As Tommy Yon carried his kayak up the side of a waterfall in Tennessee, he tried not to over-think the 100-foot drop that awaited him.
“I didn’t want to hesitate and psych myself out,” said Yon, who lives along the Nantahala River in Swain County.
Bald River Falls is not a commonplace run for kayakers. But, something in Yon told him that he could make it, that he needed to try it.
“I guess I was just feeling it that day,” Yon said.
To the non-paddling spectator, Yon’s daredevil stunts might seem like a leap of faith, more of a free fall with a kayak around his waist. But in an instant, he sized up which ledges to aim for, which rocks to avoid. He calculated the likely thrust of the boat and where it would hit as it pummeled down the falls into the roaring, churning froth below.
With three people running safety at the bottom of the falls in case something went awry, Yon climbed into his boat. Butterflies collected in his stomach, and he prayed to God that his intuition and calculations were correct. And, they were. Yon floated down the 100-foot waterfall as if it was a mere 20-footer. Everything was in slow motion, Yon said.
The day had started as a laid-back and relaxing kayaking trip with friends. But, when Yon drove along Tellico River Road, he stopped the car without warning halfway across a bridge overlooking Bald River Falls. Yon saw the line and knew what to do — how he could safely navigate the precipitous drop of a 100-foot waterfall. And, his intuition and knowledge served him well that day.
With about 20 years of experience under his belt, Yon, a professional freestyle kayaker, has cultivated a mixture of instinct, physics and practice that allows him to dare such feats.
The 27-year-old Nantahala native grew up along the river, helping his mom and dad at their boiled peanut stand that sat about mile away from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Everyday, or nearly everyday, Yon would sneak away from the stand along U.S. 19 and watch groups of people take to the water.
Although kayaking does not define who Yon is, his love of all things water-related is undeniably a major part of his life. Yon has been on the water since he was 7 years old.
“That is all I wanted to do is be in the water,” said Yon, who works as a rafting guiding and soon as a kayaking instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
“It makes me so excited to see someone almost touching base with something,” Yon said, adding that he loves giving people a few words of advice or little nudge that helps them conquer a move.
Yon is a first-rate paddler of all manners, from steep-ass creek paddling to swift down-river slalom. But his forte — one that happens to be in the limelight right now — is freestyle paddling. In freestyle paddling, kayakers perform tricks for a certain period of time and are scored based on difficulty and variety.
“Freestyle, to me, is like a different form of walking or dancing or skating or doing anything, but you’re on water,” Yon said. “I feel more balanced an controlled on water than I do on my own two feet. I’m a klutz when it comes to land.”
Yon is an ideal example of an outlier, as defined by author Malcolm Gladwell. He has put in his 10,000-plus hours and like any successful person, takes his passion for something to a whole new level.
About age 7 or 8, Yon’s dad bought him a ducky, an inflatable kayak of sorts, and then, he slowly accrued enough gear to get his first kayak.
Yon said he practiced everyday unless he had gotten himself good and worn out.
“I maybe missed one day a week, two days a week. Maybe,” Yon said.
Yon soon began learning rolls, where you intentionally capsize the kayak and then return to the upright position, and then doing enders, where the front of the kayak is plunged into the water and the boat stands up vertically.
“From then forward, I went full forward into kayaking and never looked back,” Yon said.
Although practice makes perfect, Yon said he spends more time on land thinking about the physics of a trick — a McNasty or Donkey Flip or Phoenix Monkey — before he takes to the water to try it.
“I spend more time out of the boat than in the boat thinking about it,” Yon said.
For him, it’s about being able to visualize himself mastering a move, using his mind’s eye to watch how the position of his paddle affects his trajectory. Yon talks about kayaking the way a chess master might discuss his strategies. He puts a large amount of forethought into the combination of tricks he performs at competitions.
“I need to be thinking about when I do a move here where I am gonna land and what move is possible over there,” Yon said.
Although his plans may change once he gets on the water, Yon is never unprepared.
“I have done everything in kayaking as I possibly could because I have wanted it. I have wanted it for myself,” Yon said. “This is the lifestyle that I chose, and I love it.”
Of all the tricks he has performed and the places he has traveled, Yon said the crowning moment of his kayaking career was attaining pro-status several years ago.
“Being able to do all the trick of all the people that I followed who were my heroes,” Yon said. “I am paddling better than I have ever dreamed of paddling. I am happy.”
Yon is a member of Team Pyranha and competes in freestyle kayaking competitions around the U.S. And, unlike other sports, like hockey or football, the competition remains friendly.
“We are out there to encourage people,” Yon said.
If someone lands a complicated trick or combination, everyone is cheering him or her on, Yon said. In freestyle competitions, each kayaker racks up points based on a few set tricks that the judges expect to see, how they combine tricks into a continuous move and on other maneuvers that they toss into the mix.
About 60 kayakers are expected to compete in this year’s Nantahala Outdoor Center Freestyle Shootout from April 20-22 in the Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City.
The Shootout will be a trial run, although on a much smaller scale, of world freestyle paddling championships being held on the Nantahala in September of 2012 and again in 2013.
“The Freestyle Shootout is always a highly competitive event, and we look forward to athletes turning up the heat this year as they ramp up their training for the Worlds,” said Zuzana Vanha, event coordinator with the Nantahala Outdoors Center.
The NOC Freestyle Shootout will be the first official freestyle event to be held at the newly enhanced Nantahala Wave, designed for the upcoming World Cup in 2012 and World Championship in 2013.
The Wave is manmade contraption below the surface that changes the contour of the river bottom and kicks up waves and holes for kayakers to do tricks on.
Paddlers have been toying with the contraption to get the best wave results. A final model isn’t yet settled on.
“This event will give athletes an opportunity to give feedback about the (Wave) and express their opinions about what they would like to see as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning,” Vanha said.
The NOC is expecting several hundred spectators during the course of the weekend, Vanha said.
Athletes get two 45-second runs to do their tricks, but the number of rounds will depend on athlete participation. The top winners from Saturday’s round will go on to the finals Sunday.
Freestyle paddling competition begins at 11 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Other event highlights include:
• Paddler Feedback Session at 6 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café. An opportunity for athletes to make their opinion heard as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning on the Nantahala 2013 Wave.
• Chris Gratmans, of TerraVida Threads, will discuss the psychology of paddling at 7 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café.
• The Science of Hydraulic Engineering beside The Wave at 2 p.m. April 21.
• Stand up Paddleboard Head-to-Head Race at 6 p.m., April 21, at the near Slow Joe’s Café. Competitors will negotiate a slalom course on their way down stream.
• Dagger Dash Attainment Race at 2:30 p.m., April 22.
Slow Joe’s Café will offer live music each night starting at 8 p.m.
The weekend will also feature Demo Days, the NOC’s annual spring vendor fair and gear demo event. Guests can choose from more than 60 boats and test-paddle them for free on the Nantahala throughout the weekend. Manufacturer representatives will be on hand to answer questions about the gear, and the Outfitter’s Store will be offering deals on kayaks and accessories.