Kayaker Henry Hyde’s Olympic Dreams

At just 12 years old, USA Canoe/Kayak Cadet National Champion Henry Hyde has held his own in competitions with some of the world’s most elite paddlers. We talk to him about fear, the power of bean and bacon tacos, and his hopes of competing on the world’s biggest stage.

    Photo: Josh Montague

When Henry Hyde was three years old, he convinced his father to buy him a Jackson Fun 1 boat and cut a paddle in half so that the little kayaker could take to the water. The investment paid off: Now, the 12-year-old is a USA Canoe/Kayak Cadet National Champion and competes with some of the best adult paddlers around the world. His aggressive style and fearlessness in rough water keep him competitive even outside his age group.

When we met the Hydes at this year’s GoPro Mountain Games, Henry was looking forward to being an 8-baller in the 8-Ball Kayak Sprint (“the NASCAR of kayaking”), picking at a scab (acquired on his mountain bike, not a kayak), and gearing up for the next weekend’s FIBArk whitewater festival, where he would place first in his age group for slalom. Between wisecracks, Henry and his dad Mike talked about life on the water and their big plans for the future (spoiler alert: the Olympics are in sight).

You just got back from the Pyrenees Cup Canoe Slalom in Spain. How did that go?
Henry: It was okay, I was racing against Olympians.

Mike: It’s hard. These guys have multiple medals, and he’s the only 12-year-old out there.

How did you first get into kayaking?

Henry: When I was like two or three, I just really wanted to kayak. I’d see the people in Durango at the parks, and I really liked it. I got my first kayak which was a Jackson Fun 1 and I just got into it.

Mike: He likes swimming rapids, oddly enough. I don’t know why. I used to take him, he’d go down to the park with me, they have our play park down there. Smelter’s like the big hole; he’d get on the wing dam in his little shorty wetsuit and helmet, and he would jump off into the middle of the hole. I’d sit in the eddy, count to five, reach out and grab him, put him on top of my boat, paddle to shore, he’d go back and do it again.

So do you ever get scared?
Henry: I’m not scared of swimming in rapids, just sometimes I don’t like the feature or the hole, or I think it’s too sticky, or it’s too flushy. I do all the freestyle holes, but some are perfect for me, others are not.

Did you feel prepared for GoPro this year?

Henry: Last year I felt better on the downriver. I had an exchange student and he did wildwater and I was training with him a lot. I feel more prepared in certain disciplines this year. I feel better about 8-ball, actually

But you don’t compete all year, right?
Henry: I go to school from August to May. We get water like right after school, in may, then I start practicing at Golden.

Mike: His coach wants to get him ready for Olympic trials in 2016.

What will you be changing up, training-wise, to get ready?
Mike: More running, bicycle, lots of aerobics, and core work, and just getting out. The thing slalomers hate is flatwater drills; there’s no current and it’s usually cold and crappy out. But it’s important to do those too. Whitewater slalom is what he’d be doing. Hopefully it stays an Olympic sport. They keep trying to cut it out.

Do you think you’re treated any differently being such a young kayaker?
Henry: I think it helps, because I don’t ignore them. I take their advice when they give it to me, I just kind of put myself in a different group from them and take their advice. It doesn’t intimidate me, they’re not mean or anything.

Who would you say you’ve learned the most from?
Henry: I learned a lot from Tony Estanguet. He’s a French C-1er, he won three Olympic medals I think. Three golds. I got to watch him in person and I got to meet him. He gave me some advice: train and keep up the good work.

You paddle with a lot of European kayakers.

Henry: It’s like 20 years’ difference there compared to America. They take it so seriously there. You win money and it’s just crazy. Over here it’s just like, throw some clothes on, put the gates up, get some people to judge.

You’re improving so much every year and competing with the adults. What’s the secret sauce?
Mike: He just doesn’t have quit. Once he gets ticked off it’s pretty funny to watch, because he gets really focused and methodical. In 2011 his mom was congratulating this kid who was about five or six seconds ahead of him, and Henry got ticked off and went to do his second run, and waxed 34 seconds off his time.

Any wipeouts?

Mike: Tell her what happened on your first river run ever.

Henry: I got pinned on three rocks upside down. The whitewater park at Golden, there’s this thing called the juicer, and there’s this little side hole that’s really recirc-y. And I got sucked into it, and got really thrown around, trashed. I couldn’t touch the bottom.

It’s fun when you’re just going down the river, it’s awful when you go through a recirc. Most of the holes you just go through, under. But it’s really awful when you keep getting sucked back into a hole.

Where’s the toughest place you’ve ever paddled?

Henry: Here. It was the steep creek championship. I did it last year. That was the first time I’d ever done it, but they changed the rules. You have to be 16 to do it. It’s really technical.

Do your friends at school know you’re doing all of this?
Henry: Kind of. They don’t really understand. They know I kayak and I’m training and stuff like that, but they don’t really get the gist of it. My best friend Hudson gets it.

What are you most looking forward to the rest of the summer?

Henry: Football.

Mike: He plays Pop Warner football.

What do you see yourself doing in the future?

Henry: I want to coach, I might wanna coach in Idaho or something. They have really nice water. I haven’t decided.

You really never get nervous on the water?

Henry: Creeking, yeah. Not anything else usually.

Mike: Once he’s run something he’s generally good to go forever. He’ll want to run it all day long. I just started boating again a couple years ago and we went on one run called the Screaming Quarter Mile, about 4 minus, 3 plus, I would call it a 3 minus the consequences. Sharp rocks. So he’s giving me crap, going, “Dad, you’re a little shaky.”

Anything you do before competitions?

Henry: Just food. Milk. Blackberries and blueberries. A good breakfast, I guess. Bacon and eggs.

Mike: Bacon and bean tacos if he can get ‘em. Yeah we discovered those back at San Marcos. He had them after a seizure.

Henry: I have seizures if I don’t go to bed early. I can’t go to bed after 12 or I’ll have a seizure.

Mike: It’s called benign Rolandic seizures. And generally they go away sometimes by the time you’re 14 or 15, sometimes earlier, there are no reported cases after 16. You just kind of let him go through it and come out of it. Doesn’t last long, maybe three minutes. Afterwards he’ll feel slightly sick, then an hour after that he’ll be ravenously hungry. That’s when we feed him bean and bacon tacos.

What would you say to people who want to start kayaking as young as you did?

Henry: They just have to train and learn as much as they can while they’re young. And convince your parents that kayaking isn’t death. Death doesn’t happen that much. Kayaking teaches a high degree of self responsibility and discipline, and awareness of consequences. If you get lax on the river, you’re going to lose.

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