Like an eddy churning a river, competitive kayaking and canoeing sucks in even the most casual adherents to the heart-pumping, adrenaline-filled ride that ends all too quickly.
For T.C. Williams graduate Liam Malakoff, the race may be coming to a finish. A member of the U.S. Junior National Slalom Team this year and last, Malakoff is now 18 and weighing whether to compete at the next level.
A little less than a year from now, Malakoff will no longer be eligible to race his whitewater canoe as a junior athlete. On one hand there is the engrossing, tall goal of an Olympic medal, and on the other, college and a career.
Malakoff, fresh from the Junior Pre-World Championship in Wisconsin, believes hes made his decision: his recent gold medal finish in the two-man canoe likely will cap off his career.
Its not an easy conclusion, but its been a long time coming. Racing against top athletes from across the globe at the world championships in France a year ago, Malakoff began to grasp the dedication and sacrifice needed to pursue the sport.
Last year after worlds, I sort of knew that it wasnt something I could do for the rest of my life, Malakoff said. Its an incredible amount of mental and physical energy. You put it all out there and the chances of actually achieving anything that really means anything is pretty small. Youre not curing cancer, ending world starvation, even if you win an Olympic medal. Ive decided I can do more good elsewhere.
Malakoff grew up on the water. After spending the first decade of his life boating and fishing on the rivers of Maine and around the Washington region, he felt the pull of whitewater paddling growing stronger.
Four years ago, after dipping his toe into the sport at a race on a Potomac River canal, he decided shooting through the gates of a slalom course was for him. Malakoff signed up with the Bethesda Center for Excellence, an offshoot of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak program, and began training in earnest under Dana Chladek, two-time Olympic medalist.
For his parents, Amy Young and David Malakoff, it came as a relief.
The reason Liam actually ended up in slalom racing was for safety reasons, Young said. He was so gung-ho of being out in whitewater, David was really happy to find an organization where the [sport is] taught in a very safe manner He needed that adrenalin rush from a very young age. He took to it pretty much like a dancer.
Rushing down the river, time slows, Malakoff said. Hitting the gates just right requires as much thinking as it does focus. There were times where Malakoff realized he remembered nothing of the race as he came ashore.
Its a constant thinking game, he said. Youre constantly taking in information about where your boat is, where youre moving, where your body is in relation to the boat, how hard youre going to pull, the angle of the paddle in the water.
Its physically and mentally exhausting. To devote a lifetime to the sport training for the junior national team meant spending hours on the water and in the gym requires sacrifice. Malakoff knows too many racers who passed on college and careers, looking only ahead to the next Olympic games and not knowing what will happen after.
David believes the experience has given his son a glimpse of what that level of commitment means. Theyre leaving it up to Liam to decide what to do with his life.
Its a no-money sport, he said. There is very little support available for even the best athletes. Its really up to the athletes; there are no big sponsors and no college paddling teams Once they graduate from high school, if they want to continue, they have to do it on their own.
Passing on the paddle
If Liam bows gracefully out of the small world of competitive whitewater paddling, there will still be a Malakoff carrying on the torch.
Rising high school freshman Eliza Malakoff, the youngest of the family, caught a few hours of sleep between the return from Wisconsin before heading off to a training camp in West Virginia Tuesday morning. Though shes too young to join the junior national team, Eliza placed second in the womens kayak Wisconsin qualifiers.
Its pretty easy to get sucked in because its such a small sport, she said. As soon as you join, people are already looking at you and kind of saying, How hard is so-and-so going to train, how good can they get by a certain time?
David remembers his daughter at age 10 paddling out into the Potomac in the midst of a storm to watch her brother compete in a race. Coach Chladek took one look at the little girl battling the current in a beat-up kayak and saw promise, he recalled with a laugh.
But for Eliza, its a love of the water that keeps her enthralled. You dont fight the river; you harness it.
Its water: you cant capture it, Eliza said. Every river has a different personality and every single section is completely different. Its always changing. Theres always something to challenge yourself with.
Like Liam, Eliza faces a decision somewhere downstream: whether to dive headlong into the sport or let it take back seat to other aspirations. Shes committed to taking it year-by-year and making a choice when the time comes.
Whether she follows Liams course or sets her own, her parents are behind her.
Who knows if theyre going to keep going, its a lot of fun for them right now, David said. Theyre kids and their identity is not entirely bound in the sport. I think in the long run that is a good thing. What we told both of them was: As long as you enjoy doing it, go for it. We will support [you].