A week ago, as he prepared to compete in the four-day Penobscot River Whitewater Nationals Regatta, J.R. Mabee of Bangor shared a secret about his sport.
Champions, it turns out, come in all shapes and sizes.
And ages. (Don’t forget that one).
“Time in the boat and experience are the biggest things,” Mabee said. “A lot of the fastest times you’ll see, even here at nationals, come from the 40-year-olds with lots of experience.”
By Sunday, when the event wrapped up and the American Canoe Association had committed to stage its national championships on the river for the next two years, Mabee’s words had proven out.
Racing alongside (and often ahead of) the young guns were an impressive group of wily veterans who have spent much of their adults on the water.
If you’ve ever wanted to feel supremely out of shape, there are two surefire ways to do that, I’ve learned: Head to Beantown and interview runners before the Boston Marathon … or stop by a top-level canoe race and chat with the paddlers.
At the latter, you’ll meet guys like Ed Sharp of Fredericksburg, Va., a 75-year-old retiree who makes a point of competing in the nationals each year. To him, age is just a way of counting how much he has learned.
“The older you get, the more practice time you get,” Sharp said. “And the longer you paddle, the more you learn. You learn something new every day, and I learned something today.”
Of course, some of those hard-earned lessons end up sounding like something you’d assume wouldn’t take a lifetime to learn.
“You should know if there’s somebody behind you during the race,” he explained with a laugh. “And if they are, you’ve got to be aware that they’re going to try to get by you. We didn’t, and they got us.”
To be clear, only one team “got” Sharp and his 61-year-old paddling partner, Keith Havens. And the team that did was in a younger age class.
Havens, who now lives just outside Deer Lodge, Tenn., is another paddler whose performance doesn’t seem to suffer even as he ages. His paddling pedigree is well-known among the other racers, who’ll tell you that both his father and his uncle were Olympic medalists in the sport.
His uncle Frank was immortalized in a documentary of filmmaker Bud Greenspan’s favorite Olympic moments. Frank Havens’ dad — Keith’s grandfather — was to have competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but stayed home so that he’d be there for Frank’s birth.
Frank went on to compete in 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and when he won gold, he sent a telegraph that eventually came to Greenspan’s attention.
“[He wrote], ‘Dad, I’m bringing home the gold medal you should have won when you stayed home with me,” Keith Havens said.
Keith Havens is now the chairman of the American Canoe Association’s downriver open canoe competition committee, which awarded Old Town the next two national championships events. He said that there are wilder rivers across the nation, and mentioned one thing about the Penobscot races that he didn’t particularly enjoy.
But he admits he’s nitpicking a bit.
“There’s an awful lot of flatwater in the middle that we whitewater paddlers aren’t as used to,” he said. “But when you’re out there paddling on flatwater and you see a couple of bald eagles flying overhead, it makes up for it.”
George Stockman, a 71-year-old from Lansing, Mich., spent Saturday competing in the sprint races, and completed a busy day by paddling solo down a course that covered about 800 yards of the river.
While carrying his canoe up a hill — also solo — Stockman said he has only missed two or three national competitions since he began racing in 1977. For him, the races serve as a reunion with buddies he rarely sees.
“It’s more the friends [that keep bringing me back],” Stockman said. “I love whitewater paddling, especially in Maine. I’m all the way from Michigan, so I don’t see these guys except during nationals.”
And for the next two years, that reunion will take place on the Penobscot.