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How a Challenging Kayak Race Helped Him Find Strength and Faith

For this Type 2 diabetic, a 72-mile kayak race was more challening and rewarding than he could have imagined. 


Dark and rainy on the Missouri River. I paddled my kayak through choppy water. Somewhere ahead of me was the finish of the race I’d begun almost 15 hours earlier, the South Dakota Kayak Challenge. The course runs 72 windy, wave-tossed miles from Yankton, South Dakota, to South Sioux City, Nebraska.

Many racers had finished by now. I still had eight miles to go. I was 65 years old and exhausted. I have Type 2 diabetes and had badly misjudged my nutrition intake. I’d been miserable for much of the race.

It was 10 p.m. Lights from shore danced on the water. Wing dams on the bank threw off confusing vortexes. Powerboats whined in the distance, partiers not watching where they were going. I felt alone. Vulnerable.

If I were telling you this story face-to-face, you’d stop me right now to say, “Walt, what on earth were you doing competing in a 72-mile kayak race at your age with diabetes?”

It’s a fair question. I ask myself the same thing sometimes, especially since I’ve gone on to compete in many other river races.

I’ve come up with various answers: I love boats. I’ve got a competitive streak. I live for a logistical challenge. But the answer lies deeper. All my life, I’d been searching for a reason to believe my life mattered. I was told the opposite when I was growing up. “Stupid.” “Lazy.” “Worthless.” I heard those words a lot from my teachers—even from my dad.

For years, charting an eclectic career path, I wondered whether it was true. It’s hard to explain how paddling a kayak finally put those fears to rest.

I grew up loving the water. My family owned a cabin by the Platte River near Omaha. I played in the river and in lakes whenever I could, paddling around in a small rowboat. I liked tinkering with things and learned to repair the rowboat myself.


Sounds idyllic, right? The rest of my childhood wasn’t. I had undiagnosed dyslexia and struggled in school. My dad decided my bad grades were a sign of my worthlessness, and he never passed up an opportunity to tell me so. I was physically awkward, always picked last for sports teams. Teachers gave up on me.

I spent a lot of time alone. The one thing I could do was build stuff: models, rowboats. I loved sketching designs. Working on a model or a boat, I was safe from my dad’s disapproval.

I eked out decent enough grades to get into a Lutheran college, aiming to become a pastor. I loved God and wanted to help others. Plus, it was a job that commanded respect.

Things turned out to be a little more complicated. My dyslexia was diagnosed at age 23, which helped with college and seminary, not to mention my self-esteem.

But a few months shy of graduation, my wing of the Lutheran Church went through a wrenching doctrinal split. I landed on the wrong side of the split and had a hard time finding a permanent job. I shuttled from one fill-in post to another. I loved the work, and to this day I look for opportunities to use my pastoral training. But it was not a sustainable living.

I took a diesel mechanics course and got some work on the side repairing engines. After 14 years, I quit the ministry altogether. I got married and found a fulltime job in the aircraft prototype shop at a Boeing plant in St. Louis, Missouri. I worked my way up from sweeping the floor to helping design and test models. It seemed as if things were working out at last.

Then my wife, who was struggling with depression, turned to alcohol. I stuck by her for more than a decade, until the drinking got out of control. She and I divorced. A few years later, I married Christy, whom I’d known growing up.

Five years after Christy and I married, we moved back to Omaha to take care of my dad, who was dying. He never apologized for how he’d treated me. I made the move out of duty.

Once back in Nebraska, I decided to semi-retire, taking a part-time sales and maintenance job at a boating store. That freed up time for the one thing that had always kept me going through life’s ups and downs: being on the water.

In St. Louis, I’d sailed the Mississippi and done some side work building display models for yacht designers. At some point, I saw kayakers on the river and realized how much easier things would be if I ditched the sailboat for a kayak. Soon Christy and I were dedicated paddlers. We introduced friends to the sport, and that mushroomed into a home business guiding kayak trips and offering lessons.

Naturally I began tinkering with kayaks, which progressed to building my own out of wood in my garage.

After Dad died, I thought, Maybe now I’ll build a stable life. Then, during a checkup about five years ago, my doctor announced: “Walt, your blood work shows that you have Type 2 diabetes. You have to change your diet and exercise routine immediately or this will kill you.”

I should have seen it coming. My Czech heritage shows in what I eat. If a food is doughy and sweet, I like it. My Sunday morning routine in St. Louis had included having six doughnuts from my favorite bakery.

I figured kayaking gave me room to indulge. I was wrong. Sitting there in the doctor’s office, I wondered how I could have been so cavalier. So stupid.

“What about kayak racing?” I blurted. “You think I could do that? For exercise?”

It sounded farfetched even as I heard myself say it. Sixty-five-year-old Walt with diabetes matching strength and wits with a bunch of younger paddlers on some tricky river.

My doctor paused for a beat, mulling it over. “Why not?” he said at last. “Just don’t overdo it.”

Did struggling to complete a 72-mile race through the rainy, choppy Missouri River in the dark count as overdoing it? I’d trained hard for this race and crafted what I thought was a foolproof food regimen of fruit, energy bars and a protein shake.

My competitive instincts got the better of me. I started off way too fast, trying to impress myself by passing younger paddlers. The protein shake didn’t agree with my stomach, and the physical demands of the race caused my blood sugar to bounce around.

I’d get spurts of energy followed by a crash. I pulled ashore many times to take care of the digestive issues.

As darkness fell, I was still miles from the finish. I kept replaying my mistakes in my head. Stupid. Lazy. Worthless. Whatever made me think I could do this?

I needed something else to think about. But there was nothing around me except for the wind and the water.

Waves slapped against my kayak, the one I’d designed and built by hand. It wasn’t as sleek as the more expensive boats, but I liked it anyway. It was like me: no frills, gets the job done.

One blade of my paddle sliced into the water, then the other. Those were the sounds I heard: waves on wood, paddle in the water.

A chant started up in my head to match the rhythm of my strokes. Nonsense words at first, then some much-needed encouragement: “I will commit. I will compete. I will complete.” Which then became: “I am relentless. I am resilient. I am resourceful.”

At last, the words evolved into words that I’d been saying all my life: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.…”

I was praying. Out there in the dark, alone on the wild river, I was praying.

I can’t say it was some profound spiritual moment for me. I was too tired for that. And maybe I’m too analytical-minded anyway. I don’t get a lot of big epiphanies. W hat I did get were the strength and resolve to keep on paddling. To believe in my heart and soul that I could finish this race. That I wasn’t stupid for attempting to do it.

Heck, that I wasn’t stupid at all.

I pulled up to the landing in South Sioux City at the 15-hour, 45-minute mark. I was so depleted, I nearly fell over when I stepped out of the kayak. Christy was there, waiting for me, and wrapped me in her arms.

Relentless. Resilient. Resourceful. I was all three.

So was God. All my life, he’d been guiding me along a zigzag, start-and-stop course, giving me strength to go on, making the best of whatever was thrown at me.

He’s still doing it. I’ve now completed the South Dakota Kayak Challenge three times, whittling down my time to just over 10 hours.

In kayaking, I find, all of the strands of my life come together. Racing (and eating right) helps me keep the diabetes under control.

Helping others get on the water, where they boost their health and commune with nature, is a healing art just like pastoring.

Building boats and showing people how to use them right engage my engineering skills.

All of it is prayer, a way to draw closer to God, just as I experienced during that first race.

Worthless? I can’t think of anything that matters more.

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