The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team is no longer a charming Cinderella story. It’s a national power.
The team won its second straight national championship last weekend in Oklahoma City, outpacing clubs with much more money, state-of-the-art facilities and impressive traditions of sustained success.
We’ve chronicled a few of the club’s achievements in the past few years. Individuals have qualified to be part of specialized training events in Lake Placid, N.Y., or competed in international regattas in places like Europe. They’ve gone to Junior World events and national championships, including the one last year on Green Lake in Seattle.
As our story this week on page B1 details, head coach Alan Anderson had planned to give some of his top competitors a break because they had just performed the previous weekend in Canada. But when Anderson started to calculate potential team points, he realized his club was going to have a shot at repeating as the national champion.
Anderson turned to his team and showed them his math. And despite being a little disappointed because they were tired, the Gig Harbor athletes were rejuvenated with the thought of standing alone on the podium.
It’s been quite the growth process for the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team, which had been viewed as a budding program the past few years — a nice local story, but not part of the national conversation.
Now it’s garnering top-level recognition, and rightfully so: They have arrived. The program’s success is a direct result of the dedication of the coaches and athletes.
Some clubs bring in talent with money and facilities, but the Gig Harbor team attracts and develops talent because of the unique culture filled with passion and camaraderie.
Some of the other teams across the country have loads of talented individuals, but they aren’t necessarily as close with each other as this team is. Mackenzie Sousley, who partnered with Savannah Jones to take fourth in the world in the 500-meter doubles canoe race in Welland, Ontario, said the group is uncommonly close-knit. They eat together, work out together and hang out outside of school together.
That camaraderie creates an understanding among the athletes and a desire to not only work for themselves, but to work for each other.
Individually, Sousley and Jones hope to have continued success in October, when they travel to compete in the Pan-American Championships in Puerto Rico.
In the bigger picture, Gig Harbor has produced a flourishing feeder club for the U.S. Junior and Senior national teams. Alumni Cedric Bond and Katy Hill have enrolled in the Oklahoma City University varsity kayak program. Natalie Griffin, who paddled her last race with the club last weekend, plans to join them. Griffin won two gold medals and a bronze medal in junior women’s kayak last weekend.
Another impressive aspect of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team is that it’s doing big things on a small budget. It works out of a parking lot while most clubs have boathouses, but the team is successful because the coaches are so invested in the team.
Alan Anderson, Jonathan Sousley and Graham Ulmer work extremely hard to mentor the kids. Yes, they push them hard, but they do so in a way that inspires their athletes and creates mutual respect. They’re on the water every day, regardless of weather conditions, and they also hold off-water training — running, biking or weight training — that’s typically designed to each individual based on their strengths and weaknesses.
Lastly, the parents are truly remarkable. They support their kids financially, plan accommodations for trips, travel to races all over the world and foster an environment of honest, hard work that will pay dividends in their adult lives.
The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team is here to stay, and we couldn’t be more proud that they continue to train up-and-coming athletes in Gig Harbor Bay.