When you were young, where did your priorities lie? Finding prom dates? Thursday pep rallies? Homework? How about stomping class-V rapids and landing backflips on your snowboard? For these five up-and-coming adventurers, that’s precisely what they spend their free time doing.
Face it—wintertime in these parts isn’t the most conducive to giving diehard powder hounds a six-month season, but that’s not to say the next Shaun White isn’t ripping up the East as we speak. Virginia-born and raised Evan Swett is the next generation of freestyle snowboarding. With Wintergreen Resort in his backyard, Swett offsets the short and mild winters by heading an hour south to train on the faux-snow features at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Center. To Swett, every day is a training day.
“My favorite trick is a backflip with a tail grab,” Swett says. “I have a signature grab—I call it the suitcase method.” It’s like a regular grab but you reach around completely to the opposite side of the board so it looks like you’re holding a suitcase.”
Execution of the suitcase method looks much like its name might suggest, as if Swett were casually sailing through the air carrying his board at his side like a suitcase. In just five years of riding, this innovative young ripper regularly stakes his rightful spot at the podium in the local rail jams. He’s quickly on his way to becoming one of the best riders on Wintergreen’s Freeride Team, but for Swett, competition comes second.
“I learned that it’s not all about competition and winning,” Swett says. “It’s about being around your friends and having a fun time you can remember.”
Swett has been invited twice to Copper Mountain to compete in Nationals, beating out nearly half of the other competitors both years in a row. He’s a reserve snowboard athlete in the Monster Energy Army and, when he’s not hitting the books, you can bet he’s on the slopes or in the park practicing his moves.
“I just want to keep on snowboarding,” Swett says. “My parents are pretty supportive. They let me do whatever I want.”
That is, within reason. School is still a priority, and academics can prove particularly demanding at times. Swett’s a hard worker, though, and even the short winters, unrelenting schoolwork, and sprained ankle he sustained two years ago can’t stand up to the passion he has for improving his riding.
“You’re spending the entire season getting ready for these two runs that you’re going to take,” Swett says in reference to his time at Nationals. “There’s a lot on your shoulders when you’re sitting at the top looking down and planning your run. My coaches taught me just to close my eyes and imagine my entire run, going through all of the features and being in the air, and imagine my face at the bottom, smiling, knowing I did well.”
So far, it seems, that technique has worked. Let’s see where his imagination will take him next.
A day in the life of most high schoolers typically involves a lot of classroom time, maybe some afterschool team practice, and hours upon hours of homework. For the most part, that’s exactly what 20-year-old Dylan McKinney’s high school years were like, except for one key difference: he started his day off with a lap down the Green River Narrows.
“I was pretty much always late,” McKinney says. “The Green was 30 minutes from my high school, so I found that if I dawn patrolled the Narrows, I’d be on time.”
McKinney started kayaking when he was 15 years old, a decision he made after a number of snowboarding, skateboarding, and skiing injuries led to an arthroscopic knee surgery.
“The recovery time was six to 12 months,” McKinney remembers. “The snow that year in the Southeast was really incredible and it just sucked sitting around.”
At the suggestion of his friend, McKinney decided to do something about that boredom and attended a local roll clinic. Little did he know that that decision would change the course of his life. Within the first year of his paddling career, McKinney was already firing up class IV-V runs, from the Watauga River to the Green River Narrows. He progressed quickly, perhaps too quickly (as he’ll be the first to admit), but he found something in kayaking he had yet to find in any other sport.
“The way I feel when I’m paddling doesn’t really compare to anything else,” he says. “It kinda relieves all this stress.”
To McKinney, “stress” isn’t what he feels when he’s about to plunge over the lip of a 90-foot waterfall like Metlako Falls in Oregon. It’s not even what he feels when he’s getting pummeled at the bottom of Boxcar on the North Fork of the French Broad and on the verge of drowning. Stress for this 20-year-old looks much like the stress of any college junior. Between studying for tests, writing papers, and figuring out life (aka girls), kayaking is where McKinney finds peace, challenge, and thrill all wrapped up into one adrenaline-packed enchilada.
“For me, I want to see myself getting competitive and really pushing myself, whether it’s in races or running big drops,” he says, “but I also just want to have fun and not let being competitive ruin it. The whole reason I started kayaking was to have fun and I want to stay true to those roots.”
McKinney is a paddler for Pyranha Kayaks and is also sponsored by Werner Paddles and Astral Designs. He is currently in his third year of nursing school at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and plans to “somehow fund a year of traveling around the world” after college. And yes, those travels will likely involve hucking waterfalls and running stouts.
Though dominated by males, the adventure world has its fair share of powerful ladies who can easily out-shred the guys in their sport. Rowan Stuart is one of those gals. A freestyle kayaker from western North Carolina, she’s been on the water giving the guys a run for their money (her father and brother included) since she was ten years old.
“We’re pretty lucky if we get enough junior girls to make a prelim and finals round,” Stuart says of her category. “More than five is a lot.”
Stuart just turned 18 this past year, though, so the slim number of junior competitors won’t be such an issue in 2015—in fact, she’ll have plenty of professional women kayakers to go up against, like her own hero, Adriene Levknecht.
Stuart’s racked up quite an impressive paddling résumé in less than a decade of kayaking – from winning the Junior Women’s K1 division in the 2013 ICF World Freestyle Championships in Bryson City, N.C., to taking the gold again in her category at the 2014 World Cup in Spain (and a host of other podium titles at world-renowned events like the Payette River Games and GoPro Mountain Games). She’s paddled most of the classics in the Southeast and a number of reputable runs out West like the Green Truss in Washington and Homestake Creek in Colorado.
She’s fearless and funny, the perfect combination of sweet and strong, and when she’s not adjusting to a new life of dorm rooms and meal swipes (ah, the life of a college freshman), she’s hitching a ride to a kayaking event, even if that means driving 13 hours to the Moose River in New York.
“I’m not one of those people who want to scare themselves out of their minds,” Stuart says. “Somehow, I still do it but I keep kayaking anyway. I don’t know why I kayak really, but that’s not it.”
Though Stuart’s forte is playboating, she is quickly proving her might on some of the toughest creeks in the Southeast like the Russell Fork Gorge and Green River Narrows. Stuart paddles for Pyranha Kayaks and is also sponsored by Werner Paddles, Astral Designs, Shred Ready, Immersion Research, and Rapid Straps. She is currently studying psychology at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, N.C., and says her life comprises, mainly, of four actions.
“Read, sleep, eat, and kayak.”
Of course, not in that order.
At an age when most kids are lucky just to survive the trials and tribulations of preteen-dom, 12-year-old Isaac Hull is occupied with anxieties of a different sort.
To boof or not to boof? Phonix Monkey or McNasty? Paddle before or after school? Or both? If you couldn’t guess, kayaking is Isaac Hull’s bread and butter. With the class II-III James River just a short 10-minute drive from his parents’ home in Richmond, Hull has spent the past 4½ years of his life dedicated to his passion for whitewater.
“A lot of people want to get into kayaking, but their parents can’t take them or they can’t find a ride,” Hull says of his own age group. “I’m really lucky to have my dad.”
Hull’s father, Chris, has paddled for over 30 years and was Hull’s biggest advocate for going big with kayaking. Together, the two of them knocked off all of the local runs like the class III-IV Maury River and the class V North Fork of the Tye. Hull has since racked up some personal first descents down a few of the more reputable runs in the Southeast like the Upper Gauley and the Green River Narrows.
Hull’s a well-rounded paddler, though, firing up more than just steep creeks and big volume rivers. Last year, he placed 4th in the Upper Yough downriver race and claimed 5th place at Dominion Riverrock’s freestyle competition on his home river. He’s a sponsored kayaker for Dagger Kayaks, Adventure Technology Paddles, and Sweet Production helmets and regularly paddles on the weekends with some of the region’s top whitewater paddlers. Yet despite this apparently natural and rapid progression, Hull says he’s in no rush.
“My dad always said, ‘don’t push your limits.’ You can’t have people telling you all the time, ‘I think you can do this,’” he says. “You have to know that line and be confident that you can do it.”
The confidence Hull has gained from the cockpit of his boat provides him with a levelheaded coolness that most of his peers likely won’t achieve for another decade. He’s ahead of the game no doubt, but despite paddling more days a week after school than going to lacrosse practice, Hull takes a very mature and realistic approach to making a living as a kayaker.
“I definitely want to go to college,” he says. “Kayaking is a short term thing. You can’t do pro kayaking all your life. Chris Gragtmans is a good example of someone who has a steady job, who’s not just a pro kayaker, but is also going out and living the life.”
From playboating to creek boating and river running, Hull does it all. When school’s out for summer, he cross-trains by swimming on the local swim team with his friends. He’s naturally athletic and down-to-earth, but at heart, he’s still a kid with big ideas about the future.
“There’s not really a limit to what you can do,” Hull says. “You can always explore new things and do new tricks. That’s what I love about kayaking.”
Adam Homberg’s life is adventure. Sure, maybe he’s only 15 and can’t drive himself to the put-in, but it doesn’t matter when you’re the type of person who feels more at home in the woods than between four walls — you’ll find a way.
“My family’s always been around the outdoors,” Homberg says. “My Dad used to be on the U.S. slalom kayaking team,” which would explain why kayaking is one of Homberg’s passions.
With the Adventure Sports Center International (ASCI) and quality runs like the top and upper sections of the Youghiogheny River out his backdoor, if Homberg’s not in school, he’s on the water.
“My dad is one of my favorite people to go kayaking with,” Homberg says. “He told me to never give up. I used to get really mad when I couldn’t do something, but he helped me progress.”
And progress he did. Homberg is now a sponsored paddler for Pyranha Kayaks, Astral Designs, Immersion Research, Adventure Technology Paddles, and Demshitz. It’s safe to say that a day in the life of this kid usually involves more hours in the cockpit of his kayak than anywhere else. Unless, that is, the rivers aren’t running. So what’s a guy to do when the water dries up? For Homberg, he’ll take anything on a board. Wakeboarding, longboarding, snowboarding—really it’s just a matter of the weather.
“I like longboarding,” Homberg says, “just to go out and cruise. It feels like snowboarding.”
Though he is sponsored by Palo Mesa Longboards, his real love of riding shines through in his pursuit of freestyle snowboarding. He’s a regular at the local competitions, from the annual Motown Throwdown to the rail jams at Seven Springs and Wisp Resort. When you see Homberg’s name on the list of competitors, you can bet he’ll be bringing the heat. Homberg’s a natural athlete, an all-around outdoorsman, but he’s also a straight-A-student and a key member of the high school soccer team.
“You have to be a good team player and be there for people,” Homberg says. “I like how both kayaking and freestyle snowboarding are individual sports. I like team sports too, but I like pushing myself on my own schedule and doing my own things to progress.”
From the notoriously dangerous Upper Blackwater River to the Upper Gauley, Homberg has stepped up his kayaking game in recent years. Between kayaking, snowboarding, and longboarding, Homberg is comfortably walking around the halls of high school with 10 sponsors backing him already. Despite this, he says that brand endorsement was never what did it for him.
“I don’t care if I go mega-pro,” he says. “I just want to go out and have a good time with my friends. I definitely want to keep snowboarding and kayaking, but I’m thinking about going into business and marketing in college.”
Homberg’s snowboarding sponsors include Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate, 686, Thirtytwo, and Shred Soles. If you’re wondering how Homberg gets enough fuel to keep up with maintaining straight As, kayaking the gnar, and throwing down front blunts at the park, you’ll find the answer between two pieces of bread. Egg sandwich. Hold the cheese. •