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One-hundred thirty-four feet of white water.

Moving 20 miles an hour.

Straight.

Down.

That was the challenge freestyle kayaker and sometime Rock Island, Tennessee, resident Dane Jackson faced on Feb. 5 as he prepared to descend Chile's stunning Salto del Maule waterfall.

"You're 100% super nervous," Jackson said from his family's 20-acre retreat in middle Tennessee last week. "There are plenty of things that can go wrong. If I wasn't nervous, I hadn't assessed the risk properly."

But the 26-year-old Jackson is also one of the world's best freestyle kayakers, much like his father Eric, who competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics and later wound up winning four world freestyle championships.

So as he went over the falls' lip to complete the second tallest waterfall descent in known history, Dane Jackson later described the feeling to CNN as, "like you're falling off the face of the earth. You're just looking down and chaos is everywhere."

The entire world has pretty much been living in a semi-controlled chaos for more than a month due to the coronavirus pandemic. It's confined most of us to our homes all day every day except to venture out for food, banking, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and gasoline.

It's kept Jackson home with his family for "the longest stretch in 10 years."

Indeed, he quit being home-schooled by his mother Kristine at the close of the 10th grade to ride the world's rapids full-time. It has won him more than 80 first-place medals, including last year's prestigious North Fork Championship in Idaho and the GoPro Mountain Games in Colorado.

But after his waterfall victory in Chile, most of Jackson's events have been canceled or postponed until September or October at the earliest.

"I came home the first of March," he said as he explained the financial crunch he's experiencing. "I usually come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and then I'm back out on the road again in my RV. I was in Indonesia earlier this year."

Yet despite his unexpectedly long break — "I'll be here for a few more months," said Jackson — he knows he's one of his sport's luckier competitors.

"Kayaking is a fairly small sport," he said. "I've been fortunate enough to have sponsors, including Red Bull and GoPro. Plus, I teach the sport and sell kayaks."

Those sales would likely come from Jackson Kayaks, which his father founded in 2003 before electing to step away from the company this past December.

To briefly show the competitive genes Dane inherited from his dad, Eric not only intends to make the USA Freestyle Kayak Team that will compete at the world championships in England in 2021, he's also a professional bass fishermen on the FLW Pro Tour. Beyond that he'll help represent the USA in the Inaugural World Bass Kayak Fishing Championships.

"I've been in a kayak since I was 2," Dane said. "Started getting on the water every day from the time I was 8 or 9. I was out there traveling with my dad in his RV for six months a year, going all over the world to his competitions."

Such love for and dedication to his sport have clearly paid off in the championships he's won and the regions of the world he's seen. And to make the story all the more remarkable, he's gone through much of his life with a 70% hearing loss, which his father has also long suffered from.

"It is what it is," Dane told CNN in February. "There are people that are way more deaf than me, that do way cooler stuff."

As for following in his dad's Olympic footsteps, Dane said, "I love watching the Olympics, but it's never been a goal of mine to compete in them."

However, becoming the first known person to conquer the Salto del Maule waterfall had been his goal for the past five years, despite the ride lasting no more than three seconds and Jackson being separated from his kayak after hitting the water following what he termed "a super soft landing."

And given that the Chile conquest was the sixth waterfall of more than 100 feet that he's descended, would he ever consider going for the tallest waterfall run in a kayak ever achieved, which is held by Tyler Bradt for the 189-foot Palouse Falls in Washington?

"I can't imagine that," Jackson said. "I think the Salto del Maule was tall enough. But I do like big waterfalls."

Perhaps this long break will change his mind. Dane still hits the whitewater around Rock Island for two hours or more a day, but without traveling from competition to competition, he's also had time to improve both his disc golf and regular golf skills, do a little fishing with his dad, find himself drawn to both "Tiger King" and "Mandalorian," and enjoy more of his mother's cooking than he has in years.

Asked his favorite dish, Dane said, "I'm not sure I can pick a favorite. Everything she makes is epic."

When it comes to whitewater kayaking, no 26-year-old may have forged a more epic career than that thus far accomplished by Dane Jackson.

But for now, the threat of COVID-19 a constant part of our daily lives, he also appreciates that "the best thing any of us can do is to stay at home. Besides, it's not the end of the world getting to hang out with my family."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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