Wave Sport founder Chan Zwanzig passed away the morning of July 24 after a long battle with cancer and other ailments, leaving the whitewater kayaking world mourning his loss.
Zwanzig, 71, founded Wave Sport kayaks in 1986 in Steamboat Springs, Colo., later selling the company to Confluence Watersports in 1999. During his tenure running the company, he became known as a somewhat eccentric entrepreneur, passionate about paddlesports…and whitewater kayaking in particular. Look no further than his “WS” earring to understand his penchant for bling and boating.
“A college friend was out skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 1972 so I came to visit and ski on my motorcycle from New York’s Oneonta State College,” he said in an earlier interview with Paddling Life.
“Every boat I paddled for the first several years was four meters long.”
“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.”
His boats spoke for themselves. After the Lazer came such models as the Godzilla, Stubby (marketing slogan: “Have you seen my Stubby?”), Y, Z, and, in 1997, the heralded X. While the X didn’t have the world’s first planing hull (we’ll concede that invention to Corran Addison, at Riot at the time), it popularized the quick-release, wave-spinning hull immensely, especially with Zwanzig’s ambition for funding young-at-heart freestyle teams. Other boats included the flat-sterned Frankenstein, foot-squishing XXX, Forplay and Kinetic before the popular EZ and EZG series surfaced.
Look at paddlers and designers on his team and it reads like a Who’s Who of Whitewater, with the likes of a young Eric Jackson, Rusty Sage, Dan Gavere, Ken Whiting, Eric Southwick, Sam Drevo, Dan Brabec, Erica Mitchell, Jimmy Blakeney, Tanya Schuman and more on his payroll.
“I met Chan in 1991 on the side of the Nantahala River at the US Junior Nationals for slalom and wildwater kayaking,” remembers Drevo, who now runs eNRG kayaking school in Oregon City, Ore. “He said, ‘Hey kid, wanna be sponsored?’ and I said, “Yes!” not knowing what that meant. He invested in potential and in the future of whitewater sport — through river festivals, events, designs and people.
“Little did I know how my relationship with Chan and Wavesport would shape my career as a paddler, photo/video producer, instructor and entrepreneur,” he adds. “Chan’s support of up and coming paddlers helped create and shape the whitewater industry as it is today. His edgy attitude rubbed some people the wrong way but he would never apologize for his beliefs about trends and evolution. He was ahead of the curve. The visits to Steamboat, Oak Creek, Cross Mountain and Gore canyons will never be forgotten. He was a hardcore trailblazer for whitewater kayaking, period.”
“Chan somehow embodied the movement of the river world to a younger place — he brought high energy, passion and an edge to the scene. He was a fierce competitor and a major contributor to the glory days of whitewater kayaking.” — Dagger founder Joe Pulliam.
Zwanzig clearly saw a void in designs at the time. “There was a huge vacuum in paddlesports, created by the concept that slalom was kayaking and there was nothing else,” he said. “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,” he added. “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…”
Zwanzig was also an experienced expedition kayaker, participating in many well-documented first descents throughout the world, most notably the Rio Urubamba in Peru in 1980, including the Machu Picchu Gorge, with Tim Biggs of South Africa. In 1983, he was the first to kayak Peru’s Paucartambo River and in 1986 he participated in a British expedition to Nepal’s Dudh Kosi River, which was made into a National Geographic documentary “Himalayan River Run.” He also founded Colorado’s annual Gore Canyon Race in 1989, which is still held today and organized by American Whitewater.
Those who remember him paint a picture of someone addicted to whitewater, having fun and not acting your age. “On road trips with him he was like a human radio,” said longtime friend and former US Slalom Team member Steve Holmes. “You’d ask him a question and he’d go on and on for an hour, and then you’d ask him another one like switching the station.”
Zwanzig fed off the kayaking world’s — and his own — energy. “The sport went off from about 1994 to 1999,” he said. “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. I was motivated 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.”
And he wasn’t above giving others credit where it was due.
“EJ was a big part of delivering that cultural revolution; he transcended the establishment of the U.S. slalom team,” he said. “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.”
After his bittersweet sale to Confluence, in which he watched his beloved company pack up and move to Greenville, South Carolina, it gave him more time to play, but at the cost of losing his foothold in the industry.
“Consolidation was good to me,” he said. “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 wasn’t very good to paddlers. Production and product development went under the control of investment bankers, who didn’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.”
“He had a great exit,” says Drevo, “but the consolidation lessons for the industry were tough.”
Confluence, trying to juggle such other whitewater kayak brands as Dagger and Perception, later eliminated the production of Wave Sport kayaks in the U.S., making them only in the UK for the European market.
“I played hard for eight years after I retired,” he said. “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. All this came on top of three shoulder, one spine and a knee operation.”
His last few years might not have been his best, but he fought off his illnesses as he would getting back on line in a daunting Class V. And, leaving behind his wife Katie, he never lost sight of the important things in life: enjoying it while you can.
“When I started paddling, it was 100 percent about adrenaline and scaring myself,” he said. “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. In my later years, fun transcended adrenaline. M\in my later years, my mantra became, ‘It’s good enough to have fun.'”
RIP from Paddling Life.
More from Paddling Life on Wave Sport:
- Behind the Scenes: Paddlers Chime In on Wave Sport Leaving NA Market
- Reconnoitering the Wave Sport Recon
- Five Minutes With Wave Sport Founder Chan Zwanzig