Eric Jackson and Clay Wright ride Dynamic Duo in Rock Island,… (Handout photo )
SALT LAKE CITY — — Four-time freestyle kayak world champion Eric Jackson learned his sport paddling Maryland's waters and raised money for his 1992 Olympic campaign by going door-to-door and panhandling on street corners.
Now 46, EJ, as the paddling world calls him, is riding high in the water as owner of one of the most successful kayak manufacturing companies and as father of the women's world freestyle champion.
He's also plotting to retake the title of world's best next year, wrestling the crown from a competitor he knows all too well: his son-in-law.
His happily-ever-after script isn't so far-fetched, say those who know him from the competitive paddling scene.
"You're not going to find a more disciplined athlete than Eric," says Joe Jacobi, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist from Bethesda who now heads USA Canoe/Kayak. "You look at the younger athletes and they're all following the path Eric blazed. He's changed the way athletes train. And it's not just freestyle, they all could learn something from him."
But Jackson doesn't have his head in the froth all the time.
This fall, Jackson Kayak is releasing a paddling platform specifically for anglers — from its elevated perch for fly fishing and sight fishing to the molded compartments under the seat that snugly hold two Plano-style tackle boxes.
The Coosa, designed by professional bass fisherman Drew Gregory, is built to handle lakes and ponds and rivers up to Class III. The seat can be adjusted from the traditional flat-to-the-deck position to a raised level that makes it easier to scout and cast.
Gregory says he got into kayak fishing while in college because it was cheaper than owning a boat with a motor and it allowed him to get into skinny water quietly. When Jackson gave him the opportunity to build the boat of his dreams, he jumped at the chance.
Twenty-three inches wide at its broadest, the Coosa is stable enough to stand and cast. At the Outdoor Retailer trade show, Gregory showed me a video of him fishing while standing atop the bow deck hatch.
(A quick note: Gregory was in a different Jackson Kayak — the 10-foot Day Tripper — when he was attacked and dumped overboard by an angry goose. Yes, a goose. The popular YouTube video is a hoot. "The water was over my head," he recalls of the goosing. "I really didn't want to go swimming, but at least the boat didn't turn over. That would have been a lot of tackle lost.")
The Coosa Elite is tricked out with a roomy rod locker, a replaceable skid plate, flush-mounted rod holders, a stern V-channel for anchors, and storage bins at both ends of the boat plus a small dry bag for cell phones and GPS units within reach. Oh, and there's a built-in inch marker to measure those monster catches.
The details are still being worked out, but the price is expected to be $799 for the Coosa and $999 for the Coosa Elite.
But back to the boss paddler, Eric Jackson.
Jackson moved from New Hampshire to Bethesda in 1984 to train with Bill Endicott, the legendary coach whose athletes have won 57 medals — 27 of them gold — in World Championship, World Cup and Olympic competitions.
Endicott told him if he worked hard for five years, he could make the U.S. team. Jackson put in the hours and dropped out of the University of Maryland in his junior year when he realized, "I didn't want to be an engineer, I wanted to be a kayaker."
Jackson got married in 1988 and he and his wife, Kristine, had a daughter, Emily, soon after. With family responsibilities front and center, and the 1992 Olympic campaign looming, Jackson was in a bind.
"I did what you call grassroots fundraising," he says, grinning as he recalls his door-to-door efforts he squeezed in between morning and evening training sessions. "'Hi, I'm Eric Jackson and I'm training for the Olympics. Here's a stamped envelope. Anything more than 32 cents would help me."
He stood on busy street corners with his kayak selling autographed photos until U.S. Olympic officials put a stop to it.
He and Jacobi went to Barcelona to represent their country. Jacobi and partner Scott Strausbaugh stood atop the podium in canoe slalom. Jackson finished 13th out of 44competitors in kayak slalom.
The next year, Jackson won the first of four world freestyle titles. He also won in 2001, 2005 and 2007 in an event that is held every other year.
In 1997, the Jacksons put an ad in the newspaper, "Everything for sale," and moved from their Baltimore rowhouse to a recreational vehicle "to follow the water," he says.
They finally built a house in Tennessee in 2004, but Jackson still spends six months each year on the road pursuing both his sport and new business for his nearly seven-year-old kayak company.
About five years ago, the family RV added a passenger when paddler Nick Troutman moved in. Troutman married Emily Jackson and then last year took away his father-in-law's world title.
Their rematch is next year in Germany.
"He thinks it's a new trend. I told him it was his wedding present," Jackson says. "I've got my world training planned out. I'm on the water every day. I don't intend to lose, but he doesn't, either."
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