The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Race Team won its second consecutive Sprint National Championship team title last weekend. The team, led by head coach Alan Anderson, took home the Yonkers Trophy after it collected 473.5 points.
Some people didn’t think it was possible. The coach of the Oklahoma City squad certainly didn’t think so.
“After we won last year, the coach at Oklahoma City said these words to me: ‘We’re gonna annihilate the rest of the country next year,’ ” Anderson recounted on Monday.
Anderson believed him.
“Oklahoma City is huge,” Anderson said. “They have huge facilities, huge boathouses and gyms, a beautiful race course and tons of money. It’s all state-of-the-art.”
The Gig Harbor team focused its energy on performing at the Junior World Championships, which were held Aug. 1-4 in Welland, Ontario. Anderson planned to let his top performers rest at the national championship event.
But then he started to crunch some numbers.
“I knew we were going to take a team to nationals just to have the national experience against the best in the country,” Anderson said. “But after I looked at the entry sheets on the plane ride down to Oklahoma, I started doing a point count, trying to estimate the point count. After four hours, and columns and columns of numbers — and my math isn’t very good — I realized that we had a shot. So we had a team meeting on Wednesday night, and I told the Junior World athletes that they would be racing in every race — there would be no scratches.”
The racers weren’t exactly pleased when they heard the news.
Mackenzie Sousley and Savannah Jones, who were coming off record-breaking performances at the Junior World Championships, were expecting to have a chance to rest.
“Long distance is not exactly our favorite race,” Sousley said. “It’s called sprint canoe. We were a little sad.”
Jones agreed, but she added that if it helped the team, they would do it.
The tandem may have been worn out, but the results were not indicative. They won the two-person 500-meter canoe race and the 200 canoe race. Sousley took first in the 5,000-meter singles race, and Jones placed third.
The domination wasn’t anything new; a week earlier, Sousley and Jones took fourth in the world in the 500 doubles canoe race.
Anderson said he has something special with the duo, and he explained why the odds of having such an effective pair within a single team are low.
“When you put a team of two together in a canoe, you have to have a lefty and a righty, you can’t just put any two athletes in a canoe,” Anderson said. “You have to take the best lefty in the country, and put them with the best righty in the country. They just happened to both be from Gig Harbor.”
The success for Sousley and Jones is the result of considerable hard work.
“Ever since June, when we’ve been doing a ton of races, two or three a day and every weekend,” Sousley said. “Every time we raced, we’d go at least a second faster.”
Their work came to fruition during the Junior World Championships. Their 500-meter race was a raucous affair.
“All the teams that had the biggest cheering sections — like Canada, Russia and Mexico — we were all in the same race with them, so I think it was probably one of the loudest races of the entire regatta,” Sousley said. “Halfway through the race, there was a rumble. That added some adrenaline.”
Jones said she didn’t realize it was going to be that loud, but the noise wasn’t a distraction.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “If anything, it probably made us go faster.”
Sousley and Jones took their skills to nationals, and the team repeated as champions.
Anderson said he’s proud of how far the team has come and how well it performed despite the odds being stacked against them. He said winning two national titles in a row is big.
“I’m pretty excited, it’s pretty emotional,” he said. “If you look around the country, the size of the teams we’re competing against, and their facilities, and their excellent coaching staffs, it’s a little overwhelming. Working out of a parking lot, what we’ve accomplished in the difficult conditions we have here in Gig Harbor is quite a story. I’m just excited for the kids and their families to be part of this.
“It’s gone way beyond me and what I started 11 years ago,” he said. “It’s now a huge team effort whenever we accomplish something this big.”
Sousley and Jones said the back-to-back titles are the result of great coaching.
“We have the best coaches in the country,” Sousley said. “Our training programs are the best, and this team is partially athlete-driven. Alan and Jon (Sousley) aren’t forcing us to work out; we want to work out. They work out with us. That’s part of it. We’re not being forced to do anything. If we want to get off the water and do something else, we can.”
Jonathan Sousley, the canoe coach for the team, credited the team’s success to the parents’ involvement.
“We have an incredible group of parents,” he said. “I think that one reason we do well is the character that these kids bring to practice every day. Their ability, when we’re asking them to do something, to be able to focus in. We can instill some of that, but a lot of it comes from home. They challenge themselves to be their very best, which makes it a lot easier for us to just stick with the technical side. We’re not having to do behavioral modifications on the kids. They’re already there, we just have to lead them correctly.”
Anderson said he isn’t sure whether the team will go for a three-peat next summer. Nationals will be held in Georgia, and the challenge would be daunting.
“Georgia had a run of 10 straight national championships,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody else has ever won in Georgia. So, I’m going to be tossing around the idea in my head, and talking to Jonathan and the other coaches about whether we want to take a shot at climbing that mountain, because they’re so big and they’ve got so much, and they’re so prideful of winning at home. To take a team all the way across the country and try to pull off a victory would be a daunting task, and I’m not committing to it yet.”