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Nascar Racing with Plastic Kayaks: Finn Blackburn’s Road to Team USA.

Sometimes you have to dream big. So, Finnigan Blackburn decided he would go after a spot on Team USA. That seemed kinda like a place to start before OBJ started running in the summer. Of course, he had never run a slalom course, or actually been in a slalom boat, or run gates. But when you grow up in kayak town Salida, Colorado, those are just minor details. Finn began every day training in the river by himself, day after day, all winter long. He lifted at 5:30 am, went to school all day, and paddled into the winter darkness. He and his brothers would take a break to surf ice chunks to spice things up.

Then Finnigan hooked up with Team Colorado Whitewater and travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, for the US Open race. He borrowed the boat and duct-taped it between each run. He borrowed the skirt, the paddle, the PFD, and the helmet. He began to learn how a man-made course felt, and how the gates worked. He didn’t win. He rolled and he swam. The new kid just kept showing up. He didn’t finish last, but he was nowhere near first in his 20-year-old sinking boat. 

So, he came home, rinse and repeat. Back at the weights. Back in the river. Alone. Rocky Balboa Style.

Three weeks later, back in Montgomery, Alabama, still checking the trash cans at the boat house to see if someone was throwing away a gear upgrade. Still sewing up the skirt with fishing line and more silicone–more duct tape. Team USA trials started, and Finn again wasn’t at the top of the slalom racers. He gained a few slots. Still rolling, still getting worked–just on national TV this time.

Then came Kayak Cross. Nascar racing with plastic kayaks in the pristine land of slalom gates. Finnigan’s time trial wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the best. However, a plastic boat, Finnigan knew. Grit, Finnigan knew. He was the youngest of four, growing up in the mountains raising steer. So, when it came time to drop head to head with three other paddlers, Finnigan came out of nowhere. 

The semi-finals were aggressive, with banging paddles, boats and a definitive elbow or two (or three). Three times Finnigan fought to the front of the pack, one time with the contender riding his tail. Then, when they hit the big drop, the others tilted, and Finnigan just boofed it, skipping the waves, slightly out of control but in full send mode.

Somehow, he battled out of that heat and landed a spot in the finals. That is when it all shifted. Once he pulled away, the race was over, and he finished seconds ahead of the others. The nobody kid smoked the field, swiping the junior national title and direct referral to the world championships in Slovakia–valid.

For now, Finnigan is training daily in the Salida Whitewater Park in his red Pyranha Ripper and old borrowed slalom boat. His next obstacle is raising enough money for his trip to Slovakia to represent the USA in the world championships. He has a GoFundMe page if you are interested in supporting his growing dream. After this, Finnigan will have to decide if he wants to pursue an Olympic dream.

“Earning a place of the Jr National Team was not my goal when I went to the Olympic Trails in Montgomery. First of all, most of my gear was borrowed and slightly broken, secondly, I had never even seen a man-made course, much less paddled one, thirdly I had never been coached, and everyone else there had years of professional coaching, lastly and most importantly- I had never been in a Kayak Cross race.  I just decided to send it and go for it anyway and give it everything I had.  

Well, I certainly learned a lot, and when I got to the semifinals, I really couldn’t believe it. There I was sitting up on the ramp, about to race with legends. I was totally blown away. I just dropped and fought and paddled with all the grit I had, and then I was out in front. No more fighting at each gate, just me paddling and skipping across the waves. The rhythm was beautiful; it felt like flying.

Winning a spot on the Jr National Team is important to me because I feel like, for once, my pure love of the river and kayaking has taken me somewhere. Just doing what I love has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.  

Training has been relentless these last few weeks. Two different coaches have come to Salida to help me learn better technique, but each day, I feel like I have improved so much. The next three weeks, I will be paddling the Grand Canyon with my brother. My focus on the Grand will be fitness. I plan to do sprint workouts each day on the flat water sections and send it big on all the rapids. I can’t wait!

Once I get off the Grand, I will be heading to Europe for some formal coaching and training on the course in Slovakia. I am excited to meet and work with the kayak cross coaches. I am also stoked to meet other kids my age who are crazy about the river and share my passion. I hope that they will push me to achieve beyond anything I could have dreamed!”