Words by: Nina Zietman
“There's no such thing as professional kayaker. It doesn't exist…" I’m sat with four-time world champion kayaker, Eric Jackson. He’s a former US Olympian, coach, fisherman, author, filmer, boat designer, father-of-three. Just don’t call him a professional kayaker.
“I’m just someone who wants to kayak as much as possible, wherever I want, at any given time." Jackson explains that his goal was never to make shedloads of money – or consequently be labelled as a pro. But 40 years on from when he started, he's still making a living from the sport.
Jackson has been at the forefront of freestyle kayaking since it began in the late 1980s. He won the freestyle world championships in 1993 and later in 2001, 2005 and 2007. He’s represented the USA in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Today, he’s competing in the freestyle kayaking event at the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado. Despite being 50 years old, he’s still competing in (and winning) freestyle comps against kids half his age.
The Early Days
When Jackson started kayaking with his dad back in the 1970s, freestyle kayaking didn’t exist. No one guessed that one day this kid from Ohio with a homemade boat and an old goofy lifejacket would go on to pioneer a new discipline in the sport.
It wasn’t until 1983 that Jackson’s life changed forever. He was working part-time as a whitewater photographer in his summer holidays. “One day, I was on the shore with my camera, waiting for the rafts when this guy comes down, surfing this wave.
"There's A USA kayak team?! At the time, I didn't even know it existed..."
"He's got a weird skinny kayak and a red, white and blue lifejacket with USA written on it. I chased him down the river. He told me he was on the USA kayak team. I said, 'There's a USA kayak team?!' I didn't even know it existed."
Jackson was 19 years old when he moved down to Washington DC to train with Olympic coach, Bill Endicott. “He said if you move here and train full time for five years, you'll make the Olympic team. I thought pfffft, I'll make it in the first year. Five years later, in 1989, I finally made the team."
He went on to represent the USA in the K-1 slalom event at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. But Jackson's real passion lay in the freestyle side of kayaking. “I've always been on the leading edge of that," says Jackson. “Getting in the water, doing crazy things, stuff that people didn't do in kayaks". He invented tricks including the Splitwheel, the McNasty and the Lunar Orbit.
The beginnings of Jackson Kayak
“I used to say it's not the boat, it's the motor. Put me in any boat and I'll do fine." However, while training for the 1993 world championships, Jackson changed his tune. “My boat was so much bigger and heavier than other people's boats. I couldn't cartwheel in it. I realised I couldn't win in that boat."
So Jackson collaborated with his sponsors to make a new fibreglass boat. He won first place in the freestyle world championships later that year. “That was the first time it occurred to me that the boat matters."
After a few more years of testing boats at the world championships, Jackson realised there was still something wrong. None of the kayak prototypes were right. They were either too long, too heavy or just the wrong shape.
So together with his friend David Knight, a naval architect, Jackson designed a freestyle boat called the X Boat. “It was amazing," says Jackson. “Not because we designed it, but because it was very cutting edge. I won every event that year in that boat, including the world championships."
Wave Sport put the X Boat into production. It became the top seller and Jackson became their boat designer. It was this that sparked his passion for not only kayaking, but creating the best boat possible.
I used to say it's not the boat, it's the motor. Put me in any boat and I'll do fine. I soon changed my tune
For the next few years, Jackson travelled the country with his wife Kristine, two children, Emily and Dane, and their two dogs. They piled into a giant RV and set off for wherever the water conditions were good, competing and designing boats for Wave Sport along the way.
Eventually Jackson and Knight broke off to form their own kayak brand, Jackson Kayak, for which he is known for today. They were one of the first companies to make children’s kayaks and high-end fishing kayaks. He now produces some of the most high performance freestyle kayaks in the world.
11 years on, Jackson Kayak isn’t just a successful business. It’s also a fully-fledged family affair. Eric is still at the helm of the operation but he's now assisted by Kristine, Emily, Dane and Emily’s husband.
Both Emily (24) and Dane (20) compete alongside Eric and have gone on to win multiple world titles themselves. “I think my biggest achievement has been making sure both of my kids are self-sufficient. If Jackson Kayak disappeared tomorrow, outside being athletes, they could both get jobs in sales, marketing, whatever. They’re set for life."
Beyond family achievements, surely representing the USA in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic slalom team has been one of, if not the highlight of Jackson’s life so far? “Personally, I think the Olympics is the single most devastating thing to happen to a sport," says Jackson. It's not the answer I'm expecting at all, but Jackson goes on to explain:
“It was one of the best experiences of my life," he says. “But what happens is kids get into a sport, they start training for the Olympics. One person from each country makes the team. It’s usually the same person every four years until they get beat. So you might go through a decade or more when one person is stronger than everyone else – and you don’t get to go."
I think the Olympics is the single most devastating thing to happen to a sport
In the last 22 years, only six US men have been selected to represent the USA in the K-1 event at the Olympics. Jackson thinks the real problem with the Olympics is that it gives kids a warped sense of what they should be working towards. "If they just focus on training for the Olympics – and they don’t make it and quit – it destroys the sport".
“When most swimmers are done training for the Olympics, they don’t say ‘Hey, let’s go to the pool and do some laps’, because they’ve done a million. It’s not fun anymore. Kayaking kinda turned into that."
Currently, freestyle kayaking isn’t an Olympic sport but debate continues to rage over whether or not it should be included in the future. “I really hope it doesn’t go Olympic," says Jackson. “Kids today, they’re doing [the sport] ‘cause they love it, it’s super fun and it’s a lifestyle. The second it becomes an Olympic [sport], you start having coaches, people telling you what to do and it becomes less fun."
ERIC JACKSON’S ADVICE ON HOW TO KAYAK FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
1. Decide what you want to do. Do you want to be a top competitor? Which event? Pick a good spot for that discipline and hang out there as much as possible.
2. Work out how to make money remotely. If you have to clock in anywhere, it’s gonna be hard.
3. Don’t just ask sponsors for money, you’ve got to have something to offer them in exchange for cash or discounted products. Video editing, decent writing skills and a big Facebook following is a good place to start.
4. Don’t go to your sponsor and tell them you need more money. Cut your expenses. Simplify your lifestyle. Tell me what you can do for me and I’ll tell you what it’s worth.
5. Never expect to get paid what you think you’re worth. If you always provide more benefit than you’re getting paid, then you’ve got job security.
Training with Eric Jackson
While he may not believe in Olympic training, coaching is still very much a part of what Jackson does today. Although it’s not what you’d call conventional coaching.
In Eric’s words, training is “play" – which gives you an idea of what his ethos is. “We play in a variety of places, wherever the water is good. If the creek is running and you want to run the creek, we’ll do that."
“It’s usually the adults, the coaches, the managers that figure out a way to take a game and turn it into work. My objective is to not do that. If you don’t want to kayak today, don’t kayak today The reason I’ve been doing it so long and I’m still competing is because it’s fun. I still really enjoy it."
Just as it’s worked for Jackson, this style of coaching has produced the same results in his son, Dane. He has consistently placed in the top five in the ICF Freestyle World Championships in the last three years and is currently sponsored by Red Bull and GoPro. Similarly, it’s worked for his daughter Emily who was the World Cup champion in 2012 and the women’s World Freestyle champion in 2009.
“There’s no way I’d ever tell them you have to go here or do that," says Jackson. “Our mentality is different. We’re always exploring and trying to invent new moves, trying to do things we’ve never done before."
Does he see himself ever retiring from kayaking? “As long as I’m having fun and it’s what I want to do, then I’ll keep doing it. I can’t imagine not competing. Sitting and watching is hard!"
Jackson's style of coaching is something we could all learn from, regardless of the sport we practice. Sometimes it's hard to remember why you got into it in the first place, particularly when you head down the competitive route.
However, it doesn't matter whether you play tennis, climb mountains or ride powder, the motivation is still the same. We're all out to the have fun, and that's the most important part of all.
You might not make millions, win trophies or represent your country in the Olympics by doing your chosen sport - if you do, then you're damn lucky. Just don’t go around calling yourself a professional kayaker.