11 Local Water Sports Champions
With the abundance of fresh water in our area – from the Tennessee River to Nickajack Lake to Chickamauga Creek – it’s no wonder that Chattanooga claims its fair share of water sports champions. Meet 11 that are making a splash around the world.
By Andrew Shaughnessy
Caroline Hensley (above) | Water Skiing
“Moving across the water on a slalom ski at speeds in excess of 50 mph… hitting a ramp and being launched into the air… It’s truly an adrenaline rush,” says world champion water skier Caroline Hensley. “It may sound intimidating, but practice allows you to control the speed and be able to enjoy the thrill of skiing.”
Hensley, a Baylor School alum and four-year Alabama All-American, has been water-skiing competitively nearly her whole life. At 19 years old, Hensley won the Under 21 World Championship in France and has gone on to represent her country in competitions spanning four continents. In 2013, Hensley’s 162-foot jump set a women’s national record for her age group, and she is currently ranked 7th overall in the world for women’s water skiing.
“I love the excitement that competition brings,” says Hensley. “It pushes me to do my best – and what better environment is there for competing than being outdoors, on the water?”
Since graduating from Alabama in 2013, Hensley has put her chemical engineering degree to work at Chattem—but she still carves out time to get on the water.
“My favorite place to ski locally is on the waterfront in downtown Chattanooga,” says Hensley. “Every time we take the boat between the bridges I’m hopeful it sparks an interest in people passing by and instills the urge for them to try it out themselves.”
“Do what makes you happy,” says Hensley. “I not only go to the lake frequently because I need to train for my next competition, but because I know that’s what puts a smile on my face. There is no time better spent than doing what you love.”
Taft Sibley | Squirt Kayaking
“A mystery move is when the kayaker and the boat both submerge under the water for an extended period of time,” explains Sibley. “You use the currents and folds in the river to plunge below the surface and stay down as long as possible. It works almost like the inverse of a helicopter. If you’re spinning you can auger yourself down, just like a helicopter would augment itself up. You’re constantly adjusting using your paddle, body, boat, and legs to stay as level as possible, because the second your boat loses that plane and starts to point towards the surface, you’ll pop back up.”
“From a competitive standpoint the goal is to stay down as long as possible, but just out there with your buddies, it’s about enjoying the ride. It’s almost transcendent,” adds Sibley.
Squirt kayaks are extremely narrow and lightweight, designed to sit under the water and use both surface and subsurface currents to allow for maneuvers like the mystery. Long the forgotten little brother of kayaking, over the last decade squirt and mystery competition has started to gain some attention, Sibley says.
“We all meet up once a year wherever the spot is, whether it’s here on the Hiwassee where we had it last year or in Canada or Washington or Japan, and we’ll hold the world championships.”
Sibley has earned the title of Mystery World Champion three times, most recently at the 2013 Championship on the Hiwassee, where he set a new record for the longest ever competition mystery, clocking 38+ seconds riding the currents underwater. Next up: the 2014 World Championship on the Truckee River in California.
“Man, kayaking’s taught me everything,” says Sibley. “I see it as: ‘If I can do this, then what can’t I do?’”
Charlsley Newman | Water Skiing
In the Bible it talks about Jesus walking on water. Slalom skiing is about as close as you can ever get to that,” says 12-year-old Charlsey Newman. “You’re skimming across the water on a piece of fiberglass strapped to your feet, going around buoys at high speeds. When you’re going over jumps and flying through the air it can be scary. You have to completely trust the ski.”
Now finishing 7th grade, Newman has been water-skiing competitively since she was five years old. She is ranked 6th in the nation in her age group in jump, and took 5th in jump at the U.S. Southern Regional water ski tournament in July of last year. “I love competition because I get to see friends that I’m away from for most of the year,” Newman says. “Everyone cheers each other on in tournaments.”
Newman says her favorite memory of water-skiing is from ski school. “I was just learning to go over the ski jump and I kept going off the edge of the ramp. When my coach finally talked me into going over the top I was so excited. I had a blast.”
Currently, Newman is being coached by nationally ranked skier Haley Runion – and thanks to her dad, an avid water skier from his college days, she gets to hone her skills right in her backyard. Tommy Newman built a 2,000-foot long private lake on their family’s property in McDonald, Tenn., to accommodate practice and annual water ski tournaments.
“I train all spring and summer,” Newman says. “Summer is my time to focus on water skiing. I train basically every afternoon and evening. Winter is my time to be a normal kid.”
“My ultimate goal in skiing is to be a member of GTF (Girls That Fly),” she adds. “They are some of the best water ski jumping girls in the world. They travel all around the world to ski professionally.”
The Popp Family | Canoeing and Kayaking
Chattanooga’s Popp family, or “Team Popp” as they call themselves – parents Tom and Starr, and siblings Colton, Haley, Bryson, and Selena – answer interview questions the way they have always run rivers: together.
“Our dad began canoeing at age eleven and started racing canoes soon after that. The kids have been on the water since they were in diapers,” say Team Popp. “We started off in the raft and napping in the front of the canoe. At about age 7 we each got our first kayaks and learned how to roll.”
“When the kids were little, we would take canoe/camping trips every summer on the Buffalo River in Arkansas,” says Dr. Tom Popp, who is a local orthodontist. “The family got older and thirsted for bigger, more thrilling rapids, and we began to take trips to Colorado, Washington, and Wyoming. It’s been fantastic to watch them develop as individuals and as paddlers.”
As the Popp siblings reached their teens, old enough to qualify for the U.S. Canoe and Kayak team, they began running rivers internationally and competing in wildwater racing, a downriver sport that uses long, narrow-hulled vessels built fast and light for speed, but consequently less stable and more fragile than creekboats.
Popp brothers Bryson and Colton are four-time wildwater national champions in two-man men’s canoe, while sister Haley is a two-time national champion and a two-time junior-national champion in women’s kayak and Selena is a national and junior national champion in women’s single canoe.
Though other commitments will keep Team Popp home this year from the World Championships in Italy, all four siblings qualified for the 2014 U.S. Wildwater Team, and they each have plans in the pipeline: from dental school to National Dragon Boat Teams and Wildwater World Championships.
“Paddling together as a family allows us to travel together and look after one another on the river,” says Team Popp. “We all have a common interest, which has helped us bond as a family. Kayaking has allowed us to get out and enjoy nature, to meet people from around the world, and get a broader perspective on life. The earth is a beautiful place and we can’t enjoy it by sitting inside!”
Dane Jackson | Freestyle Kayaking
The hardest were probably the lunar orbit, helix, and straight airscrew,” says Dane Jackson, rattling off the names of some absurdly difficult playboat maneuvers. “I just get out on the water as much as possible and work on whatever needs working on.”
The 20-year-old Jackson, from Rock Island, Tenn., might just be the best kayaker in the world today. He is a World Champion Freestyle Kayaker with gold medals in multiple disciplines —rivers running through his veins and paddling in his bones. His dad, Eric, who founded and owns Jackson Kayak, and his sister, Emily, are also both world champions.
“When I was born, my dad was already a world champion and career kayaker,” says Jackson. “So right away I was put in the center of kayaking. For six years my family lived in an RV and traveled around to wherever seemed best for kayaking at the time.”
Growing up on rivers, Jackson has been making a splash in the kayaking world since he was small. Now one of the best, Jackson’s talents have taken him on adventures across the globe, from nearly drowning at the bottom of a waterfall in Newfoundland at age 14 to taking consecutive Whitewater Grand Prix titles on Chile’s Rio Futaleufu, and paddling from the creeks of Tennessee to the rushing rapids of the Nile and the Zambezi in Africa.
“There are too many memories to choose a favorite,” he quips. “Anything from my first combat roll to my first world championship win. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fairly smooth road to this point, but kayaking has taught me to always be humble and live every day to the fullest.”
“The incredible kayaking community, the places I get to go, and the thrill of just being out on the water in a kayak all keep me motivated to get out there and keep pushing the sport. I want to continue being able to kayak all over the world. There are too many places on my bucket list to mention them all, but Russia, China, and Alaska are a good start.”
Phil Aslinger | Wakeboarding
“I hated the lake back then and just wanted to play baseball,” recalls professional wakeboarder Phil Aslinger. “Then my dad and brother got me to wakeboard at Chester Frost right before my eleventh birthday… I was hooked as soon as I got up the first time. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was all I wanted to do.”
Now, years later, Aslinger wakeboards competitively and is sponsored by Byerly Boards and Rockstar Energy. In 2008, while still in high school, Aslinger placed 5th at Nationals. He graduated a semester early and spent the winter of 2009 living in the Byerly Wake Team’s Tour Bus in Orlando, Fla., training and competing heavily as their rookie rider, making multiple podium finishes and competing at the Junior Masters at Calloway Gardens.
“That was a pretty huge point in my career,” says Aslinger. “I was never the best at controlling my anxiety at competitions. That got a lot better as I got older, stronger, and more confident. Nowadays I really love the pressure that competition brings, but being in Tennessee most of the time was hard because I wasn’t around the industry as much as others. And freezing my butt off riding here in the winter isn’t much fun. It took a lot of resources to travel to Florida and get practice in during the winter. I missed out on a lot of high school stuff. In the end I just had to have that extra drive every day to stay with it.”
Since earning sponsorships in 2009, Aslinger has balanced the professional wakeboarding life with his studies at UTC. He has placed in various wakeboarding competitions across the country every year since then. After he graduates from UTC this spring he plans on upping his training, getting back into more frequent competition, and working hard to be an asset to sponsors. At the end of the day, out on the water, he’ll still be smiling.