VAIL, Colorado—We’ve seen it before in other sports. Michael Jordan in the NBA finals. Reggie Jackson in the World Series. And in freestyle kayaking, there’s no bigger gamer than Eric Jackson, no relation to the baseball star, but every bit as dominant-and talented. EJ, the 42-year-old world champion, had to mount something of a comeback on his final run to claim victory over fellow Team Jackson member Stephen Wright in the Teva Mountain Games Sprint Pro Kayak Rodeo on Gore Creek. And that was only one triumph for Jackson-his daughter Emily had just moments earlier won the women’s competition, doubling the pleasure of being a kayaker named Jackson.

Defeating competitors half his age-in conjunction with Emily’s emergence as a world rodeo star, the bright future of precocious Dane, EJ’s 12-year-old son, and the success of startup manufacturer Jackson Kayaks-there may never be a more memorable time for the Jackson family. Although, such a statement could easily be rendered moot as things just get better for Team Jackson and its close-knit entourage of supporters.

“They’re all super high-quality people,” EJ said. “People really enjoy being a part of this team.”

Perhaps as many as 1,000 fans lined three deep on the riverbanks, creating one of the more rambunctious crowds on the rodeo circuit. Many more settled for obstructed-view seats upstream from the feature, while others watched from the condominium balconies towering above on river left. The final three men’s competitors-EJ, Wright, and Jay Kincaid-are all kayakers for Team Jackson. In the first round, EJ, paddling an All-Star, was his typically smooth and crowd-pleasing self, posting a 129. Wright, who materialized as a bona fide force at last year’s Reno River Festival, is no longer a darkhorse, and rode a series of space godzillas, loops, and phonix monkeys to a score of 107. Kincaid also threw down, but two flushes off the feature limited him to a 68.

The rules of this contest stipulated that the boater who records the highest single score would be declared champion. As a result, if neither Wright nor Kincaid topped EJ’s 129 on their second run, EJ would be the equivalent of the home team in baseball not needing an at bat in the ninth inning.

Kincaid opened the second round with impressive loops and a McNasty. However, it was only good for a score of 80. At this point, only Wright separated EJ from another championship. Though a teammate of EJ’s, Wright had no intention of easing up.

Wright caught his trademark big air in an impressive array of loops and McNastys.

“I’ve always known he was going to be this good,” EJ said of Wright after his affable teammate’s second run.

The judges, however, took much time compiling Wright’s points, adding drama to the final moments. When it was suggested to EJ that he might not have to get back in his boat, he replied, “Oh, I’m getting back in.”

Still, as the judges tallied, it appeared that Wright’s total would not be enough to top EJ’s. Wright even indicated to EJ that it looked like the judges had not given him a score greater than 129. EJ walked upriver to get in his boat and prepare for what would amount to a victory lap. As the current took him closer to the feature, the public-address announcer stated that the reason for the delay was that the judges had made a mathematical error in compiling Wright’s total. Many people sitting near the judges believed EJ was champion-until the announcement. Wright’s total was in fact 132, putting him in the lead. Suddenly, EJ was going from a home-run trot to trying to beat out an infield single.

“All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Wait a second.’ We’ve got a game on now.”

EJ’s entry move was solid, but something was different about him. He didn’t have his usual half-grin. Instead, he was steely-eyed, intense. Halfway through his run, he nailed a lunar orbit move, and in an instant, his air of invincibility returned-along with his smile. He remained on the wave while executing a back loop and clean cartwheels. The crowd roared for more. He concluded the inspiring performance with a bridge splat.

“Once I stuck the lunar orbit, I could relax,” EJ said afterward. “I felt like whatever move I tried, I was going to get it. It was game over.”

Emily’s victory couldn’t have been any different from her father’s. With loops, space godzillas, and McNastys, she posted a first-run score of 59, while Nikki Kelly totaled a 56, and Team Jackson member Devon Barker tallied a 26. Neither Barker nor Kelly could match Emily’s 59.

“She’s like me in that she does well in big pressure situations,” EJ said.

Indeed. Emily won last year’s TMG rodeo title as well.

Kelly Crowned After Timing Error Corrected:
What looked like it was going to be a disappointing TMG for Nikki Kelly turned out to be not so bad after all. A timing error in the Homestake Creek Extreme race resulted in her finishing a surprisingly low third place. However, race officials watched a video replay of the race and discovered the mistake. Kelly was then crowned champion two days later. Tanya Faux, who was originally crowned champion, still got to keep the $1,000 paycheck. Kelly also received $1,000.

Kelly turned in a time of 2:01.0 on her first run, while Faux was a distant second at 2:09.1, more than eight seconds behind Kelly. Faux recorded a time of 159.9 on her second run, giving her a total score of 4:08. Kelly was timed at 2:09 on her second run, good for a total score of 4:10. Something just didn’t seem right, and Kelly was visibly upset when the results were announced at the podium. She protested, and officials smartly reviewed the video, which revealed that Kelly’s second run was actually 2:01, giving here a total score of 4:02, and the title.

Kelly was also disqualified from the earlier PaddleCross event on a controversial call.