If you knew who freestyle kayaker Stephen Wright was before 2005, you were either a friend or family member. But after entering the Reno River Festival that year as an amateur– and taking third place among the pros – Wright has become on of the best-known athletes on the freestyle scene. Since then, Wright, 28, has shown he has serious staying power, finishing in the top three of nearly every competition he's entered with his soaring loops prompting "how'd he do that?"s from audiences in more than five states. The Washington D.C. native spends his summers on the Ottawa River in Ontario, running the Keener program, which provides kayak training and character development for teens. Read on as Wright talks about his Tolkien-inspired nickname, pre-competition dietary habits and the business card you hope you never receive.
CK: A lot of people were surprised at how you burst onto the freestyle scene last year at the Reno River Festival. What's your reaction to that?
SW: I got to paddle with EJ a whole lot before then. That was just my first opportunity to paddle in front of a lot of people and it was great to have it pay off.
CK: What did you do before becoming a professional kayaker?
SW: I used to be a full-time high school kids church group leader. I would teach them how to kayak too. Then I realized that kayaking was too much fun so I decided to do that. Now I'm ruined and only do that. [Laughs] I live in a truck.
SW: Well, I rent a room from Clay [Wright, from Team Jackson] five months out of the year. Then I teach in Ontario for three months. The rest of the time I'm traveling.
CK: Where have you traveled?
SW: We go to Colorado, Reno, California. Last year we spent a month and a half in Africa, paddling on the Nile and the Zambezi rivers shooting for one of EJ's instructional videos. It was awesome. We were lucky enough to get to go out and play every day.
CK: So would you say that rodeo kayaking is your favorite?
SW: Freestyle in general is my favorite – I like being able to work on skills. I like the knowledge that you're never finished. There's always something new and exciting. It doesn't hurt when you mess up and it gets up you in the air in your kayak. Plus, you don't have to wait for rain.
CK: Speaking of getting air, you're notorious for getting a whole lot of it. What's your secret? Unless it's trademarked…
SW: [Laughs] Oh no it's not trademarked. I'm pretty light and I paddle a big boat and that helps a lot. The volume-weight ratio allows me to get more air. My boat paddles faster and takes bigger bounces, compared to other, more hobbit-sized boats.
CK: You mention hobbits. I hear you have a nickname.
SW: [Laughs] Yup.
CK: Why is your nickname the Hobbit King?
SW: The Keeners [students at his summer program] call me that. I'm not particularly tall, and because I was in charge they wanted to call me the king of something. The King of Hobbits was about all that I could claim.
CK: So what would you say has been your favorite competition?
SW: My favorite competition so far was this year’s FIBArk. I spent two weeks training before the event and working on a bunch of combo moves that no one else had figured out yet, but I'm sure they could do them now. I went into it knowing if I did what I wanted I could win. I was excited about it; the Arkansas river gives big air and allows for creativity when it comes to linking moves together, it was fun.