— The following appeared originally in C&K‘s 2011 Whitewater annual.
Chan Zwanzig’s “WS” earring says it all. Though the Wave Sport founder is 62 and battling a barrage of health problems, the full-time fun-hog is still all about life’s bling. He was at the forefront of the whitewater paddling revolution, with Wave Sport debuting nine radically pro- gressive boat designs before Zwanzig sold the company to Confluence Watersports in 1998. Far from living the typical life of a retiree—and as opinionated as ever—he still paddles 40 days a year when not skiing, snowboarding or riding his motorcycle near his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
I was supposed to get my first social security check last week and it’s late. Go figure.
There was only one kayak on the planet when I started—the Perception Dancer—and I wanted something different. I paddled down Nepal’s Dudh Kosi off Everest with some Brits who hooked me up with some British manufacturers. I talked to them about improving the Dancer. They put something together and I imported it to the States.
I put my own name on it, the Lazer, because I thought theirs sucked.
I got disappointed with importing boats, so I started making them myself. I built a factory in Oak Creek, Colorado. We even built our own oven.
There was a huge vacuum in paddlesports, created by the concept that slalom was kayaking and there was nothing else. The relationship between slalom and whitewater paddling was so incestuous that no one was thinking out of the box.
Every boat I paddled for the first several years was four meters long. It wasn’t like I was thinking that far ahead—the Lazer was just a slightly smaller, sportier, Dancer.
Inspiration didn’t strike until we started hanging out with kids to see why they were having more fun.
Conceptually, the Frankenstein was our most revolutionary boat, because it was the first boat we designed purely so people could have more fun. But in execution, the X was the most revolutionary. We wanted paddlers to be free of restriction in all dimensions and planes. It could spin, cartwheel and run gnar.
The sport went off from about 1994 to 1999. The culture was fueled by kids who wanted to do nothing but play hard 365 days a year. It was basically the freeride culture coming to paddlesports.
Can you find a way around what I’m going to say? Because the reason why paddling flat- lined is that I retired. I guess that makes me sound like Corran [Addison], which is fine. He’s one of my heroes, because it takes ego to accomplish anything, and he’s accomplished a lot. E.J. was a big part of delivering that cultural revolution too. He took the establishment U.S. slalom team background and transcended it.
Here’s why I made that statement which could be interpreted as so arrogant and egotistical: At the time, I was the only owner of a whitewater manufacturing company with full control who cared more about making boats than making money. Because every new boat that we designed enabled me to have more fun.
Consolidation has been good to me. When I sold Wave Sport I got a couple million dollars and my life changed. I partied, paddled, skied and snowboarded for eight years, nonstop. But it hasn’t been very good to paddlers. Production and product development are now under the control of investment bankers.
The industry should be secondary to the culture.
I used to kayak about 80 days a year. Now it’s down to about 40. I could paddle more, but then I’d have to paddle in the winter, and I’d rather be riding and skiing powder. Whenever I do something more than three days a week, it starts to feel like a job. And I don’t really need a job.
I was busted around 1990 for growing dope.
In a turn of events beyond irony, the newest tenant in the old Wave Sport factory is now a licensed medical marijuana producer. The building is now back in the business of producing products that enhance people’s lives.
I missed my first Gauley Fest in twenty years because I had heart surgery. Then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had an operation for that. All this came on top of three shoulder, one spine, and a knee operation. At 59, I kind of hit the wall of the play-hard, party-hard lifestyle.
Now I’m on a rock-free, low-impact diet.
I’ve run Gore 300 times without portaging. Now I do three: an elbow shot that would blow my shoulder off; a spine shot landing off a boof; and to avoid a beatdown with body parts falling off in the hole at Tunnel Falls.
It’s all orthopedically situational.
My life has always been about how much fun I can have. When I started paddling, it was 100 percent about adrenaline and scaring myself. That’s what I thought fun was. Then adrenaline became a bad thing, because as your skill set improves, you’re only scared when your life is in danger. Now I’m at the point where fun transcends adrenaline.