Russell Davies: Combating PTSD with Paddling

CANOE & KAYAK: What exactly is PTSD (the page)? Is this a business, or more of a forum?
RUSSELL DAVIES: Professional Transformation Sports Development is a program that I have created in an attempt to raise awareness and share a message with both veterans, and the world, regarding the struggles that many veterans face with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’m looking to provide a way for veterans to get involved in sports and nature, in order to better their lives and move past their PTSD. Right now I’m highlighting veteran athletes who are already doing just that and sharing their stories for others to see.

The intention is to create a nonprofit organization that would not only fund veterans to get involved in whatever sport they choose — be it kayaking, mountain biking, snowboarding, etcetera — but also provide instruction from qualified professionals. These veterans will be able to go from knowing nothing about their chosen sport to being able to pursue their passion on their own. It would also give veterans the opportunity to connect with others who share a similar desire, creating a built-in community with which they can continue their passion.

So what’s you ultimate goal in all this?
That veterans will be inspired to get involved in outdoor sports and nature to help them cope with PTSD. It will also serve as a communal space where these veterans can meet up with others who share their specific sport interest, plan trips, and make new friends. My ultimate goal is to help reduce the number of suicides committed by military men and women each year. This is of significance importance to me personally given my background and military experience.

What’s your background with paddling? When did you start?
I was young, about 14 when my father taught me how to roll and I had kayaked some pretty mellow rivers. I joined the military at 18 and served five years, in which I didn’t paddle.

And where did you serve, or are you still?
I served with 101st Airborne Charlie Company 3-187th Infantry Regiment for five years. During those five years, I deployed to Iraq (15 months) and Afghanistan (12 months) and additionally, spent time in Germany, Ireland, Kuwait, and Kyrgyzstan. I was injured in combat in Afghanistan and awarded the Purple Heart for my injuries.

When I got out of the military at age 23, I happened to see a video of kayakers running waterfalls; something that I had no idea was even possible. After witnessing that, a fire was lit. I started charging hard and discovered a community which was very similar to that of the military. Everyone looked out for one another: You are required to place your life in another’s hands. You must devise a plan, and similar to my experience in the military, even with a plan, things can turn to chaos in a moment.

Is that camaraderie what’s kept you charging?
The aspect that I love the most about the sport is the community.

What’s the biggest challenge as you see it for young, active veterans returning home?
I think it’s feeling like you’re not a part of something anymore. This feeling leaves you wondering, ‘What is my next step?’ You go from holding such a high honor and having a sense of purpose, to working a 9-5 job and barely getting by.

I also believe that some of that raw, uncertain adrenaline is something in which you become accustomed to and ultimately require, in order to feel normal. Nothing will ever compare to the chaos of war, but kayaking gives me that fix I need to push myself and my boundaries. Kayaking, to me, is how I escape. I love the heart-pumping adventure of being out in the middle of nowhere, locked into deep canyon walls with nothing but massive whitewater ahead and a small group of people with whom you can trust with your life.

What else do you get out of paddling?
You get out of it what you put into it, just like the military. The other paddlers become your brothers and the river becomes your battlefield. Plan your route, be on point, and stick your line. It all sounds good in theory, but just like in a combat zone, the situation can have you scrambling and holding on with everything you got. Counting on your buddies and praying you make it out. There is no greater feeling then coming out of such chaos with some of your closest friends, who without a doubt, become like your family.

In the whitewater community, have you been exposed to many other veterans?
I have known various veterans in the sport and we always speak so highly of the positive changes it has made in our lives and how it has become an unquenchable desire to be on the water as much as possible. It becomes a part of you; the rivers, the canyons, the untouched nature, and the natural beauty. I want to share this with as many people as I can because once they decide to take the leap, I know that it will only leave them wanting more and will have such a positive impact on their lives.

…more on Davies’s efforts

— Watch a short film about Team River Runner participants describing the healing benefits of wilderness paddling.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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