When Joe Jacobi won the gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with C-2 partner Scott Strausbaugh, it ushered in a new era fro slalom paddling in the U.S. Twice the stop-gap when USACK’s executive directors have stepped down – the first after Terry Kent left in 2000, and again last year after David Yarborough left office – now he’s made the move from interim to full-time executive director of the sport’s governing body and is reaching for gold yet again. PL catches up with him to see how he’s getting the organization stroking in the right direction…
PL: How have you dealt with the cash-flow crunch plaguing nonprofits?
Jacobi: When it comes to revenue generation, USA Canoe/Kayak views itself as an organization that can offer innovative and cost-effective solutions to companies that are searching for a competitive and distinctive edge in a tough economy. If we don’t view ourselves that way, then we become another struggling non-profit trying to find a way to survive. We’re living in the same business environment as every other for-profit and non-profit organization out there. Nevertheless, our vision is bold and we’re keenly aware of the attributes that make our athletes, events, programs and fans valuable, unique and fun to our partners.
PL: How’s USACK’s health these days, and what do you need to do to help it along?
Jacobi: We made some tough cuts this year to the organization but it puts us in a position of much better stability and we are not looking over our shoulder wondering if the lights are going to be turned off. It’s a much better situation for us when we’re looking ahead and not looking backward.
PL: Twice you’ve been the stop-gap ED, first when Terry Kent quit in 2000 and again after Yarborough. Now you’re there permanently. How does it feel, and did those earlier appointments help?
Jacobi: This position is both one of the greatest honors and challenges I’ve taken on in my life. I love who I work for – the sport, the athletes, our community and our partners. I believe in what we are doing and how are doing it. The challenges are many – bringing communities together, stepping up our role and presence in the broader paddlesports community and, of course, generating new dollars. But just like navigating whitewater, you only see the obstacles when you take your eyes off the line where you want to go. Relative to the life experience I bring to my pursuits today compared to 2000, I’m glad to be here now. Timing is a funny thing and has its own way of working things out – the main point is that now is our time.
PL: What are some of your main goals/visions for USACK?
Jacobi: The increasing gap between competitive and recreational paddling is taking a toll on the overall quality of the sport – from technical quality to the way the sport is taught to the opportunities we present to corporate partners, we’re selling ourselves short and we’re capable of doing better. USA Canoe/Kayak has so much to contribute the broader paddlesports community and stepping our participation there not only helps us but is good for the paddlesports too.
One of the key ways we can bridge that gap is through events that reach out to more people of different abilities and add rich experiences to the pursuits of paddlers. Events that are accessible and fun bring more paddlers into the fold, add value for corporate partners and help to increase the overall quality of paddling in the U.S. We saw some cool examples of this in 2010 – the final event of the Canoe Club Challenge at the Nantahala River this summer attracted over 75 participants in Wildwater and saw over 260 starts in Slalom – that’s progress.
Creating signature events and event formats driven towards sponsors, spectators and media will not only provide new competitive athletes for our athletes but from the financial side, help USA Canoe/Kayak stand up on its own two feet. For years, USA Canoe/Kayak has been extremely reliant on the support of the US Olympic Committee. We want to attract new sources of revenue outside of the US Olympic Committee to direct to the programs and concepts we believe are needed not just for the present but for the future, too.
We’re also improving our International Relations efforts by being better members of the international community. Not only do these efforts create opportunities to potentially host international events but we’re able to be supportive partners of the International Canoe Federation’s global broadcast initiatives, which in turn increase the sport’s exposure in the United States.
Finally, we aspire to continue promoting equality across paddlesports. We were thrilled to help expand Women’s Canoeing on the World Championship program and ultimately look forward to welcoming Women’s Canoe on to the Olympic program. And just this past weekend, a monumental victory for paddlesports – the International Paralympic Committee added Canoeing for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.
PL: Any new USA Canoe/Kayak priorities? Any new programs/events on the horizon?
Jacobi: Bill Endicott, the legendary canoe/kayak coach of Olympic and World Champions in both Sprint and Slalom, created a National Talent Identification program for USA Canoe/Kayak. We gave the program a test run this past summer – launching in the Washington, D.C., area, we had 65 young paddlers go through our Talent ID program over a three-day period with the opportunity to learn Sprint and Slalom side-by-side with each other. Since then, we’ve seen young people who had no prior experience in competitive paddling as well young paddlers with a little experience become really engaged in the sport. Using the values of the Olympic movement as a gateway to access the sport is critical for us and good for paddling. All this can play a key part in USA Canoe/Kayak winning multiple medals at every Olympic Games.
On the communications side, I’m excited about the work our team has done on www.USACK.org – lots of new stories, videos, blog posts and articles are being updated frequently. Thanks to smart use of social media, we’re making more connections and adding value where people are spending time online. Finally, I’m on the road a lot. In order to build trust, understand our evolving community and simply listen to stakeholders, nothing beats time in person which is my preference, too. In addition to traveling to many paddlesports destinations in the past year, I’ve competed in paddlesports events in Wildwater, Sprint, Stand Up Paddleboard, and Slalom – kind of my own “customer research” project.
PL: You brought the marathon and freestyle worlds to the US…how are those being received, and what’s next?
Jacobi: Besides the Olympic disciplines, USA Canoe/Kayak sanctions seven other disciplines of competitive paddlesports. The opportunities surrounding these sports are incredible. For example, the ease of entry of Dragon Boat racing allows the sport to deliver a terrific race day on the water with no previous paddling experience necessary. And Freestyle is the snowboarding of our sport – popular with young people, festive and acrobatic. Empowering these sports and shaping their value to potential partners is an opportunity for us we can’t pass up.
Specific to the 2013 Freestyle Worlds on the Nantahala River and the 2014 Marathon Worlds in Oklahoma City, we’ve seen exciting progress at both venues. On the Nantahala, the momentum behind the Worlds have led to some of the most successful entry-level competitive experiences on whitewater that the sport has seen in decades and also led to the launch of a very successful multi-discipline kayaking program for young people. In Oklahoma City, the attention focused on this $100 million game-changing venue has encouraged new international outreach opportunities including coaching conferences, an International Canoe Federation Sprint Committee meeting in 2011 and the possibility of hosting new international competitions.
PL: How are you reconciling differences between the sprint and whitewater sides?
Jacobi: Long before I came into this position, I was a firm believer in standing up for your unique attributes that help you stand apart and define your competitive edge. I take this approach with Sprint and Slalom, too, and there are some inherent differences that make each sport different and special. But in the spirit of being resourceful and wise, we look for commonalities too – coaches exchange ideas on training, venues like Oklahoma City where both sports will be able to be contested and practiced at super high levels side-by-side, and even sports science/technology are all areas where find plenty of common ground. In the future, as we build Under-23 programs for both sports in Oklahoma City, I think we’ll see huge amounts of synergy between and respect for both programs. And at that 18-23 age range, that kind of energy coming from our young paddlers will be good for everyone.
PL: Any correlations between a winning run at the Olympics and running the sport’s governing body?
Jacobi: Lessons I learned on the water, habits I developed while pursuing excellence as an elite athlete and the values associated with the Olympic movement are attributes I carry into to all of my life pursuits. Some of the skills that I used effectively as an athlete are skills I use in the position today:
• I take full responsibility for creating an environment of excellence that I’m excited to be a part of ;
• Relationships are huge – they don’t just happen, they are nurtured ;
• Success is a thoughtful, well-practiced process that focus on the elements within your control;
• Great coaching matters (sources of advice and learning and it can come from unlikely sources)
PL: How is USACK utilizing the Nat’l WW Center in Charlotte, and what’s up with Oklahoma?
Jacobi: As we evaluate our relationship with the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, we believe this venue has and will continue to have a very positive role on the abilities and development of our Slalom program. Just this summer, Michal Smolen, one of our first athletes to “grow up” on the channel at the Whitewater Center, placed 4th in Men’s Kayak at the Slalom Junior Worlds – that’s a huge result. As we move forward, we want to expand our athletes’ presence in the Charlotte community which helps the Whitewater Center as much as it does USA Canoe/Kayak. The Whitewater Center remains a terrific event venue for USA Canoe/Kayak, both on and off the water.
In Oklahoma City, the momentum continues to pick up. In June, Oklahoma City University became the first university in the country to make canoe/kayak a collegiate varsity sport backed with scholarships. During the summer, paddlesports was an integral part of a community outreach program that connected to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. In October, the $10 million dollar Devon Boathouse and High Performance Center opened during the Head of the Oklahoma Regatta. And in the year ahead, we’ll see the launch of a well-organized, professionally run paddlesports program based out of the nearby Chickasaw Nation in Ada. Oklahoma City has simply become the destination where big visions for paddlesports come to life and where we can positively affect the way people from outside of sport view canoe/kayak.