January 25, 2005 -- by Graham Averill
Southeastern Paddler of the Year - Geoff Calhoun
Talk about a growth spurt. Geoff Calhoun, the 2003 Junior National Wildwater Champion, made quite
an impression on the paddling community this year. While technically still a junior (he’s only 18),
Calhoun earned a spot on the USA Wildwater Team, and then proceeded to finish first race after race.
In 2004, the D.C. paddler won the Bank of America US Open Wildwater Race, the US Team Trials, the
Canadian Nationals, and the US Wildwater Championships, earning him the right to be called the top
USA K1 paddler.
“He's’s made amazing improvement over the last year," says John Pineyard, USA Wildwater committee chair.
“If his progress continues, he will be a potential powerhouse in international wildwater competition.”
In his first year racing as a senior, Calhoun managed to finish the World Cups in Switzerland as the
fastest USA K1 boater, and 35th place overall. That means there are only 34 boaters in the world that
Calhoun has to catch up with. We figure he’ll probably accomplish that by the age of 20. Let’s just hope
the Olympic Committee decides to classify Wildwater as an Olympic event and give Calhoun a chance at
a Gold in 2008.
No list of great paddlers is complete without Andrew McEwan, a DC boater who consistently
finishes first in regional and national competitions. In 2004, he managed to make it to the finish
line a full minute faster than his competition in the Animal Upper Gauley Race, which draws the best
paddlers around. And of course Asheville’s own Tommy Hilleke makes an impression on the paddling
world year after year. While this year’s Green River Race was postponed due to high water, Hilleke has
won the prestigious paddling competition three years running. In addition to this venerated honor,
Hilleke is also a member of Team Teva and is featured in a number of paddling videos.
Growing up around Asheville enabled Adam Herzog to take advantage of the variety of class
III-IV water in the area. Now at the age of 25, many paddlers say Herzog has more first descents on
rushing creeks than anyone in the region.
“That may be an exaggeration,” Herzog says. “There are so many great boaters in Asheville, most of
the creeks are played out. It’s hard to get a first descent around here, but creekin’ is definitely
Herzog’s father introduced him to the sport, but was conservative, keeping his 11-year-old son away
from the more challenging water. “As soon as I turned 18, it was on,” Herzog says.
Herzog did a couple of stints as a raft guide at the NOC and now works as an EMT, working three days
a week and paddling the other four. He’s just moved to Johnson City and is working diligently toward
exploring every viable creek and river in the area. You may see Herzog tearing down a creek in your
backyard, but chances are, you won’t see him on the competitive paddling circuit. Other than the Green
River Race and the Russell Forks Race, Herzog shies away from competitions. “I’m not overly competitive,”
Herzog says. “I like creekin’ because you get to see all these cool places and hang out with your buddies.
At the same time, it’s dangerous and humbling.”
As head coach for the NRC Rhinos, Rafal Smolen prepares athletes of all levels for competition.
And he does a damn good job of it. Rhinos members have participated in every national and world slalom
competition (including the Olympics) since 1967. Rhino Chris Hipgrave had another impressive year,
competing successfully in national and regional competitions and representing U.S. in slalom whitewater
at the 2004 Olympics.
A shout out also goes to Charlie Walbridge, a boating legend who literally wrote the book on
paddling West Virginia. During his career, he’s chalked up a number of major first descents, served on
the board of directors for American Whitewaters, and helped define the safety standards of boating.
He’s currently working to preserve the Cheat River. If anyone can do it, Charlie Walbridge can.