Stanford's Newest Sport Makes a Splash

November/December 2002

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Nic Kanaan was poised at the starting line of the national collegiate sprint-kayaking championships, ready to shoot down his assigned lane.

Only problem: the junior human biology major had been kayaking for just four weeks, learning how to paddle in four-person boats, or K-4s. He had almost no time to try the one-person K-1 boat he was about to compete in.

Coach Gina Sanchez held her breath, and—to their mutual astonishment—Kanaan powered his way to third place. Then, toward the end of a follow-up race, he found himself in the lead.

“I was out in front, right near the finish line, and I think I got really excited and was paddling stronger on one side,” he recalls. “That turned me right over, and I took the plunge. But it happens—about once every five races—and it was pretty funny.”

That’s how it flows when you’re the newest guy on the newest team in town: the Stanford flatwater kayak racing team. Sanchez, MA ’02, a portfolio manager with American Century Centurion, founded the team last fall, when she was still a graduate student in international policy studies. In February, the ranks grew to 10, and by the time the collegiate championships were held in May, Sanchez had assembled a team of 20 paddlers, found a retired Ukrainian canoe coach to help, and learned how to drive the crew team’s boat trailer.

It took her 12 hours with the loaner to reach the ARCO Olympic training venue in Southern California, where Stanford faced off in the nationals against an established Georgia Tech team and paddlers from six other colleges and universities. The Cardinal newbies took home 35 medals, including eight golds, and snagged an upset in the 1,000-meter men’s K-4 event.

“One coach said to me, ‘Gina, your men’s K-4 is not upright because they are each individually balanced, but because they are randomly unbalanced,’” Sanchez recalls. “And I said, ‘You know what—that was some of the most inefficient technique I’ve ever seen, but they did it out of pure heart and soul.’”

Balance, it happens, is a critical element in any kind of kayaking—flatwater, sea or whitewater—and the sleek little boats used in sprint racing are particularly unstable because they are narrowed to Olympic specifications. “They’re designed for one purpose—to go straight and fast,” Sanchez says. “You can be in really good shape, but still not able to perform in the boat until you learn how to balance.”

Sanchez has only been sprint racing for about four years herself. She recently qualified as an alternate to the 2002 Pan Am Sprint Team, and her goal is to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. Sanchez does her own training in the early afternoon, then meets the team at 4:30 p.m. in a quiet Redwood Shores lagoon. In the fall months, they build an aerobic base; and by spring quarter, they are working on starts and speed.

The team aims to become a club sport this year, and its name may also morph—from the “flatwater kayak” team to the “canoe and kayak” team—to include more athletes. As the numbers grow, Sanchez has been getting support from the Berkeley Rowing and Paddling Club, Portland Canoe and Kayak Club, Seattle Canoe and Kayak Club and Newport Aquatic Center, all of which have donated or loaned boats and equipment to the team. “Pretty much the [whole] West Coast club system has supported the development of the Stanford program,” she says.

And the team continues to attract students who have never before stepped into a kayak. “I read about the club and saw ‘no experience necessary’ and knew it was the right thing for me,” says sophomore Vanya Choumanova. Although she’d never participated in high school sports in her native Bulgaria, Choumanova has picked up a lot of confidence and technique from her teammates. Then there’s the beauty of the lagoon. “Being on the water when the sun sets, and seeing all the lights come on in houses, gives me such a peaceful feeling.” As long as she keeps her seat.

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