Seventeen Gig Harbor-based athletes will take their show on the road — internationally — in the coming months.
Seven members of the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Team will represent the United States in Junior Worlds races in Portugal in July, an 18 and younger competition for the best paddlers in the world. Ten other team members will compete in the Olympic Hopes Regatta in Poland in September, for paddlers ages 14 to 16.
The paddlers qualified last month during national trials in Oklahoma City. Seventeen out of the 21 athletes the Gig Harbor team sent to trials qualified for international competition. One of those athletes, 17-year-old Austen Czuleger, is expected by coach Alan Anderson to be the top paddler in the United States this year.
Czuleger took third in the K1 1,000-meter race and second in the K1 200-meter race at trials.
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"I’m happy with the results," Czuleger said. "It’s nothing to complain about. I was a little disappointed with my performance. I was hoping to be a little closer behind second place."
He’ll likely close the gap soon. The Gig Harbor team’s top athletes aren’t focused on peaking this early in the season, thanks to a new training approach from new, full-time high performance coach Holm Schmidt, a Germany native who last coached in Pennsylvania.
The Gig Harbor Kayak and Canoe team, which has dominated national competition for the past three seasons, is trying to take the next step to compete internationally at the highest level. That’s where Schmidt comes in.
"We’re privileged," Anderson said. "The program is moving to the next level."
Schmidt has coached teams with government funding, full medical and scientific staffs, boat houses. Here in Gig Harbor, launching out of a public dock, with no state-sponsored infrastructure is entirely different. But there are some things money can’t buy, Schmidt said.
"The spirit of the team is exceptionally high here compared to what I’ve experienced as a coach in other countries," Schmidt said. "It’s all about parents, coaches, role models and leadership in the club. It’s about instilling good values. It’s something you can’t buy, fortunately. The community is behind it. There is a good foundation to overcome the obstacles we have by having no boathouses. The spirit, I’ve never seen anything better — and I’ve seen a lot."
Czuleger is excited to see how he fares on the international stage.
"I’ve been looking forward this for the past few years," he said. "I’ve been declining other international races in preparation to get ready for this one. I’ve just been training for this race specifically instead of going to other races and letting me get distracted."
Schmidt has brought a high-intensity training regimen to the elite athletes of Gig Harbor’s team. The mileage has been about doubled, according to 17-year-old Morgan Bevin, who also qualified for junior worlds in the K1 500 and 200-meter races.
"I’ve never been to (Portugal)," Bevin said. "I’m very excited. The experience is really cool, seeing all these people from different countries who have accomplished so much in the sport. There’s often world champions there, so it’s inspiring to go there. It’s really cool racing for team USA. That’s not something a lot of people get to do."
After suffering through shoulder injuries the past two years, Bevin is finally healthy, and Schmidt is helping elevate her skill to the next level.
"It’s been a big transition but it’s been really good," Bevin said. "He’s helped me a lot. My technique was having a lot of problems. I feel like I’ve definitely improved a lot and learned so much. He’s coached Olympians, so he knows what he’s doing."
While the paddlers might not have much time for sightseeing, Bevin said she’s looking forward to experiencing Portuguese culture.
"I’m excited to see all the castles," she said. "It looks super cool. And the food, obviously. Apparently, it’s really good."