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Kayaking Toward a Vocation

by John DePalma on April 13, 2022

Considering my love for big waves and individualistic tendencies, had I grown up closer to the ocean I would probably be writing an article about surfing right now.  Albeit, the drive from Seattle to the nearest surf in Westport was a minimum of three hours without traffic, so there was no telling how good the conditions really were until I showed up.  This is not to mention that even equipped with a neoprene hood, gloves, boots, and the thickest of five-millimeter wetsuits, winter surfing was so cold that each outing only yielded a few waves at best.

Though I managed to keep the surfing dream alive through high school, when I moved to Eastern Washington University for my undergraduate years, I had to come up with an alternative sport. This came when my Uncle Mike taught me how to whitewater kayak. While I still dream about surfing on a regular basis and, thanks be to God, my vocation to the priesthood is nearly clinched – kayaking has been a wonderful avocation. In many ways it brought me back to the faith of the Church, provided a space for initial discernment, and fostered the radical availability needed to enter seminary.

After finishing college, I enjoyed several years of working as a full-time physical therapist and a part-time whitewater weekend warrior. After being stuck upside down in a bone-chilling accident, I did not want to make a hobby out of risking my life. As a result of this incident, a two-layered sphere opened up to me. First, I returned to the Church after a long hiatus and received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Secondly, considering that flatwater water racing kayaks have a more open cockpit that is not physically restraining, rather than hanging up paddling altogether, I agreed to compete in a racing kayak with some friends for a premier multi-sport relay competition.  Surprisingly, our team finished in the top five amid others who boasted of being former Olympians.

This piqued my interest and I bought an Olympic racing kayak, cut back to thirty hours of work a week, began training twice a day, and became a student of kayak technique while applying as many tricks of the trade as possible from physical therapy to expedite my progress.

In kayak racing, the whitewater slalom (200 m) and the flatwater sprint (200m, 500m, and 1000 m) are Olympic events, while the wildwater (6 – 10 km) and flatwater marathons (35 – 40 km with portages) are world championship distances. Personally, my disciplined temperament and history of persevering against waves and pounding surf in cold waters paid off in the marathon kayak events (forty kilometers), and after a year of local and regional racing, I qualified to represent the U.S. at the 1999 Marathon Kayak World Championships in Gyor, Hungary.  After my first international race in Gyor, I stayed in Europe for two more months to learn from national team athletes in Paris, Budapest, Milan, and Gorzow, Poland, as well as compete in multi-day stage races in France and Spain. By intensely focusing on training and racing with others on a daily basis, my skills rapidly progressed, and this certainly whetted my appetite for more competition. During the following decade, I was fortunate enough to compete in six more world championship races in Canada, France, Australia, Portugal, Singapore, and Italy.

Each year, my training plan primarily centered on qualifying for the World Championships.  Secondly, I prepared to compete at the specific venue where it was being held. Third, when the time finally came, we all enjoyed the annual re-union of kinship among competitors from around the globe.  Whenever a competition was held in Europe, I often trained with French team members for a few weeks to acclimate to their time zone.  Along the way I also made pilgrimages to Lourdes after competing in southern France, and to Fatima while in Portugal.

Although my primary focus was long distance, I often trained with the sprinters and harmonized well in the double kayak.  As a result I was invited to compete in team boats in the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Sprint Team Trials. After my best finish on the world stage of sixteenth in the double kayak in Perth, Australia (2005), I gained a new appreciation for pushing my limits for the sake of a teammate. It then dawned on me that as much as I enjoyed stretching my athletic capacity, this was not an isolated, individual affair – but an inspired, communal process.   Since my coach at the time was Australian, I was able to stay in the land down-under for another six months to train and race full time.  This also afforded me enough time to attend daily Mass for the first time in my life and opened up a third new horizon in my life – that of discerning a possible call to the priesthood.

The highlight of my racing career came at the 2011 US Marathon Kayak Team Trials. By then, I was so focused on discerning the possibility of the priesthood that my coach Claudiu and teammates had to talk me into going to the race. Overall, I was also less over-trained and more rested than usual. I am embarrassed to say that it was the first time that I recall thanking the race organizers and volunteers, for helping make the event possible, before getting on the water. Another factor was that my coach’s desire for excellence and my personal goals seemed to be inseparable, as was my mutual desire to discern the priesthood and to give myself over to the race at hand.

Although I followed Claudiu’s advice to conserve energy and play it safe from the start, another athlete happened to cut me off in the fifth of seven (five kilometer) laps forcing me to miss a turn buoy. After going back to re-do the turn, I trailed the lead pack, and Claudiu’s voice echoed in my head, reminding me that the way to ‘cross’ through the invisible barrier of perceived exhaustion, was to go harder – “ten by ten,” as he would say with his thick Romanian accent. By focusing on ten strokes at a time, I finally caught up with the leaders just as they entered the penultimate portage (run leg carrying the kayak). As I re-entered the water with the group for the final lap, Claudiu yelled, “watch out for that…”  Before he could finish warning me, I simultaneously clipped my rudder on the shallow rock at the water’s entry, impairing the steering in my kayak. I had serious difficulty rounding the same menacing turn buoy as before, and was about a stroke away from giving up altogether when my conscience hearkened for me to stick it out for a respectable finish – especially since no one else but Claudiu knew of this acquired frailty. It was nearly impossible to stay with the group because every fifteen seconds or so – my rudder would flip to one side or the other, causing me to risk colliding with a competitor or losing the assistance provided by a small at the back of the lead pack. I barely managed to hang on to the tail end of the lead pack long enough to reach the final portage leg. Thanks to my surfing days of old, I was the first to spring to my feet. While my taller counterparts took an extra second to egress from the water and hoist their kayaks onto their shoulders, I looked to heaven and bolted as fast as my feet could run, allowing my kayak to skim atop the grass runway. As I re-entered my boat, all that remained between ingressing the water and the finish line – was the same notorious buoy, and about five hundred meters of open water. After gaining a few seconds on the rest of the field during the portage, I still was not sure if it was enough time to get my boat around the turn quickly enough to hold the lead into the final sprint.

This was when I finally realized that for me, a kayak race was like a procession – being led by whoever is the most disposed to propel their kayak through the water – not for the mere love of an ethereal platonic form of “paddling” -or- out of thanksgiving for an affective network of relations alone, but above all a desire to love with Jesus – whose voice is to be discerned in the authority of one’s conscience. Oh, and by the way, I won that particular race, went on to compete in two more world championships. After my final race in Rome, I entered seminary and have enjoyed serving as a consultant for coaches and aspiring Junior Olympians in my spare time. Praise God, I just received my call to orders for ordination to the priesthood and now look forward to hosting the Mass and leading Eucharistic processions – all for the love of Christ.