Greater Than Gold
(Pre-S: This article connects to the Sunday Morning Joe post that I published two weeks ago, which you can read HERE. Also, don’t miss the “PS” below — I think you will enjoy it.)
While working as the Global Media Ambassador for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC,) one of my major responsibilities involved our hosting of the 2015 Junior and Under-23 Canoe Wildwater World Championships.
As excited as we were to welcome the world’s best young canoeing athletes to NOC, one of the most memorable parts of the experience was hearing the stories that many of the athletes from far-away countries shared with us about their parents or fellow club members’ previous visits to NOC. These stories not only communicated a generational connection to rivers but a reflection of the purest values of competitive paddlesports.
In the competitive canoeing world where the sport continues to be defined by human-made, concrete-laden whitewater channels, to compete on a natural, free-flowing river in the mountains of Appalachia in remote western North Carolina was a welcome change for athletes and sport leaders.
To compete at NOC, a paddling destination of history and significance, made this experience even more enriching.
At these World Championships, I had two primary technical roles. First, I performed all of the on-site announcing for the various events. And second, I teamed with Pat McDonnell, a terrific videographer and photographer from our NOC marketing team, to create a short video summary from each day of competition.
On one of these days, I noticed NOC Founder, Payson Kennedy, then 82 years-old, walking through the finish line area to see what was going on. I asked him if we could interview him for our daily recap video.
He reluctantly agreed.
“I don’t know why you would want to talk to me,” Payson said as we started preparing for the interview.
Once the camera started rolling, it was as if the camera disappeared.
Payson talked about the challenging state of canoe racing in the United States, a message I heard often during my time as USA Canoe/Kayak’s CEO. He shared his concern for the sport becoming too elite and ultimately reducing the number of overall competitors.
Then Payson shifted. “I know a lot of people who don’t believe in competition. They think it hurts the image of people who don’t do well”
“I’ve never felt that way. I like competition. Even when I don’t do well. Even when I don’t win.”
I looked at Pat when Payson said these words. The topic of competition touched a deeper place of Payson that I did not often see.
We knew that this clip was going into the video recap.
What we didn’t know was that this clip would lead to the most interesting NOC project in which I’d partake the following year.
At first, Payson’s words appear to be a jab “participation medals” in competitive sport. But it wasn’t about this or even gold medals. Payson is referring to a spirit of competition that better prepares oneself to serve something greater than themselves.
Holistic and peaceful values contributed to establishing NOC as one of the greatest outfitters in the world. But, NOC simply would not exist today were it not for this spirit of competition that has been embraced at every turn within this company.
Critical positions at NOC that profoundly shape its culture such as its president or paddlesports instruction director have frequently been held by Olympians, World Medalists, national team athletes, coaches, and team leaders who lived and trained at NOC.
As 2016 was an Olympic year, and NOC was on the cusp of sending its 23rd community member to an Olympic Games in the sport of canoeing, the marketing team at NOC revisited Payson’s interview with us from the previous summer and decided to produce a short documentary video about the legacy of competition within the NOC community.
This was the perfect project in which to immerse myself. I had worked hard for Team USA athletes preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but my direct involvement in this journey ended the day I left my job at USA Canoe/Kayak in the autumn of 2014.
After departing my CEO job, I intentionally created distance from the elite side of the sport. Still, I was emotionally connected to an athlete’s pursuit of excellence.
The video project allowed me to interview NOC racing legends, coaches, and current athletes, including Michal Smolen, the 23rd Olympian and an athlete whom NOC sponsored. I would sit before people who had accomplished great athletic feats on the water as part of the NOC community, or had future aspirations to do so, and ask them anything I want.
Having transitioned my own athletic preparation from the ultra-competitive training group on the Potomac River where I was raised in the Washington, DC area to NOC’s subdued environment a few years prior to the 1992 Olympic Games, working on this video project would offer me a better understanding of how different generations of competitors who embrace Payson’s spirit of competition pursue peace, growth, and freedom in a life intertwined with elite level competition.
As we started to organize the video project, NOC had more than four decades of serving outdoor adventure guests and had experienced vast changes within its organization and culture.
NOC had expanded from a few employees on a single river to nearly a thousand employees in-season on eight different rivers with a range of retail, restaurant, accommodation, and activity operations. In recent years, a majority stake in NOC had been purchased by private equity investors out of Atlanta.
Such changes and growth had a deep impact on many of the legendary athletes to whom we would speak. These were people who had contributed so much to the organization and positioned the spirit of NOC as a key pillar in their own life development. Yet, for some, these changes brought upon certain conflicts that often accompany transition and evolution.
Our interviews in front of the camera took on a natural flow. Short answers slowly became longer. Then deeper. Eventually, more emotional. Many of the conversations involved tears — not just from the interviewees but mine too. Outstanding and accomplished athletes evolved the meaning of their competitive pursuits right before my eyes.
On the first day of filming in early 2016, we conducted three consecutive interviews with three former athletes who between them had a number of Olympic Games appearances and World titles. These three people never crossed paths on the day of the interviews but as we spoke to each one for nearly an hour, you would have thought they had just come from the same sleepover party where they had stayed up all night trading race stories.
It was as if their stories picked up where the previous one had left off.
A beautiful connectivity emerged with each successive interview leading to a central theme echoed by a past NOC president and World Champion, Elizabeth “Bunny” Johns:
“It was the common goal of everybody (at NOC) to want to be the be the best at whatever it is we do. This was the unique experiment that Payson Kennedy started.”
This theme of “I just wanted to be the best that I could be” kept coming up.
Nobody ever talked about the desire to win or bring home medals — even though many of them did exactly that. It was simply about being the best we could possibly be in service to something greater than ourselves.
When enough multiple generations of world class athletes repeat this common theme, the thread of community initiates the reinvention process once again.
Here, this community ceases to be a place or destination, but rather a mindset that never leaves us. A mindset that that does not leave Payson Kennedy.
“The power of community first, and then what the different aspects of the community do enrich the whole community” said Gordon Grant, a past U.S. National Team member and former NOC paddlesports instruction director.
Then, Gordon beautifully reveals the core of our spirit of competition that ultimately serves the essence of Relationships Bound By Water:
“The beauty of Payson’s organization is that he believes in the importance of physicality, the fun of play, and the philosophy that drives it. NOC gave us the bodies that could carry out anything our minds wanted to do.”
With gratitude, — Joe
PS — That video project to which I have been referring throughout this post… please watch it → HERE
Greater Than Gold is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.
Subscribe to Sunday Morning Joe HERE.
Connect with Joe:
I coach seasoned professionals, who feel stuck in place, to thrive in transition and bring focus to what matters most without compromising their lives.
My personal experiences winning an Olympic Gold Medal, serving as CEO of a national sports organization, and my current “Simple, Slower, and Less” lifestyle in the Catalan Pyrenees help to form accountable and transformative collaborations that see my clients create their next and most impactful chapter.