Mining for Gold

Mining for Gold

July 1st, 2012 by Andy Johns in Getout Features

She might be on her way to London...

He could be scouting a drop on the Chattooga...

She could be his 11-year-old daughter, Séu Jane Jacobi, paddling next to him on the Ocoee.

Whoever will be the next American paddler to bring gold back to the States, it's Jacobi's job to find him or her and develop them into world-class competitors.

Joe Jacobi

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

It's been 20 years since Jacobi, now the CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, and teammate Scott Strausbaugh won the United States' only gold medal in Whitewater Canoe Slalom. In the two decades since, no other American paddler of any discipline has been to the top step of the podium at the Olympics. In Beijing, no American paddler brought home a medal of any color.

"It's been 20 years since we won a gold medal in the Olympic Games. That needs to change," says Jacobi, who lives in Ducktown, Tenn., on the Ocoee. "The United States has more kayakers and canoeists than any country in the world. The high performance part of what we do just hasn't been there."

Later this month Jacobi, 42, and the U.S. team will head to London for the games. As the executive overseeing the nation's Olympic paddlers, Jacobi is responsible for selecting coaches, recruiting sponsors and managing the team's resources, training ground and equipment.

"I come to work everyday figuring out how to support our athletes," says the paddling patriarch.

RAPID RISE

Jacobi has come a long way from a kid growing up near Washington, D.C. Instead of pestering his parents to go to the mall or the movies like most pre-teens, he begged for trips to the Potomac. When he was 11 or 12 years old, his parents would drop him and his boat off to hit the river with paddlers they hadn't met.

U.S. pair Matthew Taylor, left, and Joe Jacobi compete during the C2 men's canoe semifinal race at the Olympic Canoe-Kayak slalom venue of the Helliniko Sports Complex in Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games.

"Luckily an hour or two later I'd come back in one piece," he recalls.

Since those early days, he's been busy.

In 1992, Jacobi and Strausbaugh turned in a pair of clean two-minute runs on the 300-meter course at Parc Olímpic del Segre to edge a pair of hard-charging Czechs and a French duo to take the gold. "To me it feels like it was yesterday," he says.

Jacobi has been named a "Paddler of the Century" by Paddler Magazine. He's paddled rivers in 21 countries and won national championship events around the world. He made alternate on the Olympic team for the 2000 games in Sydney, and returned to Olympic competition in 2004 in Athens where he and his teammate made the semifinals but fell short of the podium.

In 2008 Jacobi was a paddling commentator in NBC's Olympic coverage. He's been a poster boy for Nokia in a Time magazine ad and carried the Olympic torch through Nashville. Now, he's fully immersed in his new job running the Olympic team.

"I want to be leading this organization when we win our next gold medal," he says. "Ultimately, really bringing that innovative, fighting spirit back to the U.S. team will be a really important part of us reaching our goals on the podium, not just in London but in Rio de Janeiro in 2016."

PADDLE NATION

The path to gold is paved with carbon fiber and the rocks and concrete used to build training courses. In recent years, Jacobi says, USAC/K has made "dramatic improvements" to coaching and facilities. In December, the governing body announced it was moving its headquarters from Charlotte to Oklahoma City. At the press conference, Jacobi said the move will help the organization cover the entire country better and allow access to state-of-the-art facilities.

Oklahoma City, the Boathouse Foundation and other entities have added a lighted sprint racecourse to the rejuvenated Oklahoma River. They are constructing a whitewater course for rafting and slalom canoes. From his office, Jacobi can look out the window and see his athletes training on the river. "I've never been more excited about the way we're building our sport," he says.

Oklahoma City University recently became the first college to start a varsity canoe kayak team complete with scholarships. Jacobi says that opens doors because parents can now see a payoff for their investments in equipment and training for their high school age children. Like many other sports that don't involve quarterbacks, slam dunks or curveballs, competitive paddling faces stiff competition in bringing in the best young athletes. Jacobi says it's a different story in some of their competitors' countries.

Joe Jacobi with daughter Séu Jane

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

The Slovakian team is always a whitewater powerhouse, as are the Hungarians in the flat-water sprint. The Slovakian team will be going for its fourth gold medal in canoe doubles, according to Jacobi. One Slovakian team member will be aiming for his fifth individual medal. "(Paddling athletes) are the biggest deals in the country," Jacobi says of Slovakia and Hungary. "They're on all of the TV commercials. You've got the best athletes in the country when they're 9 or 10 years old saying I want to be a paddler."

Getting top-notch domestic athletes committed to paddling early will be a key toward building the sport in the U.S., he says. The organization is too small to blanket the entire country with its recruiting efforts, so instead Jacobi's strategy is to focus on areas with established paddling cultures. "Chattanooga is one of those places," says the CEO, who is on the board of directors for the annual RiverRocks Festival. "You can open up the recreational sports calendar and paddling is going to be in there. I think there's no shortage of incredible things happening in town. Chattanooga has so many built-in advantages over 90 percent of the cities I visit. Do you know how many cities would kill for that?"

LONDON CALLING

But before Jacobi focuses too much on the future, everything is geared toward Aug. 6 when the paddling events begin in London. The team is taking seven athletes and Jacobi says the group includes a great mix of experienced veterans and high-powered first-timers.

Slalom kayaker Scott Parsons and sprint kayaker Carrie Johnson will be in their third Olympics. Slalom canoeist Casey Eichfeld, a member of the Nantahala Racing Club, is returning for his second Olympics. On the other end of the spectrum, Caroline Queen was born in 1992 just a few months before Jacobi won his gold.

Emily Jackson of Rock Island, Tenn. - the daughter of 1992 Olympian and Jackson Kayak founder Eric Jackson - just missed making the team in a qualifying event in June.

"We'd obviously love to leave London with a couple of medals," Jacobi says. "Even for us if it winds up being one medal that will be a big step."

Whatever the outcome, Jacobi says he's going to keep recruiting, building the sport and searching. After all, the next gold medal winner is out there somewhere.