By Mike Kord
first appeared in August 2006 Canoe and Kayak
For someone who doesn't care what people say about him—and Tao Berman insists he does not—he spends plenty of time talking about it.
"It doesn't bother me when people criticize me," Berman says. "I just understand that that is part of what I do. If people weren't criticizing me, I probably wouldn't be in the news enough, which wouldn't be better for me or my sponsors. But I've dealt with it for so long—people bashing me for one reason or another—that I just don't know anything different."
Berman and I are standing in the kitchen of his airy three-bedroom home overlooking the Columbia River in White Salmon, Washington. He's invited me here to spend three days mountain biking, golfing, and—I learned upon my arrival—cliff jumping. It's the kind of perfect sunny day that gives the cluster of small towns on the banks of the Columbia their big-city real-estate prices. Berman's home is one of the benefits of a remarkably successful marketing campaign and his precocious business sense. At 27 he's the most recognizable whitewater kayaker in America and has gained enough sponsors to cover a NASCAR Monte Carlo. There might be three others in the extreme-kayaking sect who could even afford to live in Berman's neighborhood. But there are dozens who compete against him for the sport's hard-earned dollars and exposure. Sometimes successfully. Mostly not.
You can't blame the guy for caring about the criticism, even if he won't admit it. People have posed as him on message boards and posted boastful remarks. Opponents come right up to him before a race and sneer, "You're not winning today." When he approaches a group of elite boaters hanging out at an event, Berman gets that awkward feeling that he just missed out on the joke they were all sharing. An anonymous source in a 2004 Men's Journal article said, "I'd rather cut off my arm than hang with the guy. He has no soul."
Truth be told, Berman is friendly, intelligent, well read, and funny, but he can't get past the stigma of being a wealthy, neatly coifed Alex Rodriguez in a sport full of Yankee haters.
Berman is one of the most successful and multitalented whitewater kayakers ever. He won the 2002 pre-world freestyle championship and last year won six out of seven races he competed in. He has dozens of steep and manky first descents around the globe and can get off the couch and play a hole with the sport's elite rodeo stars. He is best known for the first and only descent of Alberta's 98-foot Johnston Falls in 1999. With aggressive promoting, Berman parlayed that shining moment into a list of enviable sponsors, including Red Bull, Adidas, and Oakley. His annual salary is as high as $250,000. The windfall isn't just dumb luck, but focus, unremitting drive, and a well-planned career path.
"I never knew where life would take him," says Osho Berman, 25, Tao's younger brother, "but I always knew he would do very well."
He once swam boulder Drop, the crux rapid, at 35,000 cfs and got maytagged ina 25-foot recirculating hole for over a minute.
Berman's father, Birch, and mother, Silver Moon, raised Tao, Osho, and their sister, Lilly, in a rural home way off the grid in north-central Washington State near the town of Curlew.
"I think that Tao really valued it," says Osho. "He learned how to appreciate the smaller things in life."
Independence and self-sufficiency were daily lessons, and the spirited young boy was given enough latitude to explore his limits. In fifth grade he fell 15 feet off a crane, and his heart stopped beating after he hit the ground. It took mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to save him.
"I remember thinking, This is one of the strangest dreams I've ever had," Berman says.
Around the time he was in middle school, his parents separated. Birch stayed behind while the others moved to the town of Monroe, where the Skykomish River flattens out after tumbling from the nearby Cascade Mountains. After a couple of years, Berman found work as a cook and raft guide for Wave Trek, an outfitter on the Sky, and learned how to kayak. Fear simply wasn't part of his learning curve. He may have been short on humility, too.
"I thought he was incredibly cocky and peculiar, I guess," says friend Christian Knight, who met Berman when both were working at Wave Trek. "We'd drive from the take-out to the put-in and he'd be blasting some Bryan Adams song that was 10 years old but Tao had just discovered it. I wondered where he came from."
Berman had also noticed that running the Sky was more amusing than the schoolyard brawls he was getting into. He once swam Boulder Drop, the crux rapid, at 35,000 cfs and got maytagged in a 25-foot recirculating hole for over a minute."I was looking up toward the surface and I thought, There are some rafters downstream," Berman recalls. "Maybe they could resuscitate me."
By the time he was 18, Berman's reputation for being crazy enough to get into trouble but ballsy enough to get out of it had spread throughout the Skykomish Valley. Those were the days before BoaterTalk blogs or Erik Link's Twitch videos. Berman was like a local band waiting to break out of obscurity.
"I was watching this homemade kayaking video at Wave Trek and I'm going, 'This guy is nuts,' " says friend and photographer Jock Bradley. "Then I hear this voice from behind me say, 'Uh, I wouldn't say he's nuts.' I turn around and it's Tao."
We're sitting outside a convenience store in town, nursing a couple of Red Bulls while we wait for Knight to get off work. Our plan is to go cliff jumping in a small canyon called Punchbowl Falls. Berman looks at me. "You know how there's always a good part and a bad part to every profile?" he says. "I'm wondering what the bad part of this story is going to be."