It all started on the Ottawa River. Kalob’s life, Kalob’s passion. Growing up on the banks of one of the world’s greatest whitewater playgrounds certainly shaped his life and continues to do so. By that same river that forged his skills and lifted his dreams, Kalob Grady agreed to share his story with us.
Kayaking has always been a family affair for the Grady’s. He describes his father as being a really good kayak instructor and his mother just loving to paddle. From a young age, he would go down the Ottawa River with his brother and parents, but the rule was they were not allowed to start on whitewater before the age of 10. Oh what a long wait that was. It didn’t help that his brother, being 2 years older, started before him! Kalob was so jealous that the following summer, he pestered his mother enough that he was allowed to go as well.
Most of the things Kalob learned in life happened on or around the river. His brother being just a little older was a great motivation for him. He was always a little bit bigger, stronger and faster than Kalob, giving him a constant reason to surpass himself.
“It was always super inspirational and motivating to paddle with him. I wanted to beat him at everything. He planted that seed to always be out there and be the best kayaker that I could be, which I was always one step below him. He is still one of my original heroes on the water, just because everything I have done was based off of things he’s done.”
Those brotherly life lessons are still driving him today. He continues to believe that the best way for an athlete to improve is to be surrounded by others that are better, that can help you improve. Being almost the same age, Kalob has been paddling for years with Dane Jackson, who is arguably the best all around kayaker in the world at this moment. Over the years, they became friends and now go on paddling trips together.
“He agreed to take me along with him last year for a couple of months and we traveled together in his van and kayaked together. It was a big thing and I got noticeably better and spent a lot of time on the river.”
For Kalob, whitewater kayaking is an amazing sport where athletes are like a community and where the big guys are not prestigious and snobby. It is quite helpful if you are trying to get to the top.
“Down in Chile, finding guys to go kayak with, trying to be in a group where you can always learn something is super important. […] They are out there for the same reasons you are. They love to bring you in and as long as you can show them that you can contribute to the team, they are super happy for you to go with them.”
His brother taught him the importance of role models but also that it was not always easy to stay motivated.
“Throughout my childhood, with all sports but especially with whitewater kayaking, my brother was always helping me and motivating me. At the time he got sick, he was probably one of the most rounded kayakers out there, between freestyle and racing. Then he continued to paddle strongly through the first year of his diagnosis and then, slowly started falling away from it. Over a two to three years period, we kind of switched places. Now I’m kind of the one that is trying to motivate him to come out. While I was doing a trip in Southern Chile on the Rio Baker that he had always wanted to do, I realized that I had stepped into that role and I had to be there for him like he was for me.”
It’s not always easy though. Kalob tries to get his brother on the river once a week but it’s hard for him because he still holds himself to the reputation he had before.
“He still paddles really well, still can throw most tricks. He’s got one of the best Ottawa Valley airscrews out there, but he still holds himself up here and doesn’t want people to see him below that. I try to motivate him and try to make him realize that it’s not about other people.”
Kalob also has to work out his motivational skills on himself. He comes back to the Ottawa Valley for all summers, works full time teaching at the Ottawa Kayak School during daytime and works the bar at Wilderness Tours on nights. He still has to find the time to train whenever he can to stay at the top, but he’s not complaining. Although he puts in endless hours, in the end it’s worth it. For someone that doesn’t like cold winters, spending them all over South America and Africa is not too bad.
“It’s important to know what you are willing to sacrifice and to know what you want to gain from that sacrifice. I think four months of working pretty hard is a good sacrifice to be able to live pretty simply and be able to travel around the world for the rest of the year.”
The first years of his kayaking career, Kalob dedicated to playboating. Years later, creeking taught him lessons around fear and danger.
“I had never sat in a creekboat before going to Chile for the first time. From playboating experience, I could transfer a lot of skills and it got me through class IV and small class V. The first time I was really scared, I was at the top of Middle Palguin, a 70 footer. I stood on top of it. I was really scared. I had never seen anything like it. You are up there, surrounded by big names in the sport. You don’t want to walk away from it. You think: “It’s my time to show these people I can creekboat too.”
Kalob felt that he needed to prove himself, so he ended up running the 7 story waterfall a little too far on the left, landed in green water and compressed his back. He was off the water for a month. During that 4 weeks reflection period, Kalob learned his personal limits on risk versus reward.
“Go big or go home is the stupidest saying ever because eventually you are gonna go big and go home. That was probably the first time I realized that you have to evaluate why you are running certain things, what your reasons for doing it are. Hopefully they balance out in your head to be because you feel you are ready, because you feel this is the next progression for you. Hopefully it’s never because this photo looked really cool, or because my friends will think I’m better.”
For the record, Kalob went back to that waterfall a month and a half later on Christmas day and ran it six days in a row.
Although Kalob learned to use fear to measure and make decisions around dangerous situations, sometimes with all the safety measures lined up, things can go wrong. He knows in the back of his head things can go wrong at any point in time.
“Unfortunately, I have lost a few friends on the river. One that has affected my brother was Steven Forster passing away in 2011. This past fall, down in Chile, while we were boating out there, Juanito (De Ugarte) passed away. In his situation, everything was lined up to ensure all goes well.”
In such a tight knit community, dramatic events like this can have devastating effects since everyone is affected one way or another. On the flip side, you can all deal with it together.
That small circle of whitewater addicts, Kalob is definitely part of. From when he started to train more seriously around the age of 13, he was on the river every day. He got addicted to the adrenaline rush that comes with throwing big tricks and running fun lines and keeps wanting more of it.
“Days I have not been able to go kayaking, which I try to limit to only a few, people can definitely tell I haven’t been. You don’t want to be around people because all you want to do is go kayaking.”
Also, having had solid results in international kayaking events in the last two years proves that Kalob is dedicated to being the best paddler he can, just like his brother taught him.
I can see in his eyes, as he watches other paddlers get in the water that he can’t wait to get in as well. His eyes are sparkling and his legs impatient. As I wrap up the interview, I ask Kalob if there is anything else he wants to add. I was half expecting him to run out of the van and jump in his kayak with the same excitement my dog has when I take her leash off at the park. But he didn’t. Still thriving to inspire and motivate, Kalob wanted to share with you a quote he heard a while back to which he added his own spin.
“Too many people sell their happiness today on the basis they can buy it back tomorrow. Stop living a life you don’t want to live. Go out, do what you want to do.”
Follow Kalob’s adventures on Instagram, at @KalobGrady88.
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