Freestyle kayaker Dane Jackson grew up on the river, living out of his family’s RV and trying to keep up with his peripatetic, four-time world champion super-daddy Eric Jackson. Back in 2007, when I hung out with the Jacksons at their home in Rock Island, Tennessee, while reporting a profile about EJ., Dane was a four-foot-six, 71-pound footnote to the story. He was 13 but looked about nine. When we weren't hanging out in the family room while Dane did vocabulary homework aloud and chewed off bits of his toenails and ate them, he was dropping 20-foot vertical rock waterfalls in his shrimpy boat, designed and built by his dad's eponymous kayak company. A few weeks later, I met up with them again at the World Championships on the Ottawa River, where Dane placed third in the junior men's division on Bus Eater, a wave so monstrous it made him look like a tiny plastic Paddle-to-the-Sea toy.
Well, guess what. Dane grew up. When I caught up with the 18-year-old heir apparent a few weeks ago, he was at the tail end what will definitely go down as the summer he busted out of his dad’s very long shadow. In June, Dane won three golds at the Freestyle Kayak World Championships in Germany, was named Male Athlete of the Month by the United States Olympic Committee. In July, he went on to win three more golds at the National Championships, including the junior men’s title and two canoe comps. (EJ kept the father-son rivalry alive by winning the men’s kayak division.) I checked in with the vagabond paddler while he was on the road in Colorado, not long after this video was taken:
Do you remember the first time your dad put you in a whitewater kayak?
I don’t know the first time my dad put me in a kayak, but the first time I ran a Class IV rapid by myself was when I was 2. I don’t remember it, but it sounded like it was a interesting run. I managed to go into every hole on the rapid.
Do you think starting so young gave you a big advantage over your competitors?
Obviously it helped because I had so much time around and on the water growing up. But I think what helped me the most was being so motivated and having my dad with me the whole time.
Did you love paddling right away?
I loved being in the water, no matter what. I loved foam boating (little kayaks made of foam) all day every chance I got. And I loved being in a kayak. I would get in the flat water with any boat I could. But for a while I wasn’t in a kayak every day because I wasn’t ready to go on the rivers my dad was paddling.
Did you feel pressure to perform well?
I didn’t really feel pressure but I was so motivated to do as well as I could. It was just fun because I wanted to be on the water, not because I had to.
Did you ever burn out?
Not really, from the beginning to now I always try to get on the water as much as possible.
What was it like living in the RV?
Living in the RV full time was tough, but it allowed us to always be together and go all over the place doing competitions and kayaking. It was what we all wanted to do.
How was it growing up in a family where athletic/adventure excellence was the norm?
This was what kept us together at all times. My dad, sister and I would all go boating. My mom would drive us to the put-in and would bring snacks and drinks for us to have at the take out. So we were able to have fun and kayak together almost every day.
Did you ever miss having a home like a normal kid?
Just a little bit. But I knew that if we had a normal house and no RV and I went to normal school, I wouldn’t have all the opportunities that I’ve had traveling in the RV.
It seems like you had the genes to become very good. What do you think it takes to become world champion?
The biggest thing is just always enjoying myself. Always having fun no matter what I am doing, and pushing myself as hard as I can to learn new stuff.
Is your dad your coach?
DJ: He has always been our coach and helped us out in any way he could. But we all helped each other whenever we could.
Do you ever disagree with your dad about his coaching tactics or philosophy?
When it comes to my dad’s way to teach you new tricks or techniques, it really doesn’t get easier or simpler.
What did you love most about growing up in the RV?
Being with my family every step of the way.
What did you dislike most about growing up in the RV?
Probably just not being around a bunch of kids my age. But after a while, when I got older and we started going to more events, that didn’t bother me anymore.
Where did you do your schooling?
Well, I am still in school. But I have been home schooled my entire life.
What advice would you give other aspiring young athletes?
Keep pushing yourself. Don’t give up. And always make sure you are having fun no matter what.
Do you still live with your parents?
As of now I still travel in the RV with my parents, but I have a truck and I will most likely go in my car by myself next season.
Can you imagine being brought up another way, or doing anything else?
I wouldn’t have wanted to have been brought up any differently, had a different family, or had a different life.
— Katie Arnold