80 Percent by Jamie McEwan

Jamie McEwan in 1982
Jamie McEwan in 1982


Race day of the Punch Brook Slalom began with a cold rain that turned to sleet and then into a thick, wet, unrelenting, wind-blown snowstorm. Heavy flakes plopped into uplifted eyes, making us all gaze down at the ground or water as we walked or paddled, looking up in quick glances only. Snow plastered the rhododendrons into white mounds, outlined tree branches, over-carpeted last year’s leaves. Somehow our memories of the day before — count them, 72 blessed degrees Fahrenheit, it had been — made the wind and snow and cold the harder to bear.

I wore my huge puffy down jacket and pants, and was warm enough, really. Most of the other competitors sat in their cars between race runs, heaters blasting. But Devin…
My son Devin, fifteen-years old, was racing in three different race classes that day, two runs per class. On his first run of the day, in his decked canoe, he paddled into gate one — and his boat flipped upstream, dunking him underwater.

Roll, I muttered, roll.

Roll he did, on that run, and later in the morning he rolled again on his second run. And later, in kayak, he flipped once more.

This third time, long seconds passed before he finally struggled up.

After his run Devin came up to me, his face red and lined with cold, and said that, since the canoe and kayak rolls are different, he had become confused underwater.

“I don’t think I’m going to take my second run, Dad,” he added. “I’m out of the race, anyway. And I’m so cold.”

You certainly don’t have to, I told him. But, I added, go back to the car and warm up; you might change your mind later.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if he hadn’t rallied to take his last run of the day, through the thickest snow squall yet. And, though in the final standings Devin finished in fifth and last place among the kayak juniors (it was combined runs, that year), he went away knowing that that last run was the second-best of the day.

We packed up, we drove off . . . and then it came over us.

There should be a word to denote that special euphoria, that divine nonalcoholic drunkenness that comes at the end of a long, active day on and in cold water and snow, when you are driving home through the blizzard with the car heater blasting, eating a sandwich or energy bar and drinking a hot drink from the gas station, trading stories from the day’s racing while your fingertips throb with the flush of renewed blood and your face glows and your toes can wriggle once more. Warmth! Life! Food! And that boundless superiority you feel over the inhabitants of every house you pass, those poor pale spineless creatures who spent the day in overheated rooms, watching the shadows of real life in the flickering glass of their televisions. First or last, we’d been there. We’d shown up.

And as that renowned rugged outdoorsman Woody Allen said: Eighty percent of success is showing up.

–Jamie McEwan was an American slalom canoeist and river explorer. He died June 14, on the eve of Father’s Day. His son Devin is now a member of the U.S. National Slalom Team.

Jamie McEwan (left) and son Devin McEwan at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty
Jamie McEwan (left) and son Devin McEwan at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Getty Images

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!