By Scott Willoughby
The GoPro Mountain Games have discovered the fountain of youth
Maybe it’s the cool mountain streams flowing through Vail, the fresh high country air or the sun-kissed snowcapped peaks that attract the young and young-at-heart to the annual four-day festival of mountain sports, culture and music. Add it all up and it amounts to something we simply call “lifestyle.”
From whitewater paddling to fly fishing — running, biking, climbing, yoga and disc golf in between — the Mountain games are truly a celebration of lifestyle sports. These are sports that transcend age and span multiple generations. And 16 years after their inception, it’s clear that our way of life has caught on with the kids.
“It’s a super young field this year,” said 16-year-old kayaker Sage Donnelly, who placed third in the Coors Light Steep Creek Championships on Thursday. “I think it’s absolutely awesome that there’s so many young kids out here racing. Not only racing, but racing well. It’s really cool to see everyone out here just having fun. It’s just an amazing event and I love to share it with everyone.”
A quarter of the field of 36 racers on the precipitous Homestake Creek on Thursday were teenagers, including 15-year-olds Dally Kellogg and Riley Frank, both from Colorado. Ironically, it was the race’s oldest competitor, 53-year-old Eric Jackson, who gets much of the credit for attracting the next generation of kayakers to the sport. His boat-building company, Jackson Kayaks, was the first and only company to make whitewater kayaks specifically sized for kids, and the appeal is evident.
“I think that has been a huge factor in getting a lot of kids out,” said Donnelly. “And I just think more parents are really taking the time to take their kids out on the river. It’s a great family experience, and it’s clearly working because we have a lot of young kids out here.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that Jackson’s 23-year-old son, Dane, won the Coors Light Steep Creek Championship race on Thursday … for the third time. His 3-year-old grandson, Tucker, already paddles his own kayak.
The youth movement is even more evident in the Coors Light Kayak Freestyle competition, a less consequential contest where paddlers perform tricks on a river wave rather than ride the runoff down the side of a mountain. So much so that the discipline’s most familiar face, Eric Jackson, is nervous about the competition, even after qualifying for the USA Freestyle Kayaking Team for an unfathomable 25th time in 2017.
“You’ll see the kids in the freestyle and you’ll be like, ‘Wait, what?’ There’s some really good kids competing in the freestyle that are age 16 and under,” Jackson said after advancing to Friday’s semi-final round. “The entire U.S. Junior Team is here and they are just unbelievable. Like, I hope I can still beat them all.”
The recreational aspects of the sports at the GoPro Mountain Games are the key to the longevity of the athletes. Rather than formally training, they’re basically playing. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Costa 2-Fly X-stream fishing competition, where contestants range from age 9 to 71.
“The great thing about fly fishing is that it’s not age determined and it’s not gender determined,” said Rick Messmer, Fly Fishing Coordinator at the Mountain Games. “Cameron Garcia was 12 last year and he caught the second biggest fish in the finals. Camille Egdorf won the big fish competition. The fish don’t know who is fishing to them.”
Maybe there really is something in the water.
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