Ask Jerry Kappel how he is faring, and his response is invariably the same: “Good, always good!” The octogenarian kayaker is not just being polite. At 81, Kappel’s joie de vivre knows no bounds. After decades spent on the water, he maintains an infectious enthusiasm and passion for paddling. The sport provides him with a sense of purpose and community. Kappel’s youthful spirit and love of whitewater kayaking offer a special source of inspiration for others, whether paddlers or not.
Kappel has been an athlete and paddling-community builder throughout his life. As a young man living in Czechoslovakia (what we know today as the Czech Republic), Kappel built kayaks by hand and partnered with other paddlers to explore new rivers. They promoted the sport by organizing and running river trips for kayakers and canoeists. In 1968, Kappel defected to Calgary and continued kayaking in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.
In 1969 he had a podium finish in a 160 kilometre kayak race from Banff to Calgary that featured international paddlers. He traveled back to the Czech Republic to compete in the Adrenaline Cup race series between 2010 and 2014. Now, at the start of his ninth decade of life, he remains an avid paddler and has become a well-known fixture in Calgary’s paddling scene.
Harvie Passage, Calgary’s local whitewater play park, is just minutes from the seniors’ housing complex where Kappel lives. This is where you can find him most days when the river is flowing. Whether he is joining the mix of up-and-coming young boaters or coaching older athletes new to the sport, you can spot Kappel moving gracefully across the rushing water with a smile on his face and a determined glint in his eyes.
During the off-season, he takes his boat to the community pool, to keep his strokes solid and rolling skills sharp. He also regularly goes to the YMCA to maintain his strength and flexibility. Kappel has trained in Judo and Ki Aikido which lends itself nicely to the dynamic and responsive movements required by whitewater paddling.
“I do engage in general exercise, but mainly I do it to prepare for other adventures.”Jerry Kappel
Kappel continues to push his skills. With a cataract surgery behind him, he had his sights set on paddling the left channel at Harvie Passage – a section of Class 3 whitewater on the Bow River – during the summer of 2020. Kappel would be among the oldest to run this stretch of whitewater.
Like all athletes, however, his ability to train was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic as the facilities he accessed were shuttered. Pair that with a shoulder injury he suffered early last season and Kappel has had to put his plans to run the left channel at Harvie Passage on hold. As he bides his time, Kappel is not sitting still. This past winter, Kappel put over 25 days on his downhill and Nordic skis. “I am always happy if I do something exciting,” says Kappel.
For those lucky to know him, Kappel is a wellspring of positivity. His attitude and approach to life challenge perceptions about what is possible for an aging athlete. Watching Kappel playing on the water or laughing with fellow boaters while resting in an eddy is a potent reminder of how we can each engage in lifelong activities that nurture our bodies and souls as we age well.
Photos by Graham McKerrell
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