Paddling For Life

Joe Jacobi
5 min readMay 16, 2021
Dora Baltea River, Ivrea, Italy, May, 2021 (Joe Jacobi photo)

On a cool morning sitting in comfortable lawn chairs in the podium area beside the roaring Dora Baltea River, we breathe in the thick tension of this anticipated day. The sun starts to climb over the Italian city of Ivrea where athletes and coaches have come together for the European Championships for Canoe Slalom.

Not only is this a grand competition with major implications on the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, but it is also the first large scale competition after a year full of canceled and postponed races.

A friend and member of the German National Canoeing Team staff sits adjacent to us. He quietly absorbs the moment.

Within the next few hours, Germany and Italy will send their highest caliber men’s canoe athletes to the start line of this race, all of whom are capable of winning a medal in Tokyo this summer. All of whom have previously won Olympic or World medals.

But only the single top-performing athlete from this elite group will secure the very last available starting position at the 2021 Olympic Games.

I turn to my German friend to say good morning and wish his athletes good luck today.

He acknowledges the nature of this long, twisty, yet bizarre, and sometimes cruel path that has built the game for which we have gathered today.

I respond, “Your words make me think of Claudia Bär, as if they bring her presence a little closer to us today.”

Claudia Bär was an athlete and world medalist who competed for Germany. She passed away from Leukemia in 2015 at the age of 35.

My friend nods and then says, “Eventually, we learn that we are not paddling for sport. We are paddling for life.”

If the put-in is where we begin the journey down a river, the take-out is where we intend to finish. I’ve rarely started a river without having at least a vague idea of where the take-out is.

Yet, we are navigating an uncertain river. And while we are sure there will be a take-out, we are not assured of an arrival at the take-out that we expect.

Of my 14 teammates on the 1992 Olympic Canoe Slalom Team, it often appears to me that the three who have passed away arrived at their take-out far too soon.

Of course, this appearance puts an expectation of time on the river that we navigate. Yet, even when we shift to the quality of the experience rather than the quantity of the experience, then we want the highest quality of experience… for as long as we can possibly sustain it.

As I reflectively write these words exactly one year to the day (May 15, 2020) since my father passed from COVID-19 at just shy of 90 years-old, my father, my three Olympic teammates, and Claudia open an awareness to this question:

Wait, THIS is the take-out?

For many years, I viewed in the river as a place where few people exist. I believed that most people appear to view the water from the riverbank.

While we will spend some time on the riverbank, what I now see is that all of us co-exist in the river

In a state of movement beyond our control…

In a state of transition.

This movement and transition are characterized by both an unrelenting power and a forgiving strength… which together offer a spectrum of navigational choices.

Curling our bodies up in a tight ball while being carried by the river’s current can yield the same result as using a paddle and a boat to strategically negotiate the rapid → both can result in living for another moment. To continue this journey.

It is not that one choice is better than the other. And, both choices exist in a transitional process. But, each choice facilitates very different questions and ultimately, very different experiences.

Here, to choose the boat and paddle actively opens The Practice Of Transition, the final section of The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.

The Practice Of Transition does not seek to pinpoint our take-out. Such a practice simply acknowledges that the possibility of an unexpected take-out better transitions us for the next challenge that lays ahead.

Sinking into the exact same lawn chairs in which we sat in the morning, we notice a few afternoon clouds starting to form in the skies over Ivrea. It feels good to just sit quietly after an exhaustive yet exhilarating day of competition.

Suddenly, the Italian athletes and coaches, donning their team uniforms, assemble in a semi-circle just beside us. Amid hugs and tears, the Italian Canoeing Federation president steps forward and somberly addresses the team and the disappointments of the day and the weekend.

After the brief talk, the athletes migrate over to the area just in front of the podium and pose for a photo.

If you did not know this cast, it is literally filled with the pinnacles of Olympic success and bowels of Olympic heartbreak.

For most of this team, the competition did not go as they had hoped. The most excruciating part? Italy missed their men’s canoe Olympic start position… by three tenths of a second. Today was Germany’s day.

Perhaps these athletes would rather be somewhere other than here… but they don’t seem ready to disperse either.

So I stand up from my chair, walk over to the podium area, and capture this photo:

For this Italian team, a time may come when recollections and experiences from this day become altered, skewed, or even forgotten.

But as long as their capacity allows, they will always remember how this moment felt.

A moment that initiates The Practice Of Transition.

A moment that embodies paddling for life.

With gratitude, — Joe

Paddling For Life is a part of my continuing Sunday Morning Joe series, The Pursuit Of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty.

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5 With Joe Performance Coaching

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.



Joe Jacobi

Olympic Gold Medalist, Performance Coach, & Author helping leaders & teams perform their best without compromising their lives.