|On a pre-flight to Steamboat Springs in January, the professional paddler Brad Ludden circles his Piper Cheokee 180. Relaxed from a morning run down Vail Mountain, he eased his 5'11" 180 lb frame into the cockpit, his grandfather's WWII wings watching over him from the dash, and radioed the tower for departure.
In the world of professional whitewater kayaking--- where most paddlers barely have enough gas money to get to the next competition: the 23 year-old Ludden is an anomaly. He makes over $100,000 a year from sponsorships and speaking engagements, at least five times more the average pro paddler, which enabled him to buy the $27,000 twin-engine plane.
Beyond the indeterminate number of first descents of rivers-- "It's not something I keep track of," he says-- Ludden has accrued a fistful of other milestones: the first paddler sponsored by NIKE; the first with an agent and the first to be featured in a Warren Miller film, a genre known for its images of extreme skiing.
But another accomplishment is the one that perhaps best defines Ludden. Four years ago, he founded First Descents, a kayak camp for adolescents with cancer. "Kayaking has been an avenue to see the world," said Ludden, a former junior world champion who has traveled to more than 40 countries. "The camp is my way to give back to a sport that has given me so much."
Ludden's efforts have not gone unnoticed. "Few paddlers exhibit a selfless dedication to helping disadvantage people appreciate and enjoy the sport like he does," says Eugene Buchanan, editor-in-chief of Paddler Magazine.
White-water kayaking is one of the fastest-growing recreational sports in the United States. In 2002, 3.9 million Americans age 16 or older participated in the sport, up from 1.8 million in 2001 according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Of the those participants, 435,000 were deemed enthusiasts (people who paddled five time or moore a year).
Much like Ludden the typical white-water paddler is an unmarried, childless white male, age 16 to 24. For this demographic, the attraction to whitewater kayaking has been fueled by freestyle competitions, called rodeos, that feature a crush of swirling water cased by the reversal of the water's current. In these play holes, which could engulf a Greyhound bus, competitors maneuver their boats into various tricks that are give points based on degree of difficulty. For example, spinning the boat 360 degrees, an easy move, earns 1 point.
Although recreational kayaking is booming, the competitive circuit has slipped into an organizational and sponsorship tailspin. In 1998 when the freestyle circuit was robust, Ludden competed in each of the 40-plus competitions. This year, there are 26 events, most of them regional. And the athletes have resorted to judging the competitions themselves.
The prize money has never been substantial. A top contender in most rodeos might make only $500 to $2,000 in an event. In 1998-- his best year -- Olympian and current International Freestyle champion, Eric Jackson only made $16,000 from competitions, a paltry sum relative to other professional sports. The Teva Mountain Games, held every June in Vail, where Ludden lives, are the signature white-water event. This year it attracted more than 200 professional and amateur competitors who vied for a purse of $13,350.
The collapse of an organized pro circuit and a souring economy have also forced manufacturers to scale back on sponsorship, the primary source of income for professinal kayakers.Last year, Liquidlogic, a manufacturer in Flat Rock, NC, reduced its team of paddlers to 5 from 20 the previous year, Steve Jordan, vice president of sales.
"The pros just cater to each other," Jordan said, "They're not meeting intermediate and beginner paddlers, anyway."
Ludden and Ben Selznick, a friend and fellow pro,, are currently renegotiating with Nike, which according to Selznick, wants to slice their contracts in half. "Right now, they want to sponsor adventure racers," Selznick laments. "They're only interested in what's hot."
What makes a sport hot is its ability to attract a television audience. "TV drives everything in the world of sports," said Rob Mitchell, a former United States brand director for Nike and now a senior executive with Smartwool, a clothing manufacturer. "Kayaking is not a spectator sport. If it doesn't sell a ticket, it's not going to be a viable sport."
As with yacht racing, freestyle kayaking is hampered by the lack of visual aids like big screens or scoreboards that transmit the sport to the masses. "Except to the distinguished eye, all the moves look the same," said Buchanan, the magazine editor, who is an avid paddler. Additionally, remote river canyons, where whitewater conditions exist, are challenging places for all but the most intrepid film crews.
It is not all bad news for professional paddlers, however. Companies like Scott Lindgren Productions and Teton Gravity Research are combing paddling and cinematography skills to produce adventure kayak videos that give pro paddlers an outlet to appease sponsors and broadcast the sport.
"Filming pushes the sport into other places," Ludden said, "It allows us to see outside our world, outside ourselves."