When Eric Jackson took his final ride in the big hole in Sort, Spain, and became the 2000 pre-world freestyle kayak champion last July, he wasn't in anything like The Zone. He was just goofing off. He began with a zero-to-hero, a move he invented: upside down to vertical with one paddle stroke. Then the real fun began. Powering out of an eddy near the start, Jackson, at 36 hailed as the world's handiest whitewater kayaker, dropped into the competition hole, threw his signature right-left split-wheel—a cartwheel with a 180-degree twist—and launched into 30 seconds of dazzling aquabatics. Hewing to his reputation as the cockiest of showmen, at one point he shot a winning smile at one of the judges. "The more fun I'm having," says Jackson, "the better I do."
If so, he's been having quite a blast since he started paddling two decades ago. Though he's a good 15 years older than much of his competition, he still rules, and he does so in several disciplines. Among his long and diverse line of accomplishments: ten years on the U.S. kayaking slalom team; world rodeo champion in 1993; and winningest "extreme" racer this year—a niche that entails paddling a mile or so downriver through Class V whitewater and charging over 30-foot waterfalls. Incredibly, he's also a top competitor in canoe events. "E.J. has a unique knack for coming into any kind of competitive kayak situation—slalom, extreme, rodeo—and doing really well, if not dominating," says Dan Gevere, a longtime rodeo competitor.
It's no wonder: Jackson's a powerful 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds. He runs six-minute miles on hilly trails wherever he can find them so that his legs won't atrophy. He can hold his breath for three minutes (a skill that probably saved his skin back in '96 when he got pinned under a waterfall on the Potomac River and nearly drowned). In short, he has both the strength and skill to run any whitewater that's runnable.
He's so serious about being the best that in a lean time in 1997 he and his wife, Kristine, chucked their house in Bethesda, Maryland, sold most of their stuff, and moved themselves, their daughter, son (now ten and seven, respectively), and two dalmatians into an RV so they could all be together as Eric chased big water around the country. They log 50,000 miles a year and homeschool the kids. And though Jackson now has a real job as the director and boat designer for Wave Sport kayaks, the RV is still home: Call it his own private fan club. After all, Jackson would be the first to admit that he thrives with a cheering section. As one former U.S. slalom teammate quipped: "If you wanted to put a quote on his tombstone, it would be 'Hey, watch this!'"