Five Minutes With…Wave Sport Founder Chan Zwanzig

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The earring that says it all.

Chan Zwanzig’s “WS” earring says it all: Although the founder of legendary Wave Sport Kayaks is turning 70 in December, 20 years after selling his company to Confluence Watersports, the lifelong fun-hog is still all about life’s bling, even while facing health issues in his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. We caught up with him to reminisce about Wave Sport and kayaking’s heyday…

“A college friend was out skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 1972 so I came to visit and ski from New York’s Oneonta State College. I brought my two motorcycles with me — a BMW cruiser and a ’57 BSA that I turned into a dirt bike. I laid water and sewer pipe by hand for two years, then started driving heavy equipment. Running a 300-foot crane is like fly fishing with a really, really long rod.”

“When I started making kayaks there was really only one kind on the planet – the Perception Dancer – and I wanted a different one. After kayaking with some Brits down Nepal’s Dudh Khosi River off Everest, they hooked me up with some British manufacturers and I talked to them about improving the Dancer. They put something together and I imported it to the States. I put my own name on it, the Lazer, because I thought theirs sucked…I got disappointed with the importing business and product, so I built a mold and made the boats myself. I built a factory in Oak Creek, Colorado. We even made our own oven.”

“There was a huge vacuum in paddlesports, created by the concept that slalom was kayaking and there was nothing else. The relationship between slalom and whitewater paddling was so incestuous that no one was thinking out of the box. Back then people were paddling in windbreakers and wool sweaters. It was a bunch of adrenaline junkies who had a high tolerance for discomfort.

“Every boat I paddled for the first several years was four meters long. The Dancer was the gold standard for years, but even it was huge. It wasn’t like I was thinking that far ahead. The Lazer was just a slightly smaller, sportier, Dancer. Not particularly inspirational…Inspiration didn’t strike until we started hanging out with kids to see what they were getting into and why, and how they were having more fun.”

“Conceptually, the most revolutionary boat from Wave Sport was the Frankenstein. It was the first boat we designed purely so people could have more fun. In execution, the X was our most revolutionary boat. We wanted paddlers to be free of restriction in all dimensions and planes. It could spin, cartwheel and run gnar…”

“The sport went off from about 1994 to 1999. The culture was fueled by kids who wanted to do nothing but play hard 365 days a year. It was basically the freeride culture coming to paddlesports.”

“Wave Sport team paddlers Billy Craig and Erica Mitchell are the two most influential people in the second half of my life– they showed me how to become a kid again. That perspective motivated me to push Wave Sport in the direction to just have fun. I had way more fun once I realized everything wasn’t just about adrenaline and clean lines.”

“EJ was a big part of delivering that cultural revolution; he transcended the establishment of the U.S. slalom team. Corran (Addison) is another one of my heroes. It takes ego to accomplish anything and he’s accomplished a lot. At the time, I was the only owner of a whitewater kayak company with full control who cared more about making boats than making money.”

“But consolidation has been good to me. When I sold Wave Sports I got a couple million dollars and my life changed. I partied, paddled, skied and snowboarded for eight years, nonstop. But it hasn’t been very good to paddlers. Production and product development are now under the control of investment bankers, who don’t necessarily have the best interests of their customers in mind. The industry should be secondary to the culture. Paddlers will always do what they want to do.”

“I was busted in 1990 for growing dope. In a turn of events beyond irony, the newest tenant in the old factory is now a licensed medical marijuana producer. The old Wave Sport building is now back in the business of producing products that enhance the lives of their customers.”

“I played hard for eight years after I retired…Then I missed my first Gauley Fest in 20 years because I had heart surgery at the same time as the festival. It slowed me down a lot. Then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had an operation for that. At 59, I kind of hit the wall of the play hard/party hard lifestyle. All this came on top of three shoulder, one spine and a knee operation.”

“I’ve run Gore 300 times without portaging. When I started paddling, it was 100 percent about adrenaline and scaring myself. That’s what I thought fun was. Then adrenaline became a bad thing because as your skill set improves, you’re only scared when your life is in danger. Now fun transcends adrenaline. My life has always been about how much fun I can have as often as possible. Now, whenever I start to get nervous about something, my mantra is, ‘It’s good enough just to have fun.’ It keeps me out of the hospital.”

Thanks for the memories and the inspiration, Chan.