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Whitewater Swimmer Jay Young: Paddling Without a Boat

The first time I saw Jay Young was during a Wednesday night paddle on the New River Gorge. It was the spring of 2012 and the New was around five feet, still flowing big and brown from previous weeks of heavy rain. I stepped off the bus at Cunard and grabbed my gear, weaving through the explosion of dry bags, two-person rafts, and beer coolers to those infamous stairs down to the beach. Standing at the water’s edge in flippers, webbed gloves, and a pair of goggles was Jay Young, although I didn’t know it then. His peculiar boating attire, and absence of any boat at all, didn’t strike me as odd until he floated past me right above Upper Keeney, the first of the class V rapids on the New.

“That was actually only my second time swimming the Gorge,” Young recalls. “I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea, but I charged the eddy line behind Whale Rock…and then it got really dark.”

Perched in my kayak, I remember seeing Young’s helmet disappear below the water and counting to 10 before it reappeared a couple hundred yards downstream amid the chaos of Middle Keeney. When I caught up with him later, he was floating on his back, feet pointed downstream wearing a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

“I still love to boat,” Young says. “I still have my river board and shredder, but when the level is right and the stars are aligned, I’d rather be swimming.”

This coming from a man whose very first experience swimming in whitewater was traumatic to say the least. Young grew up in the northwestern Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. As a child, he often explored the stretches of the Potomac River past Great Falls with his summer camp. On one such outing, the camp made a special trip to a set of rapids specifically to swim through them.

“I was absolutely terrified,” Young remembers. “I didn’t swim once the whole day. Actually, I spent the whole time crying on the banks. To this day it resonates within me as one of the worst days of my life.”

 Fast-forward a decade to Young’s college years. Still scarred by his troubled, albeit hilarious, early impressions on whitewater, Young decided to take a canoeing class in hopes that the security of a long wooden boat would work better for him. Within a year, Young purchased his first C1 and began paddling regularly.

“I was still afraid of not being able to roll and having to swim,” he says. “But every time that happened, as soon as I was in the water, everything was fine. It was almost a feeling of relief. It was like the anticipation of the event was much worse than the swimming itself.”

Unfortunately for Young, he did not realize the significance of that comfort he felt swimming whitewater until almost 20 years later, long after he had swapped his canoe for a trad rack and a climbing harness. In 2005, Young and his wife moved to Fayetteville, W.Va., to be closer to good rock climbing but quickly realized that the weather in the New River Gorge wasn’t always as spectacular as the climbing itself.

“The weather is incredibly streaky,” Young says. “Within the first couple of years we had our first long spell of horrible weather and I thought, ‘it’s wet, it’s rainy, maybe I should get back into boating.’”

Soon Young had fallen back in love with kayaking and now had a pastime when the rain came. With the accessibility of world-class whitewater like the Gauley River out his backdoor, Young became a paddling machine. When the spring of 2012 rolled around, Young decided to confront those adolescent fears of swimming head-on by swimming the Gorge.

“I figured, I know where to swim and where not to be, why not swim from Cunard to Fayette Station and see what happens,” he says. “It was liberating. I was giggling the whole time. It was like an epiphany moment, like the line between me and the water was no longer there. I realized I should have been doing this all along.”

Now, Young’s whitewater swimming repertoire is known throughout town and he’s even collected a handful of moves: porpoising, which entails taking a butterfly stroke at the crest of a wave and getting some air, and the water bug, essentially a front roll over a pourover. After numerous inquiries from locals about his whitewater swimming hobby, Young has high hopes that he can start a New River Gorge swimming club this season, but says it’s not something inexperienced river rats should pick up.

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