To Alyson Morse, the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team always felt like more than a sport.
“As an athlete, the team was my getaway,” Morse said. “Every day, it was something I really looked forward to. It was honestly something my parents threatened to take away if I misbehaved because I loved it so much.”
And for Bryse Paffile, working in the team’s para-athlete program translates to his work as a physical therapist.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with [the team] and seeing how this sport can help the mental outlook on how people are able to get back up after being knocked down,” he said.
After going off to college and being away from the program for a few years, the pair have returned as coaches for GHCKRT.
Evolving from competitors to coaches, Paffile and Morse serve the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team — a non-profit that primarily trains those aged 9-18 in paddle sports.
Bryse continues his work with the para-athlete program, and Alyson works with the masters group — a team of those aged 30 and above looking to stay active and involved.
Despite working in different areas within the organization, both witnessed a tremendous advancement in participation, involvement, and team culture upon their return.
“I’m really surprised at how the behind-the-scenes has grown,” Morse said. “I had no idea how much the parents impacted our team — the board that we have, that is made of the parents, and their incredible, generous time that they give. They give hours and hours and hours a week for the growth of our team. It’s incredible. I’m in awe of it.”
Including the masters and para-athlete programs, the GHCKRT serves roughly 80 paddlers aiming to improve their skills — a record number, according to Bryse.
“[The club] has immensely grown,” Paffile said. “It’s the largest it has ever been. We’re going to be sending over 50 athletes to nationals, which is the biggest team we’ve ever sent. … It’s just amazing to see how the board helps out. We have great coaching. It’s huge.”
Looking at the club’s summer schedule, a high-performance group heads to the World Championships on July 22. Just weeks later, the team travels to Lake Lanier in Georgia, aiming to clinch its seventh national title in the past eight years. The packed calendar sparks a vigorous workout schedule for the athletes, including weeklong practice both on and off the water.
Both Alyson and Bryse consider nationals the club’s biggest event of the year. And for Alyson in particular, this year’s national championship brings a feeling of nostalgia. Her last event competing for Gig Harbor? Nationals — in Georgia.
But Bryse knows that some paddlers in the organization have their sights set beyond the national level.
“Every athlete has different goals,” Paffile said. “I know Mike’s goal is the Olympics in 2020.”
Training in the para-athlete program, paddler Mike McCallum lost his legs while serving in Afghanistan in 2011. Now, he’s traveling worldwide and competing at the highest levels, most recently returning from the Pan American ParaCanoe Championships in Brazil.
As McCallum’s trainer, Bryse gave the veteran particularly high praise.
“The rewarding aspect is seeing how much an athlete is able to grow when they put the determination and hard work in,” Paffile said. “And also seeing them encourage other people too. It’s not just one-sided. You can be a team and work together and encourage one another in spite of any difficulties and hardships going on.”
Relating to McCallum’s work, additional Gig Harbor paddlers hope to clinch a spot in the Olympic Games. The club currently plays host to a Team USA Training Camp, which helps paddlers work toward their goals to qualify for world-class events.
So what contributes to the winning culture, hard work and championship hardware? The athletes deserve credit, but Alyson believes Gig Harbor’s coaching greatly influences the club’s success.
“That has to do with the leadership, Alan Anderson and Jonathan Sousley specifically,” Morse said. “They’re the founders, and they set this tone that I think will last the life of this team. Being one of those coaches that can impact kids the way I was impacted is a dream come true.”
Simply put, the team is a family. It’s the term Alyson used when describing what the club means to her. But Bryse summarized the culture of the organization by paying his paddlers the ultimate compliment.
“That’s the one great thing about this team — they’re supporting me as a coach.”