Years ago, when I was first kayaking, I learned about a life philosophy that I immediately adopted. One of the most accomplished men I ever met, an ex-kayaker, wrote that what separated the truly successful people he’d known — at Harvard, in the Marines, in the Olympics, and in the White House — was a specific mindset. He called it “fascination with the process.”
To be fascinated with the process means you’re doing things for the right reason. It’s not about the results, it’s about the pursuit. Ironically, you tend to get stellar results; you work harder, think deeper, and achieve more — not because you lust after fame and fortune — but because you truly love the work itself. You revel in the details. You enjoy the behind-the-scenes. You do the digging. You’re passionate not about racing in the Olympics, but about training for the Olympics.
Back in 2001, I was a young racer passionate about training for the Olympics, but living in the slalom backwater of Vermont, I had no idea how to go about it. So I was ecstatic when Scott Shipley, the winningest American kayak racer of his generation, published a how-to guidebook specifically devoted to winning whitewater slalom races. Finally — a book that would show me the secrets of the yearly training plan, of how hard I had to work, how often to train, and a thousand other details I couldn’t wait to dig into. My expectations could not have been higher.
But you know what? That book that I bought and hauled back to my dorm room to dissect, Every Crushing Stroke, turned out to be even better than I expected. It wasn’t just a training manual — it was a revelation. Sixteen years later it remains my favorite book about whitewater kayaking. Many boaters have never heard of it, and that’s a shame. Why? Because Every Crushing Stroke is that rare sports book that not only teaches you how to win, but how to live.
It’s is a book about “fascination with the process.”
Let’s start with the writing.
Normally jocks’ books — the ones who write their own books — are disappointing. They fall back on cliches and warmed-over game summaries and usually end up revealing very little of anything. So I was surprised at what an engaging writer Shipley, a jock and an engineer by training, turned out to be. Yet every page is alive with fresh, original writing, and burns with infectious passion, as Shipley sketches out his boyhood dreams:
“Not once in all that time did I crave the riches of a pro athlete or the recognition of an Olympian. I wanted to be like my heroes. I wanted to drive to Jonquiere in my green Cathy Hearn-style Pinto and I wanted to launch myself out of the starting gate like Austrian Norbert Sattler. I wanted to be the fastest kayaker in the world.”
Soon enough, he does — and Every Crushing Stroke is a coming of age story both for Shipley and for the sport of whitewater kayaking itself. Shipley is a paddling zeitgeist; he pops up everywhere in the last 30 years of boating history. He learns the sport in homemade gear from his father, a 60s-era US Team member who “believed in roughing it and learning the old way,” then enjoys a riverside seat for the 1980s innovations in slalom boat design and paddling technique — stern squirts and pivot turns — led by the new crop of dominating American racers like Cathy and David Hearn and Jon Lugbill. Later, Shipley’s there for two of American slalom’s high water marks: the 1989 World Championships and slalom’s dramatic reinclusion into the 1992 Olympics. A year later, he’s back again for the 1993 Freestyle World Championships — now considered a watershed moment in freestyle boating — where he finishes second, despite not having learned any new freestyle moves until just weeks beforehand. His career retrospective stops there, but many of the training workouts depicted in the book were refined during the middle and later 1990s, at a time when Shipley was again on the forefront of the Olympic-driven movement in slalom toward still greater professionalization in training. And of course after the book was published, Shipley has again been on the cutting edge — this time as designer of many of the world’s best artificial whitewater courses.
But back in the 1980s, Scott Shipley was not a normal kid. He was fascinated — obsessed — with the process. Most kids enjoy racing, but not the hard work of training (at least, not without a coach or parent around). But Shipley — largely coachless — *loved* to train. He begins hanging a single slalom gate on the sound near his house in Washington State, practicing unsexy technique drills over and over. His workouts become more regimented, more serious, and more and more honed in on turning weaknesses into strengths. “Every race was a test I invariably failed,” he writes.
What kind of teenager is that focused? One who is incredibly competitive, and yet totally immersed in the pursuit of excellence. Again, Shipley’s passion comes through in the writing itself, as he remembers his childhood training partners, a hodgepodge collection of Seattle-area boaters who stoke his competitive fire, yet nurture him at the same time:
“I grew up with an overwhelming desire to compete, to be faster, to beat people. Every workout and every race I was focused on attack, attack, attack. If I was slower than my target, I would dig deeper to paddle better and faster on my next effort. The great lesson I took from these early years was the respect we all shared despite how competitive these workouts were. At the tick of a watch we were desperately racing to beat our training partners, yet moments later, when the watch was off, we would help each other. We were teammates in the truest sense.”
Soon Shipley is the best junior in the country, then in the world. After winning the Junior Worlds — the first American kayaker ever to do so — he’s 18 years old and lasering in on the top few grown men in the United States — one truly great one in particular — and that’s where this book gets really good.
Sometime around 1990, Shipley moves to the small town of Chilliwack, British Columbia with the goal of winning the 1992 Olympics. Chilliwack is the kind of place where young men have gone to transform themselves for hundreds of years. For some men, it’s an army barracks. For Shipley, it’s a dead-end town with a big river, a rough-and-tumble environment that Shipley can’t help contrasting with many of the modern facilities his European competitors enjoyed:
“This was our gymnasium, nothing less and nothing more. We lacked any sort of conventional clubhouse or training center. We changed our clothes in the dirt beside our cars, and we trained in the stadium that God gave us. What a stadium it was, though . . .”
But it’s not about the amenities — it’s about a man named Richard Weiss. In Chilliwack, Shipley serendipitously falls in with the kind of training group we all dream about: a bunch of up-and-coming Canadian and American racers who just happen to move there at the same time, all of whom want nothing more than to put aside everything in their lives to dedicate themselves to winning a berth in the Olympics. They live the way broke boaters have always lived: they sleep in treehouses with no running water or lights, cook outdoors, and brave the Canadian winters in leaky drytops and shorts — all for the chance to train on Chilliwack’s world-class whitewater and nip at each other’s heels in the increasingly sadistic workouts they put themselves through. The dynamic among the boaters quickly becomes a once-in-a-career mixture of fire-breathing competition yet mutual support, a spawning grounds for innovation, with all of the boaters bringing different things to the table, and bringing out the best in each other. U.S. Team member Brian Brown is there. So are Canadians Larry Norman, Patrice Gagnon, and David Ford, the man who’d go on to become a World Champion and a many-time Olympian.
But it is Shipley’s relationship with his one-time mentor Richard Weiss, the American champion, that really gives the story poignance. Shipley is training to be great. Weiss already is, having garnered second place at the recent Worlds. Up close, Shipley is even more awed by his commitment, his humility, and his super-human strength. Keeping up with Rich Weiss in a kayak was not easy, even for Shipley, the most gifted young paddler of his generation. The first time they train together, Shipley is stunned: he becomes so exhausted fending off Weiss from passing him that he has to climb out on shore to rest. “That was when Rich offered to design the next course. I kid you not, Rich was only half done with the workout.”
These two men, training to beat each other, end up bringing out the best in each other — and they are both thoroughly fascinated with the process. Shielded from what Shipley hints is the groupthink of many other top American racers, Chilliwack becomes the laboratory where this young group questions everything they know about paddling, takes it all apart — from forward strokes to draw strokes to race day procedures — scrutinize it as a group, test hypothesis, and they put it all back together again. Meanwhile they’re indifferent to the harsh winters, seemingly immune to exhaustion, and — this is meaningful — largely coachless. This is significant, writes Shipley, because it requires they assume responsibility for their own training — and soon enough they’re asking of themselves sacrifices that no coach would ever reasonably expect. They become, as Shipley calls it, “the purest form of fanatics.” Sure, they’re chasing Olympic gold, but it’s about more than that. They’ve stumbled onto something even better than winning: a perfect group for pursuing excellence together. It’s something that few of us get to enjoy in our lives (and which Shipley freely admits he spends the rest of his career trying to recapture). It’s a vision, an ideal. I know it’s stayed with me ever since I first read about it here, and I’ve tried to find it for myself in both my slalom training and in my professional pursuits ever since, but I’ve never gotten quite as lucky as Shipley and Weiss.
As I mentioned, this is a poignant book. Shipley doesn’t just relate his fascination with the process — he also evokes the dramatic highs and lows of an Olympic pursuit. For example, he writes of the “coldest, most inhumane and most definitively final event in sports” — the 1992 Olympic Trials, with the “kill or be killed” mentality that sees Shipley win his Olympic berth, but several of his hard-working teammates miss the Games. Later he describes the exuberance of making the Team, the orgy of fancy dinners, plane flights, free clothing, and Hilton stays courtesy of Team USA, followed by the utter agony of missing a gate on an otherwise flawless run at the 1992 Olympics — then having a host family he’s staying with shortly afterward question his dedication when he (for once) decides to sleep in. It’s hard to read, knowing how much the guy put in.
Then there is the fate of Shipley’s great friend and rival, Rich Weiss. After the 1992 Olympics, their training group disbands, and Shipley writes of how the stress of constantly competing against each other subtly pushed the two men apart without their realizing it. Before they can truly reunite, and not long after finishing sixth in the 1996 Olympics, Rich Weiss drowns while practicing for an extreme race. “I hope his legacy shines from the pages of this book,” writes Shipley. As a reader who’d never have known any of these memorable Rich Weiss anecdotes except for this book, I’d have to say Shipley’s goal was successful.
I remember getting chills over and over again while reading this book for the first time. I still do. Great books leave you with lasting visions, and some of Shipley’s have stayed with me for my whole racing career and beyond. I think of the great British champion Richard Fox “charging through the pack with little or no resistance” during crowded Savage River training sessions, the crowds of paddlers “seemed to part like the Red Sea in order to allow the champion through,” or Shipley, Brown, and Weiss swapping sides in their slalom boats on the giant Skookumchuck wave, “soul surfing” in the evening light, or perhaps my very favorite passage in all of whitewater literature: the moment at the 1989 World Championships when the unbeatable American C-1 team suddenly emerges into view on the Savage River in front of thousands of American fans:
“The mist was especially heavy on the Savage that day and the entire race had been plagued by a thick fog low to the river. The fog was so thick that at first we saw nothing. This was a two hundred second long course, and all we could sense were the cheers of the crowd as the gang drew steadily nearer. Those cheers became a roar around us, even was we squinted into the fog for any sign.
“The first thing to break the low-lying fog was Jon (Lugbill)’s fist. It was his top hand protruding above the mist and it hammered angrily into and out of the fog with each pounding stroke . . . Finally the three of them surged out of the fog on a full speed sprint, deftly wove through the three or four gates within view, then disappeared into the fog on their way down the course.”
That description still gives me chills. There it is: the exact moment when American slalom hit its absolute apex. Lugbill lays down the Ultimate Run, then the Americans take a victory lap and come out of the fog like the superheros they’ve become.
And then, just like that, it’s over:
“With their passing, so too passed the peak of their era. They belonged to another time, they were champions of the old school. With the finish of that day’s race began a new era. No longer were we concerned with World Championship medals; all eyes focused now on Barcelona and its Olympic Games.”
The book is all the more poignant knowing how it ends for Shipley. Although he basically leaves off his own story after the heartbreaking 27th place at the 1992 Olympics, I bought the book in 2001, maybe six months after I’d watched Shipley again “lose” at the Sydney Olympics and then give one of the saddest, most downtrodden interviews I have ever watched on television. I remember thinking, “The guy finished fifth in the world. What’s so bad about that?” But a year later in Every Crushing Stroke, Shipley meditates on what the stakes really are at the Games:
“Perhaps in the eyes of . . . those who truly matter in your life — you have accomplished something. To the rest of America, any result outside of the medals is a defeat.”
It’s quite remarkable for me to go back and watch his runs from Sydney, or even his runs from the Atlanta Olympics, where he was the favorite, but finished outside the top ten. Scott Shipley was really freaking good, and I always felt bad for him that he was never able to win the Olympics or the Worlds — given the way he devoted his life to it.
But after reading the book, you get the sense that he’s trying to teach you that, even though it still hurts, somewhere deep down it doesn’t really matter. Although he writes beautifully of the agony of Olympic defeat, it’s pretty clear from the rest of the book that the value he derived from his years chasing pure excellence alongside his friends went far, far beyond gold, silver, or bronze to some deeper place that not even defeat could touch:
“Like the D-C C-1s, my time has come and gone . . . In the sum of my career I was never an Olympic Champion as were none of those paddlers I idolized so early on in my paddling . . . Like them I take pride neither in the results themselves nor the medals I’ve brought home, but in the efforts that preceded them. I hang my hat not on that final destination but on every crushing stroke it took to reach it.”
This is where you realize that this book is not just about kayaking. Scott Shipley was fascinated with the process, and after reading this book, so was I. To be in a constant pursuit of excellence is a lesson that I took with me first to the race course, then to writing, and later to a career in education. I think of the daily lesson plans, the conferring with colleagues, the early mornings and the late nights grading essays as just another extension of the passion to succeed that Shipley, Brian Brown, and Rich Weiss first showed me from their days in Chilliwack. This is a wonderful coming of age story and an illuminating how-to guide. I think that all paddlers, not just slalom racers, should read it. Because it’s not just about the best way to race — it’s about the best way to live.
It’s a great read.