Kayak Kid

Ashland teen Chase Ganim sets his sights on 2016 Olympic prize in Rio de Janeiro
Olympic hopeful Chase Ganim of Ashland practices Thursday on a kayak slalom course in the Rogue River near Gold Hill.Jamie Lusch

GOLD HILL — As Chase Ganim approaches each slalom gate, the 16-year-old Ashlander employs the same strategy that already makes him a champion.

He positions himself to get the right angle around the proper side of the gate, then propels himself down toward the next gate at the correct angle, but on the other side.

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Ganim's approach earned him an overall gold medal in skiing at the U.S. Junior Olympics in 2012 in Montana.

Now he hopes it will generate a similar prize in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

But not on skis.

Ganim is trading snow for whitewater as he eyes a run at the U.S. Kayak Team as a slalom paddler in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"Yeah, it's a big goal," Ganim acknowledges. "But why not think big?

"Besides, it's just a different state of water," he says.

Yet it's the same state of mind that Ganim hopes to tap as he shifts from a winter discipline to a summer one.

Oh, and it helps to have a former Olympic gold medalist as his kayaking guru, one who believes his young pupil has the right stuff to attain whitewater greatness even though Ganim has barely more than one season inside the shell.

"It depends entirely on his commitment, but he certainly has amazing attributes," says Oliver Fix, an Ashland man who won the 1996 Olympic gold in slalom kayaking for his native Germany and was coach of the medal-winning 2004 Britain team.

"He's already acquired a lot of skills (from skiing) that are transferable," Fix says. "He's made tremendous progress already. And he has no fear. He's already going down Class IV rapids."

Ganim started flirting with kayaking in 2012, lured via the Ashland High School Rowing Team and his general affinity for slalom — racing in tight S-patterns between gates.

Like most new recruits, he started in a standard plastic "play boat," but he quickly established a rapport with the boat, paddle and tricks of the trade.

He's quite the natural, says Steve Kiesling, a 1980 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team member who runs the Gold Hill Whitewater Center where Ganim trains.

Kiesling recalls helping teach Ganim his first kayak roll, a maneuver that allows a boater to upright his kayak after capsizing it while remaining inside. After one demonstration, Ganim pulled it off, did a few more and literally was ready to roll.

"Then he paddled out into Lyman Rapid and did a successful roll in the whitewater," Kiesling says. "Most people take weeks or months to learn a roll, not minutes. I've never seen anything like that."

It certainly intrigued Fix.

"That was an eye-opener, for sure," Fix says.

It wasn't until August that Ganim discovered whitewater slalom.

The watery version of slalom occurs on whitewater courses instead of downhill slopes. In the skiing version, competitors rely on gravity and reduced drag for their speed; in kayaking, steering is accomplished by paddling faster than the swift current of the rapid.

Ganim says he's drawn to the carving that longer, lighter slalom boats can achieve, much like he's been drawn to snow-covered mountain runs on skis.

"It's a really fun sport," Ganim says. "It's something unique. I've skied my whole life."

After regular paddling sessions since August, Ganim has slipped into his winter workout regimen. It revolves around two days a week in the Ashland High weight room for the junior honors student.

"We're building his upper-body strength to propel the boat faster," Fix says.

Once a week he'll also be in the Southern Oregon University pool doing flat-water drills.

He'll be back in the Rogue in the spring to train for national races starting in March.

"It's a fast-tracking goal, because I really haven't kayaked very long," Ganim says.

Yet he still takes advantage of warm days like Thursday, when Ganim and Fix worked in their kayaks at the whitewater center's slalom course — a series of gates hung in the Rogue near the center and just upstream of Gold Hill.

Ganim powers his boat and takes deep cuts into the water to steer.

Kiesling says Ganim has a chance at greatness despite the long, rough waters ahead of him.

"It's still a longshot for him," Kiesling says. "But he could become a world-class kayaker. Chase is really amazing."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman



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