak Hometown Throwdown
Pigeon River, Tenn.—June 2015
Fun and free and open to everyone, this HTTD event is aimed at getting more people on the water trying their hand at playboating and boater cross.
Horse Shoe, North Carolina
There are few people in this world who would stick with a sport that, upon the first time trying it, ended their day with a trip to the hospital and a broken ankle. Ally Stacher, though, is one of those few people. A competitive wrestler throughout high school and most of college, Stacher is used to a little struggle, a little pain. Perhaps it’s those fundamental characteristics that have earned her a reputation for being one of the best domestiques in the women’s professional cycling circuit today.
“Cycling has taught me to work hard,” Stacher says of her rather short career in professional cycling. “That and how to be a part of a team. When one person wins, we all win.”
In the spring of 2009, Stacher joined the U.S. National Team. Though she’d spent the majority of her college career wrestling, she had started cycling regularly on her trainer after breaking her elbow at a match. She eventually made the switch to cycling full-time midway through college and was offered a scholarship to Lees McRae to be part of their up-and-coming cycling team, an opportunity she jumped at. Despite a couple years’ experience of racing, when she joined the National Team, she was still a rookie at best. Stacher didn’t let that stop her, but she will be the first to admit the learning curve was, and continues to be, a steep one.
“During my first trip to Europe on the National Team, one of the girls told me, ‘if you quit a race, you get sent home,’” Stacher says. “I was so scared of dropping out or quitting a race that I decided I’d never do that. But, then I got dropped in the first 10K of the race.”
Once she got dropped, Stacher says she tried in vain to find the finish line and spent the entire day and evening riding the labyrinth of streets, desperately riding to make it to the finish before the race was over. Finally, well after the race was over, two-time world champion and the winner of the day’s race Kristen Armstrong drove around and found Stacher aimlessly wandering on her bike.
Though no doubt a humiliating first experience, Stacher didn’t retreat from the challenge. She trained harder, rode faster, and interpreted everything as a learning opportunity, even when she made a wrong turn once during a criterium race and clotheslined herself off the bike. Her grit and dedication didn’t go unnoticed, though. In 2010, she joined the Webbcor Professional Cycling Team, her first official contract, and just a year later, Stacher signed with the elite HTC-Highroad team.
“You either sink or swim in competitive cycling,” Stacher says, “so I put on some floaties and learned how to swim in deep water.”
Though HTC-Highroad eventually dissolved as the largest men and women’s cycling team in the world, Stacher stayed with the same crew of 10 women. Together, these ladies now form Team Specialized-Lululemon, the fastest women’s team in the industry today. In the team’s first year on the road in 2012 they won over 60 races and finished the season as World Team Time Trial Champions.
Stacher’s well on her way to becoming a reputable domestique like the famous George Hincappie, Lance Armstrong’s right-hand-man and the only rider to assist Armstrong in his seven now-null Tour de France victories. Stacher has helped her team take the gold at La Flèche Wallonne, a prestige classic in Belgium, as well as other races around the world like the China World Cup and La Route de France Internationale Féminine.
Stacher’s competed in over 14 different countries, from Slovakia to Canada, and has even held her own as a competitive mountain biker. Just this past year, Stacher joined the Queen of Pain herself, six-time World Champion and four-time Leadville 100 Champion Rebecca Rusch, to win two of the seven stages in the 2014 Brasil Ride.
“You learn to suffer even more when you get that fire in your belly,” Stacher says. Here are five ways to stoke the fire.
DO GROUP RIDES.
Whether it’s mountain biking or road riding, learning to ride around people is going to introduce you to people who can help get you where you need to be. From learning how to train efficiently or how to fuel properly or even what to wear, riding your bike around other people is, according to Stacher, “super valuable.”
EAT ALLY’S BARS.
Stacher’s a little biased on this one – not only is she a professional cyclist but she also happens to be an entrepreneur. Her company, Ally’s Bars, produces energy bars based from sweet potatoes and other wholesome, natural ingredients. She says fueling right is key for putting in long miles.
“If you don’t eat while you race, you might as well consider your race over,” Stacher says.
MOTIVATION IS KEY.
Athletes require a notable amount of internal motivation and dedication to turn their passions into a lifestyle and a career. It’s not easy, and requires a lot of dedication, but wherever you find motivation, use it, harness it, and you’ll only be successful.
Don’t quit a race. Don’t quit a training session. Don’t quit eating well. Just don’t quit. Ever. According to Stacher, “if you drop out for health issues or an injury, that’s one thing, but if you quit because it’s too hard, I don’t feel bad for you. Once you learn how to quit, it’s easy to keep quitting.”
GET A COACH.
Stacher works with Colin Izzard of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) in Brevard, N.C. She says it’s important for athletes to have someone they can bounce ideas off of when it comes to their training load, work load, even daily life stress load.
“Every top rider has a coach and their coach is their everything,” Stacher says. “If you want to excel in a sport, find a coach that’s going to train you to meet your goals.”
STACHER’S FAVORITE CYCLING EVENTS
Parx Casino Philly Cycling Classic
Philadelphia, Penn., June 2015
A one-day, USA Cycling professional race, this might not necessarily be for everyone but it’s sure to draw the world’s most elite riders to the eastern corner of Pennsylvania.
Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships
Chattanooga, Tenn., May 23-25, 2015
For the third straight year, the National Championships return to the Scenic City to test the top athletes in the country. The course winds through downtown and over Lookout Mountain, an icon of the city.
North Carolina Grand Prix
Hendersonville, NC, December 2015
As the first Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) sanctioned cyclocross race ever held south of the nation’s capitol, the Grand Prix is just one example of North Carolina’s rapidly growing cyclocross community.