Taking on water
Justin Patt just wasn’t down with the traditional sports.
In fact, the Nevada City teenager says he gave them all a shot – baseball, basketball, football and the sort – before his high school days, but they just weren’t his bag.
“I wasn’t the best at all the school sports,” he said. “I wanted to be into it, like the whole track and field thing. I did it, but I don’t think I could have done a 50-yard dash without stopping. I was kind of one of those kids.
“But from the moment I started this, I knew it. It was like ‘This is it, man.’ It’s the perfect sport for me.”
And, ironically enough, kayaking is now the only sport offered at his school – or at least what will be his school for the next year: The World Class Kayak Academy.
Patt, a 15-year-old sophomore, stepped away from Nevada Union High School this year to learn on the go and in the water. The Kayak Academy offers its students the opportunity to hone their kayaking skills while also keeping up with their academic endeavors.
The academy – based in Missoula, Mont. – is a nonprofit school where students travel with their faculty of certified teachers and coaches, including trips abroad, studying and paddling in locations such as New Zealand, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico.
“The whole school is a trip,” Patt proudly exclaimed, while back in Nevada County on a recent break before heading off to his playground for the next two months: the rivers and streams of Africa.
But it’s not all play.
Patt said when he’s not in the water – or sightseeing – he’s in the books, studying subjects such as algebra II, chemistry, English and World Literature.
“There were some kids with bad grades in class that didn’t get to go last year,” Patt said. “So you do have to take care of your school work.”
And meanwhile, Patt is also taking care of what he hopes to be a long and fruitful career in a kayak. In the five years he has been paddling, he’s already made a name for himself on the national scene.
In August, he placed first in the U.S. Team Trials Junior Men’s Division, meaning he will celebrate his 16th birthday in January while serving as a member of the U.S. junior team that will compete at the World Championships in Australia.
His talents and skills in editing film are evident in the videos he creates (www.wetdawg.com) along with other of the academy members. The gravity – and current – defying tricks seem to flow as smoothly to his choice of music as to the water below.
“I don’t know about a career,” he said, “but I would like to make a full-length kayak video and sell it.”
But he wasn’t always so smooth.
His parents, Jay and Laura, are also avid kayakers, meaning the sport became a regular family outing for them after Justin was introduced to the foam of white water – and all it entails.
“I saw him face his fears,” Jay said. “I think he got a certain self-satisfaction out of that.”
Justin recalled one of those early fears, the first waterfall he came across with a paddle in his hand.
“I remember I paddled up to the lip and realized this was going to be a big elevation drop, in a very short period of time,” he said with a laugh. “It was like ‘I’m about to fall about 10 feet down … Sweet!’ And when I fell, I landed flat and thought ‘Whoa, that was cool! Let’s go do that again!'”
And again … and again.
“We have always done things together as a family,” Jay said “It’s wonderful when a kid says to his dad, ‘I can’t wait for the weekend to get here, so I can go paddling with you.'”
The two forms of paddling Patt’s most into are creeking and play-boating, which have a relationship similar to a pleasure ride and a freestyle contest.
Creeking has kayakers exploring the unknown – a popular premise for kayakers in the pacific-northwest, where waterfalls, drops and slides are prevalent. Kayakers in the creek must make calculated choices on how best to traverse the terrain with white-water inducing currents tugging you downstream, ready or not.
“The true legends of kayaking are the ones that were the creekers,” Patt said. “It wasn’t about the money or the fame. It was just getting out on the water.
“Creeking is more like … the soul of the sport.”
Patt, though, is also passionate about play-boating – the skateboarder’s version of the sport, which focuses on endlessly innovating the freestyle form of a given sport. Kayakers can get vertical, pivot, throw backstabs and perform other tricks with names most wouldn’t recognize, but would be impressed by.
Patt’s progress has been impressive, especially to his brother, 23-year-old Brendan, who is often impressed if not surprised by a new trick his little brother has learned.
“I was surprised,” said Brendan, who played soccer during his high school days, both at Nevada Union and on traveling teams from the Sacramento area. “I thought it was just sort of a hobby. I knew he competed, but I never thought he was that into it. But every time, it seems like he has a new trick up his sleeve.
“I just go down the river. I just go to watch. Being upside down, underwater is pretty terrifying and once that happens a couple of times, I’ve had enough.”
It seems his little brother can’t get enough of the kayak world. Whether he’s in the water, in a discussion about being in the water or editing a film of his own recent run in the water, he’s … well … into the water, and all of the personal challenges it has to provide.
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