Posted by: Tom Boyd
The kayak champion plays her own childhood lessons forward
By Shauna Farnell
While packing up her family and the RV to hit the road and river for seven months, Emily Jackson would be the last person you’d ever guess hated kayaking at some point in her life.
We are talking about a woman who willfully paddles in full-blown blizzards and who won the U.S. Freestyle Kayaking Championships when she was nine months pregnant.
As the daughter of whitewater pioneer and Jackson Kayak founder Eric Jackson, from early childhood, Emily faced a fair amount of pressure to excel at was intrinsically considered the family sport.
“It wasn’t an option, ever. We went kayaking every day. It was always, ‘this is what we’re doing and you’re doing it,’ Emily says. “When I started getting to the age where my dad was meeting other kids who were kayaking a lot harder and better than I was, he was bummed.”
Emily believes her initial ill feelings toward kayaking, which ranged from resistant to outright loathing, had more to do with a need for control than actual dislike of the sport.
“My dad was saying, ‘you’re running this river … it doesn’t matter if you’re crying the whole way there.’ Rather than thinking about kayaking, I was just mad and upset, probably because I didn’t have the control rather than that I wasn’t enjoying kayaking.”
Growing up living in an RV with her younger brother and parents, who had sold their home in Betheseda, Maryland, along with their car and nearly all of their possessions in order to live a free and groundless, river-running lifestyle, Emily turned her attitude around one day when she was about 12. She decided, unbidden, to go out for a paddle.
“It was the middle of the winter in Rock Island, Tenn. There isn’t much to do. My mom tried to get us into judo classes and I wasn’t into it. I longed to fit in somewhere. I was like, ‘I’m going kayaking today.’ I told my dad, ‘I want to go down to the flat water and work on my roll.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll get the truck.’”
Once on the river, Emily made it clear that she was running the show that day.
“I said, ‘Leave me be. I don’t want you telling me what to do.’ My brother and I played Simon Says for two and a half hours. We could do combat rolls before I knew it. When I took control over my own self-learning, that’s when the passion grew.”
And the rest, as evidenced by her trophy shelf of numerous world and national championship medals, is history.
“I realized I loved kayaking and the aspect of competition. Friendly competition with my brother in the eddy there, on that day, pushed everything into the next stage,” she says.
Now at age 29, Emily is married to fellow pro kayaker Nick Troutman and has her own children – Tucker, 5, who she home schools and describes as “sensitive and always making a solid point about something” and Parker, 2, “always naked with hair down to her butt and covered in bruises.”
Considering her father’s approach and her turbulent early days in a kayak, Emily is determined to allow free reign for Tucker and Parker – both of whom, of course, have their own boats – to organically develop warm feelings toward the sport.
“I try really hard to not have any expectations with them. One of the biggest turn downs for kids is the fear of disappointment, my son’s fear of disappointing me in the kayak. I don’t want it to be like it was for me when I was like, I’m EJ’s daughter, but I’m so disappointing and I hate kayaking. We want him to see the other parts we love about kayaking – talking about ducks and other things in the water, the cool things we saw or did. There’s so much more to kayaking than just kayaking. We want him to focus on the whole experience so he always looks back and says, ‘it’s really fun.’”
For Emily, it’s the whole experience – the travel, the sights and sounds, the people along the way, the mentality and the lifestyle – that she hopes her kids embrace more than the sport.
“The thing I love about kayaking the most is the places I get to go. Even if they don’t want to go kayaking, that’s fine for me. I just hope they stay open to different lifestyles and communities and cultures. I hope they experience enough different ones to recognize there isn’t a right way or a wrong way. That’s all I really want for them. Some people can’t figure out that most of your life should be spent on what makes you happy. The end goal is for your children to be happy. The only way I know to help them figure that out is to travel more.”
And off they go. During the Jacksons’ seven-month, cross-continental RV tour, they will, as always, make what’s sure to be a memorable stop at the Mountain Games this June.
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