Kayaking Legend Jon Lugbill’s Dream Job


The only paddler to appear on a Wheaties box loves Richmond, Virginia. Jon Lugbill is widely considered the greatest whitewater canoeist ever. He's a five-time world champion in C-1 slalom and has 12 World Championship gold medals. After competitive canoeing, his primary challenge became building the city he loves into a sports mecca. He took on the position of executive director for a nonprofit called the Metropolitan Richmond Sports Backers in 1993, turning it from a small mom-and-pop with a 67,000 budget into a competitive marketing and event behemoth with an annual business revenue of $3.5 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Now his goal is to make the Dominion Riverrock—a multi-sport festival taking place May 14-15 in Richmond—a vital adventure sports stop on everyone's list. Outside caught up with him to find out why.

Where did the idea for Dominion Riverrock come from? Was there an “aha” moment?
Our first attempt at having a major event on the riverfront was when we tried to attract the ESPN X-Games and the Gravity Games to Richmond. Unfortunately, we lost our X-Games bid to Philadelphia and two years later in 2002, we lost out on a chance to host NBC’s Gravity Games. Because we are a small television market, we were pretty sure we would continue to lose these bids on a national level. And, we kept looking at our riverfront and saying to ourselves that the river was the most important feature. I also visited the Gorge Games in Oregon and the Teva Mountain Games to look at their two different models. While these events helped crystallize our plans, the original frustration of not winning the X-Games and the Gravity Games motivated us to develop our own unique riverfront event.

Why Richmond?
I realized through a combination of experiences that Richmond was ideally suited for a “modern riverfront festival” on our downtown riverfront. We have a unique mixture of whitewater on the James River, 20 miles of single-track mountain bike trails, and an outdoor concert venue—all right next to each other in the middle of downtown Richmond. Where else can you showcase these activities and the feel of the “park and play” lifestyle? Richmond is so unique in that it provides that perfect environment for mountain biking, kayaking and trail running. And, don’t forget, Richmond is extremely dog friendly.

There is a good mix of events, from air dogs, to boatercross, to mountain biking. How did you pick the events?
On any given weekend in the spring you see people kayaking, running, biking and walking their dogs in the James River Park in downtown Richmond. We selected events that are fun to try, exciting to do, and great to watch. All of these elements combined with great bands and food and drink makes for an incredibly high energy atmosphere.

Did your career as a kayaker influence the festival?

I’ve paddled on remote rivers all over the world and had the opportunity to race in hundreds of races. My understanding of the excitement of outdoor sports and the thrill of doing tricks that are entertaining is still fresh in my memory. With that, I’ve tried to develop events with courses and activities that remain true to their sports while at the same time making them fun for the average spectator.

What are your goals for this festival?
We would like to see Dominion Riverrock become the showcase event for our downtown riverfront lifestyle. The national attention the event receives will showcase Richmond as a dynamic and exciting place to live.  Local residents and visitors alike will work to promote the expansion of our parks and outdoor recreational assets, which will ultimately make Richmond a better place for all outdoor enthusiasts to play.

How does prepping for a festival like Dominion Riverrock compare to training and prepping for a whitewater canoe race?
A whitewater canoe race is a very narrow pursuit. When done at an elite level it is very challenging to control all of the variables for success. It is a tremendous personal challenge that is supported by a variety of people including coaches, family and people volunteering in the sport, but it is largely a personal endeavor. To be really good at it you need to be passionate about the sport and your preparation for years on end.

Managing an event like Dominion Riverrock requires engaging and working with hundreds of people from a wide variety of organizations. In order to make it work, everyone needs to know their role and how they fit into the overall event. Just like kayaking, you need to be really passionate about the success of the event because it requires a tremendous amount of preparation to make it successful. In the end, it is like comparing a solo violinist to a conductor of an orchestra.

Is there anything I didn't ask that you wanted to add?
I’m very fortunate to work for an organization that is highly motivated and excels at producing top quality events that market our community. And, to combine that with my own personal passions for trail running, mountain biking, dogs and whitewater paddling is truly amazing. I do get a pay check every two weeks to remind me that this really is work and not just a dream. I guess that is why it is a dream job.

–Joe Spring