In the early 1970s, when Alan Anderson was only 20 years old, he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
The trail spans 2,663 miles, running from the Mexican border near Southern California all the way to the Canadian border on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia.
In the 1980s, Anderson found himself in New Zealand, training for the 1980 Olympics in flat-water kayak. It was there, talking to his wife Terri, that they decided one day they would start an adventure club for children.
In 2001, Anderson won the Speed of Summit Adventure Race with a friend, which at the time, was the largest adventure race in the world. It included kayaking, mountain climbing, hiking and mountain lake swimming.
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“It was brutal,” Anderson recalled.
At the time, Anderson was 46. His son, Nathan, was 11 years old. After the adventure race, Anderson decided it was time to move on to something new. So he decided to teach his son to kayak.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” Anderson said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I do this for the kids in the community?’”
So he made good on the promise he and his wife made in New Zealand, and started the Gig Harbor Kayak and Canoe Club. It started with two paddlers in 2002. Anderson had never coached. He really didn’t know what he was doing.
Fast forward to 2016: The club now has 50 athletes, has won four national titles and has athletes competing in the biggest competitions across the globe.
Now 60 years old, Anderson has decided to retire. It wasn’t an easy decision.
“I had a lot of adventures when I was a young man,” Anderson said. “I climbed a lot of mountains, traveled a lot of (hiking) trails. I wanted to share the adventurous spirit with kids. As I went along, I was doing exactly what I was meant to do: Working with kids. I felt like it was the best thing I could do with my life. Stepping away was very difficult for me.”
But the reasons he’s stepping away have made it a little bit easier. Anderson hopes to spend more time with Nathan, now 24, daughter Rachael, 27, and his wife, Terri.
He wouldn’t leave if he didn’t feel the club was in good hands. The club hired high-performance coach Holm Schmidt, an East Germany native, in 2012. Schmidt, who works with the club full time, has been a good fit and remains committed to taking the club to the next level.
It’s always been my purpose to establish a foundation here in Gig Harbor.
“It’s always been my purpose to establish a foundation here in Gig Harbor,” Anderson said. “I felt with the hiring of Holm full time — an excellent coach — and the building of our board of directors and committees we have — I felt like the foundation was in place.”
Under Anderson’s guidance, the club went from a nice local story to an international powerhouse. His fondest memory was knocking off perennial powerhouse Georgia on its home course in 2014. Gig Harbor became the first club to ever beat Georgia on Lake Lanier.
“The kids bought into the program, believed in the program,” Anderson said. “For the most part, I’d say, they didn’t think we’d be able to pull it off. We were outnumbered. But we pulled it off. That was quite a triumph.”
Despite the club’s rapid rise to national prominence, Anderson still humbly recognizes his own shortcomings as a coach. It’s part of the reason he’s handing over the reins to Schmidt full time.
“I proved I could coach at the national level, but when it comes to international competition, we needed more than I could offer,” Anderson said. “That’s just another reason I’m retiring — just for the kids. I want to give them an opportunity to excel at the highest levels.”
Reflecting back on his time with the club he founded, Anderson, more than anything, is proud.
“It makes me tear up,” Anderson said. “I’m very proud of the kids, all of them. I’m especially proud of the first kids, the first couple years. I told them they were pioneers and that through their hard work and the success it brought, sometime it would be a club established in this community for future generations of paddlers. I fought a lot of battles with different groups within the community, including the city, and basically taught the kids to never back down. Never give up.”
He’ll fight one last battle. Or at least, see it to its end.
Anderson has been advocating for more than a decade for a permanent home in Gig Harbor for the club. It looks like Ancich Park will be the site for a human powered-craft facility, for both the club and public use.
“I’m pleased the community and the powers that be are coming around now,” Anderson said. “There’s some meetings planned this month that I’m included in. I’m still going to see that, through. I’ll be proud that the foundation has been laid.”
I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay away.
Anderson isn’t sure what the future holds. He’ll continue working at Pacific Crest Dental Lab in Tacoma, which he owns. He isn’t sure whether he’ll remain involved with the club, and to what degree. But he isn’t closing the door on any possibilities.
“I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay away,” Anderson said. “I might want to come down and work with a 12-year-old and teach them how to dream. It’s hard. I’m going to see what my own kids want to do. I may go on some adventures with them — that’s what I’m going to do now.”