Eric Jackson doesn’t know what’s going to happen to his body as he ages. But he has some theories. Conventional wisdom be damned, the world champion kayaker, now a 55-year-old grandfather, believes that if he simply continues to train hard, he won’t succumb to the steady decline that usually plagues aging athletes. “I was told by my coaches, and the United States Olympic Committee, and International Coach Federation, that I would peak by 28. They said it was just science,” Jackson says. “But I wasn’t ready to peak. I wanted to be stronger and faster, so I kept training hard, and I got stronger and faster in my thirties and in my forties.”
Jackson is one of the most successful professional kayakers in history. He spent 26 years on the USA Kayak team between 1989 and 2015, competing and winning on an international level well into his forties. He made the U.S. team again in 2017 at the age of 53. Along the way, he pushed and defined the world of freestyle kayaking, started the paddlesports manufacturer Jackson Kayak, and won three world championships. His two kids, Emily, 29, and Dane, 26, grew up paddling alongside their dad and are considered to be two of the best kayakers in the world right now. (Emily is also married to professional kayaker Nick Troutman.) But their father, known in the boating world simply as EJ, continues to go head to head with them when he competes: he beat Dane and Troutman in the downriver race at the GoPro Mountain Games last year and came in second to Dane at this year’s event. “It seemed to be a very clear cause-and-effect situation,” Jackson says about his lasting achievements. “Train consistently, do the right things, and you will be rewarded.”
Still, Jackson admits that he has seen a couple of dips in his performance in recent years, especially after picking up bass fishing. As the captain of the USA Kayak Fishing team, he participates in the professional bass-fishing tour, a commitment that has started to take up a significant amount of his time. “I’m still trying to find a good way to work out while I’m fishing,” Jackson says. “I think I saw my lowest level of fitness last fall when I was competing so much on the bass boat.”
“Not having any goals that require physical prowess is a death sentence.”
Even with this new devotion to fishing, Jackson is still paddling hard. He recently created a new freestyle move where he does a backflip into the river from an overhanging rock, sinks into the water, then pops out to do another backflip. He calls it the “Stunt Double” and says that his son is the only other kayaker he knows of that can pull it off. It’s a move that would make most athletes his age throw out a hip.
To keep up with these demanding tricks, Jackson says he tries to create a lifestyle that naturally pushes his mind and body to perform. When I talk to him in early June, he’s in Salida, Colorado, resting between training sessions on the town’s world-class play wave. He spent two hours training on the river in the morning and will go back out in the afternoon for another session with a couple of Jackson Kayak team members. Jackson is also signed up to run a marathon in the fall. But his training doesn’t involve too much pavement pounding. Instead he plays “speed-disc golf,” where he sprints and does parkour while moving through an 18-hole golf course that he designed at his home in Tennessee. He believes that if he can sprint that course in a certain amount of time, he’s good to go for the marathon. “Aging isn’t what makes your body go to hell, not training is what makes your body go to hell,” Jackson says. “Not having any goals that require physical prowess is a death sentence.”
While Jackson says he only lifts weights when he can’t kayak enough or is recovering from an injury, he has a series of benchmarks that he regularly monitors to keep track of his fitness. For instance, he aims to be able to bench 165 pounds ten times and run a 10K while averaging 7:30-minute miles. In addition to monitoring his weight daily, he subjects himself to these periodic fitness tests. If he can hit those marks, he knows he’s in decent shape.
Marathons and benchmarks aside, the overall goal for Jackson is to continue competing and living the active lifestyle that he’s grown accustomed to. Not just throughout his fifties and sixties, but beyond. “I train with my kids now because they’re the best training partners out there,” Jackson says. “I don’t see any reason why I won’t be training with my grandkids—who are now five and two—one day.”