Devin McEwan (bow) and Casey Eichfeld, 2016 team trials, Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning
"Happiness should always be your priority," says U.S. slalom canoeist Devin McEwan. "If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, at least on some level, then why are you doing it?"
According to McEwan, this outlook was passed to him from his father, the late Jamie McEwan, a whitewater paddler, slalom champion who competed in two Olympic games, winning the C-1 bronze in Munich 1972 then racing C-2 20 years later in Barcelona. Now the younger McEwan has followed in his father’s paddle strokes. He will have his first crack at the Olympic stage in Rio where he’ll compete with Casey Eichfeld, his C-2 partner of five years. The Olympics are the pinnacle of the sporting world, but McEwan, who is excited at the opportunity, wants to be sure he doesn’t lose sight of what is most important to him: simply enjoying whitewater racing.
Being of a prolific paddling family, Devin McEwan has been in a boat most of his life. He grew up near the Housatonic River in Connecticut, a major slalom training site for U.S. racers in the ’80s and ’90s, and McEwan was constantly surrounded by legends of the sport.
While McEwan remains humble of his personal accomplishments, there is no denying that as he embarks on this Olympic journey, he adds yet another chapter to his family’s paddling legacy.
C&K recently had a chance to interview McEwan about how the Olympian communicates with his C-2 partner and his aspirations to carry forward his father’s outlook on life and the sport.
Devin McEwan at the 2016 US Olympic trials. Photo Tom Dunning
CanoeKayak.com: When you were 8 years old you took a trip down the Rio Grande, do you remember much of the experience?
Devin McEwan: That trip is very vivid to me. We actually drove from D.C. out to Texas with my uncle Tom who was on the trip, as well as my older sister Caitlin, my cousin Andrew, and a bunch of kayaker friends. We had this huge van where they had removed all of the seats and put some mattresses in the back. So we just drove straight through and slept in the back of the van. Then we did an 80-mile stretch of the river. Even though I was kind of young, the whole trip is etched in my memory because it was so cool. It was my first multi-day river trip.
One of my most vivid memories is when we were at the top of one of the harder rapids on that stretch, which was probably only Class III, and I was kind of nervous. We scouted it, and my dad said, "We aren’t going to flip over. We are going to be totally fine." Sure enough we flipped over immediately. I was small enough my dad was able to roll us up no problem, but it took a little while for him to regain my trust after that.
What was it like growing up just down the road from the Housatonic River?
It was perfect. Back then they would have releases, so even in the summer it was pretty decent. It’s a really good beginner river. Most of it’s Class II-III, and as you get better there is a pretty solid III section, and a Class IV-V section. It’s a perfect river for learning the ropes and starting to run harder rapids.
Would it be fair to say the area has always had a pretty strong slalom scene?
Absolutely. Actually back in the ’80s, a good chunk of the US national team was living in the house I’m living in right now. It’s a known house in the paddling community. People refer to it as, “The River House." There are a handful of people who I can talk to about the River House. Guys who lived there back in the ’80s and early ’90s. Back then D.C. was the main hub of slalom training in the U.S. Where I live was a satellite training center and there are a lot of big names in the paddling world who came through this neck of the woods.
It must be pretty neat for you to be living in a house with so much paddling history?
It’s really cool, and there is a living history as well. There is a barn on the riverside of the road for boat storage and doing boat work. When I moved in it was just full of junk. Last year I cleaned it out pretty thoroughly and found all these t-grip molds from the ’80s, as well as old posters, and all this memorabilia and paddling antiques.
When you were at team trials was there a moment when you realized you were going to be an Olympian?
The second run of the second day at the first trials in Charlotte, we had already done the harder moves and we were heading for the sprint to the finish line. We had a pretty good run. I had this thought pop into my head, ‘I think we are probably going to the Olympics.’ That was probably the only time I allowed myself to think that because I was consciously trying not to get my hopes up. That’s exactly the thought you don’t want in a race run. You don’t want to be thinking about the outcome. But I couldn’t help it. The thought just kind of popped into my head. It was kind of cool, but then a second later I was saying, ‘Oh man you shouldn’t do that.’ Looking back, it was a neat moment.
How are you preparing mentally for the Olympics?
I’m trying to look at it as just another competition. If I blow up the significance of it too much in my head, I feel that would negatively impact my performance. I think I perform best when I am not too ambitious, when I just do the things I’ve been training to do. My dad’s old C-2 partner, Lecky Haller, had this expression, ‘Don’t come out of your skin,’ meaning don’t try and perform better than you’ve been training to perform; just do what you’ve been doing.
Check out Haller’s tribute to McEwan’s late father, Jaime, at the 2014 Canoe & Kayak Awards:
What are some of the dynamics that go into choreographing a strong C-2 performance?
It’s funny to be in the bow since Casey is behind me and I can’t see him. It feels similar to racing C-1. I’m mostly just thinking about what I’m doing and not what Casey’s doing behind me. I know that sounds odd. I think subconsciously you do want to be coordinated with your C-2 partner. My dad used to always refer to the connection between C-2 partners as “grokking,” which comes from a Robert Heinlein science fiction story, Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s telepathic communication. You want to have this telepathic connection with your C-2 partner, and you don’t want it to be conscious. You just want to be reacting. It’s something that comes from spending a lot of time in the boat together.
Would you say you bring some "metaphysical" aspects to your racing?
Yeah, I sort of try to emulate my dad, and his approach to athletic competitions. He was very Zen. He wasn’t much of a traditional jock. He wasn’t about grinding it out. He was about finding ways to make it more efficient and elegant.
Your dad has been a big part of your Olympic story. Did the Games play a significant role in your home growing up?
He pretty deliberately didn’t emphasize the Olympics too much. He was psyched about it, but he tried to keep it in perspective too. I think he was almost as excited about racing in the world cups and world championships as he was for the Olympics. He just loved whitewater slalom and a good chunk of his career it wasn’t in the Olympic program. So for a long time, he was paddling with no expectation of competing on the Olympic level. I try to emulate him in that regard as well. It will be cool to have that Olympic feather in my cap, but I’m trying to take a page from my dad’s book and not emphasize it too much.
Devin McEwan (bow), and his father Jamie McEwan, racing together at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty