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All in the Family

On the road and on the river with the first family of whitewater kayaking

The Jacksons loading their Volvo V60 with kayak gear    

Imagine you have a son who is born 12 weeks premature. He weighs 26 ounces at birth and fits in the palm of your hand. You’re told to prepare yourself for the possibility that he might not survive. But slowly he gains strength, is unhooked from the respirator, and at seven weeks old is sent home. He is still tiny, he is partially deaf, and he will stay small for his whole childhood, but your son beat the odds.

If this were your story, you’d have no reason to believe that this baby would grow up to be a world champion athlete. You would simply be happy to have a child alive in the world. But this is exactly what happened to Eric, "EJ," and Kristine Jackson and their son Dane, and the rest of the Jackson clan, one of the most accomplished, unconventional family dynasties in sports.

The Jacksons have always done things their way, breaking the mold at every turn. A professional kayaker, EJ won his first world freestyle championship in 1993, when Dane was just two months old. Dane and his older sister, Emily, paddled their first rapids when they were still toddlers, and soon they were hooked, too. To support the family's passion for rivers, and EJ's job as a competitive paddler, the Jacksons sold all their belongings, moved out of their suburban house, and hit the road.

The Jacksons spent the next ten years driving around from river to river so EJ could compete, Kristine home-schooling the kids while EJ groomed them to be champions. Dane learned to roll his kayak when he was eight. At nine, says EJ, “he became a kayaker. That’s when he got the bug.” When he was 12, the family traveled to Africa, where Dane paddled the big holes on the Zambezi River; he weighed 44 pounds.

The Jackson's focus and passion for kayaking paid off in a big way. EJ won three more world championships and launched what's now the most successful kayak manufacturer in the country, the eponymous Jackson Kayak. Dane and Emily both won junior world championships, and Emily was crowned women’s world champion when she was 19. Only two athletes in the history of the sport have won back-to-back junior and open world championships titles. Not surprisingly, they’re both Jacksons.

Over the years, the family has grown: In 2008, when EJ and Kristine were in their mid-40s, they welcomed son KC (also born prematurely, at 32 weeks), who's now five and learning to kayak. Emily, 24, married fellow pro kayaker Nick Troutman and last summer produced the first Jackson grandchild, a boy named Tucker (aka TNT), but not before competing in—and winning—a freestyle competition at nine months pregnant. And last September, Dane, now 20 and finally growing into himself at 5'6", won his first world title in 2013, defeating, among other top contenders, his brother-in-law and his father.

EJ may be one of the sport's fiercest and scrappiest competitors, his career marked by a series of thrillingly improbable come-from-behind victories, but he's quick to appreciate the rare honor of watching his son win, even when it comes at his own expense. "It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me as a Dad, a dream come true!" exclaims EJ with his trademark enthusiasm. 

And that's the thing about the Jacksons. Because paddling and rivers and building boats have always been a family affair, their joy for the sport and adventure lifestyle is genuine, and infectious. Unlike so many talented and driven young children, the younger Jacksons weren't forced into their lives as pro kayakers; instead they grew into the great athletes they were born to be.

These days, three generations of Jacksons still live part of the year on the go, caravanning together to competitions around the country and spreading the gospel of whitewater. During the winter off-season, they decamp to their log home in rural Rock Island, Tennessee, a few miles down the road from Jackson Kayak HQ. The garage is piled with kayaks and bikes, and after a day practicing their tricks in the play hole on the Caney Fork River Gorge, they gather for a game of family football in the backyard, or sit around the marble island in the kitchen for one of Kristine's home cooked meals.

If EJ is the wave, rising and cresting and building momentum for his family and his sport for so many years, then Kristine is the rock that has always anchored them. Whether on the road or at home, on the river or on the job, the Jacksons have created the kind of rare, enviable life where family and adventure go hand in hand.