There’s little doubt that Denver’s Chris Wiegand is a stellar athlete. The former USA Track and Field Team member traded distance running for paddling in 1998, ascending to the top of the U.S. wildwater, C-1 and C-2 squads at lightning speed. But it’s the 35-year-old’s unique coaching tactics and people skills that define him. He empowers young paddlers to be better people, and has developed some of America’s top young paddling talents, for which the U.S. Olympic Committee named him Coach of the Year in 2005. He’s now working with an Iranian coach, Katayoon Ashraf, to bring paddling opportunities to kids across the globe. The unlikely duo created the World Paddle Sport Foundation, and already have created paddling exchange programs in Iran, Kenya and Nigeria. – Eugene Buchanan
I met Katayoon through former Olympic coach Bill Endicott. I had to get special clearance from the state department to help her and three girls come over for an exchange program in 2007. We’re both sports physiologists, and wanted to do more than develop elite athletes. So we created the foundation.
What we’re doing is a paddling version of 1971’s ping-pong diplomacy with China. We want to use paddling to extend diplomatic arms to other countries. Sport and cultural exchange can lessen tensions between nations. We want to bring people together and have them realize that we’re all of the same skin, mind and spirit.
Katayoon was nearly imprisoned upon her return to Iran. But the next year we brought Iranian, Canadian and American kids to Kenya to run Africa’s first-ever Olympic qualifiers. Roxanna Razeghean–Iran’s top slalom paddler–spent all of last summer over there doing follow up, helping athletes build resumes and bringing more clout to the program [by letting the government know we’re there to stay].
I see whitewater as a metaphor for the unpredictable adversity in life. If you can overcome adversity in this medium, you can overcome barriers in other aspects of your life and apply it to whatever life throws at you. Mastering it teaches you to overcome a natural fear, find a path to new self-discovery, and reach your greatest potential.
The Iranian women took to paddling well. In two months they went from having never paddled whitewater to beating people on the top artificial slalom courses in the U.S. They’re very impassioned toward it. They look at the big picture and realize the full impact they’re making for women in both their country and throughout the Middle East.
Here in Colorado we train year-round. Everyday after school I work with the advanced athletes vying for national teams in freestyle, wildwater and slalom in Golden or Boulder, depending on water. During the day I do introductory clinics through the local public schools.
We hope to lessen the gender gap in sports by spreading paddling and leadership opportunities to women around the world, especially in Muslim and Arab lands. Canoeing and Kayaking has one of the highest gender inequalities in the Olympics, with women commanding only 20 percent of positions.
We coach the total person. Our practices are based on the five Olympic ideals: Vision, Focus, Commitment, Persistence and Discipline. Each fits into both our athletic and everyday lives. The Olympic motto, Faster, Higher, Stronger is a life philosophy as much as an athletic principle. It guides athletes to give their best, and that in itself is a victory. Our goal is not only the development of better athletes, but better people.