Without kayaking, Bailey O'Sullivan isn't sure how her life would have ended up.
It's not hyperbole. The sport has shaped her whole life.
While in high school, she made the 2005 U.S. Junior National Team, which took her to Mezzana, Italy, to paddle the nearby Noce River. Experiences like that helped her later land a gig with the outdoor program at her college, Georgia Tech, instructing fellow students on outdoor skills. After that, she spent seven years with the Nantahala Outdoor Center as a wilderness medicine instructor, while using all of her free time to paddle the rapids there.
"Paddling just makes everything better," O'Sullivan says. "It makes a good day better and makes a bad day good."
The genesis of her lifetime on whitewater? The local Kids Whitewater Program, a precursor of Outdoor Chattanooga. A division of the city of Chattanooga's Department of Economic and Community Development, Outdoor Chattanooga's mission is "to make outdoor recreation an attractive, healthy and distinguishing lifestyle for Chattanooga's residents and visitor population."
When O'Sullivan became involved with the Kids Whitewater Program in 1999, at the age of 12, she had just moved to the Scenic City. Her mother worked for DuPont, and as she climbed the corporate ladder, the family moved around a lot. O'Sullivan's father encouraged her to try something unique to the culture of every new city where they made their home. For Chattanooga, that was kayaking.
The family moved to Atlanta a few years later, but the water kept calling O'Sullivan, and she eventually returned to the rivers and lakes that had inadvertently helped to chart her life's course. In addition to working at Erlanger hospital, she now volunteers as an instructor with the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club and Outdoor Chattanooga's Rapid Learning Program, helping to train the next generation of paddlers. After all, she knows how formative that can be.
O'Sullivan credits much of the direction of her life to her own childhood classes, still offered through Outdoor Chattanooga, and hopes more young people share her experience.
"Chattanooga is so unique in how many resources nature has provided," O'Sullivan says. "In all the places I've lived, I can't think of anywhere that has anything like what Chattanooga has with Outdoor Chattanooga."
Here are a few more stories of people who have found a passion through the city's unique program, proving that small beginnings can have extreme effects.
Local climber ascends to new heights in Rocklands
The prettiest piece of rock in the world — that's how recent McCallie grad Nathan Williams describes El Corazon, a boulder in Rocklands a few hours north of Cape Town, South Africa.
The competitive climber has traveled there every summer for the last three years to train at Rocklands, a mecca for rock climbers and boulderers around the world.
Despite the hundreds of incredible boulders to climb at Rocklands, for Williams, nothing quite compares to El Corazon.
The challenging boulder is over 20 feet tall, so even with a crash pad, the scare factor of trying to solve the climb is nothing to scoff at, Williams says. The Spanish name translates to "The Heart," which Williams chalks up to its heart-shaped curves — which make for some very dynamic and dramatic leaps and holds. Successfully scaling it is one of his fondest memories from Rocklands.
"It's such an amazing looking rock," Williams says. "When the boulder is that hard, you usually have to find a specific way to climb it, and solving that problem always looks so cool. I never thought I'd get the chance to do something like that."
The opportunity presented itself after the teen first began bouldering with the Tennessee Bouldering Authority and then spent three years in Outdoor Chattanooga's Interscholastic Climbing League, which provides regular competitive opportunities for kids in grades 6-12 in the Chattanooga area. While still in high school, Williams competitively indoor-climbed for McCallie, pitting him against students from other schools in the region. His trips to Rocklands were simultaneously amazing summer vacations and the greatest training opportunities imaginable, which, he hoped, would help him become one of the best local climbers.
Rocklands is filled to the brim with unique bouldering, scaling up to some of the most challenging climbs in the world, V15s. The toughest boulders Williams has managed to climb have been V13s, although he says he's gotten close to solving a few V14s. And during his time abroad, he got to train with and befriend the men and woman who eat V15s for lunch.
"It was just these two under-18 kids on a trip to South Africa," Williams says. "In retrospect, it's kind of crazy." He and Raboutou both competed in the USA Climbing Youth Nationals for bouldering in Salt Lake City in 2015. Williams took 15th place out of dozens of competitors; Raboutou took second.
On their second day in South Africa that same year, Raboutou wanted to climb a particular V13 that Williams had never climbed. The holds were extremely limited, and the final two moves to ascend to the top vexed Williams every way he went. While Raboutou was able to scale it, Williams continued to fall onto his crash pad again and again. He spent weeks trying.
"I just couldn't figure out how to do the last two moves," Williams says.
Raboutou coached him for a whole day on the acrobatic maneuvers required to scale the boulder. Spotting a subtle hold, swinging in just the right way, suddenly it all became clear. By sundown that evening, Williams was standing tall atop the rock that had given him so much trouble.
Lessons and training like that are what gave Williams an edge when he returned to Chattanooga for Outdoor Chattanooga's Interscholastic Climbing League. Even though the local climbing gyms and natural boulders don't compare to Rocklands, he says, they do an amazing job preparing local climbers to ascend to the next level.
"There's way more young kids climbing now than there was five years ago," says Williams. When he started in the Interscholastic Climbing League, there weren't many kids younger than he was. Now, though, the sport is booming. "It's great to see so may more kids getting into it."
Young boys find their sense of adventure through mountain biking class
Samuel Griffeth, 14, was pedaling hard a few miles into his 10-mile round trip when he thought to call his mom and let her know what he was doing. After all, it was his birthday, and she had been too busy to take him to the Little Debbie store about five miles from their house. What else was a teenage boy to do but hop on his bike and treat himself?
Two years prior, he says he wouldn't have made that trek, especially considering a good portion of it involved traversing the hills of White Oak Mountain.
"They were some gnarly hills," Samuel says.
He credits that new sense of adventure, even if it was just to grab a snack cake and a Coke, to his father Joel signing him and his younger brothers up for Outdoor Chattanooga's Intro to Mountain Biking class the year before. Before signing up, Samuel says his bike had been sitting in the garage untouched for some time. His younger brother Aaron, then 9, says his bike was in a similar state of disuse.
Now, family rides and friendly races fill their weekends. Joel says the whole plan was to get more quality time with his sons, but the classes had an even more profound impact.
"There's a greater willingness to try new things," Joel says of the changes he's seen in his boys. "They don't rely so much on the comfort of what's familiar and what they've done before."
When Jacob crashed on one outing and flew Superman-style into the dirt, Joel was shocked at Samuel's response. Rather than older-brother mockery, Joel heard Samuel expressing genuine concern for his brother. He credits that jump in maturity at least in part to their now-frequent mountain biking trips.
Aaron, too, has taken some tumbles, but the young, gap-toothed daredevil says he doesn't mind. The most frequent thing out of his mouth after a wipeout is a hearty "Woo!" He's narrowly dodged thorny bramble bushes, skidded out over a creek and gotten a black eye. Every time, he hops back up onto his bike, thirsty for more. The family has even started searching for contacts regarding competitive mountain biking for kids to sate Aaron's hunger for dirt.
"It's a bit frightening as a parent to see how little fear he has," Joel laughs. "We'd like him to have a little bit more."
Joel has been an avid cyclist and outdoorsman much longer than his sons. He moved to Chattanooga in 2001 for the city's outdoor scene. Joel says he tried countless times over the years to get his sons excited about the abundance of cycling, kayaking, hiking and climbing opportunities in the area, all for naught until Outdoor Chattanooga came into the picture and provided a fun way for the boys to learn just what local trails had to offer. The hills around Southern Adventist University's campus became fast favorites for the family.
"I'm not a rich man. I can't afford to go out and buy these guys the best bikes they can get on the off-chance they like it," says Joel. "Outdoor Chattanooga definitely helped us get started."
While middle son Jacob took to kayaking like a fish to water, Aaron and Samuel were quickly hooked on mountain biking. After the first lesson and a few rides, Joel says he could barely keep up with the boys anymore.
Now, when the family takes a camping vacation to western North Carolina, Aaron will take his bike, fishing pole and some bait, ride a mile or two down a trail and fish in the local rivers. Samuel can accompany him while Jacob paddles to his heart's content down the river.
Before, they probably would have just hung out at their campsite, Joel says. Not to mention that Samuel never would have gotten that Little Debbie on his 14th birthday.
The first step was an Outdoor Chattanooga class
Max Haworth has a natural thirst for competition, but he couldn't have guessed that when he signed up for the Rapid Learning Program through Outdoor Chattanooga at the age of 13 it would one day lead to training next to Olympians, traveling to new continents and competing in slalom and freestyle kayaking at the national level.
Like many kids getting into a new hobby, the then-13 year old Haworth was introduced to paddling by a friend. He and some buddies decided to sign up for the Rapid Learning Program, which instructs novice kayakers on skills including how to roll their crafts should they flip so they can safely maneuver whitewater. His friends lost interest after a few sessions, but Haworth was hooked.
After his first trip down the Hiwassee River, Haworth continued to attend roll practices and eventually got the opportunity to do a whitewater summer camp through Outdoor Chattanooga, which only further whetted his appetite.
"I wanted to see what more there was," he says.
Haworth first expressed interest in the professional side of paddling following a two-day paddling trip with Outdoor Chattanooga. He was directed by one of his instructors to the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club. Through the TVCC, he met Kat Levitt with Jackson Kayak's competitive whitewater team, and she introduced him to the Ottawa Kayak School in Canada. The classes there taught him more than skills; he quickly learned how welcoming and tight-knit the competitive kayaking scene is.
"I made so many connections out there. I learned very quickly that the U.S.A. has an abundance of really good paddlers, and they all sort of talk and train together," he says.
His three weeks on the Ottawa River were swiftly followed by a cavalcade of other training opportunities and overseas trips, including one to Uganda to train on the Nile Special, a unique V-shaped river wave that kayakers worldwide flock to for training. It was there that Haworth, at the age of 15, trained for the USA Freestyle Kayaking Team Trials with Levitt. Freestyle kayaking involves performing technical maneuvers on the water, rather than racing from point A to point B. Haworth came in just shy of earning him a place as an alternate, placing seventh or eighth in the trials.
All of this, he says, including the connections he's made with paddlers from places like Sweden, Germany, Mexico, Japan and England, wouldn't have been possible without Outdoor Chattanooga's resources in the very beginning.
"The hardest part of getting started is getting your own gear," Haworth says. "You can't spend money on this before you decide this is what you want to do, and finding someone like Outdoor Chattanooga who can provide a boat for you and get you into it is invaluable."
"I'm a very competitive person. Once I was able to see there was a competitive scene in kayaking, I jumped at it," he says.
Freestyle kayaking eventually gave way to slalom team kayaking, which involves navigating between poles set up on a fast-flowing river. Haworth joined the Nantahala Racing Club in North Carolina. Through the club, he got to train with Olympians like Michal Smolen, a whitewater slalom canoe kayaker with Team USA, and former slalom gold medalist Joe Jacobi — whose 11-year-old daughter beat Haworth in nearly every practice race they had, he remembers.
"I remember thinking that here's this little girl who can destroy me in a race," Haworth laughs. "It wasn't embarrassment, I just wanted to be better than these girls. It drove me harder."
He would have continued to race slalom, but a price increase one summer for a ticket to Europe for a circuit of slalom kayak races prevented him from going with his team. With his teammates all overseas, Haworth worked at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga that summer, leading to a drop-off in his free time for kayaking.
"My end goal isn't necessarily to win, it's to compete. I want to paddle for as long as possible," Haworth says.
Outdoor Chattanooga offers classes in rock climbing, cycling, paddling and more, taking participants from complete novice to expert. The tools are usually provided, and the classes low-cost. In addition to connecting people to the sports themselves, the program helps connect likeminded individuals to other local enthusiasts, helping them tap into that community. To learn more, visit outdoorchattanooga.com.