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VOL. 130 | NO. 118 | Thursday, June 18, 2015

Canoes, Kayaks Line Up for Outdoors Inc.'s Memphis Race

By Don Wade

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Mike Herbert, a Pan American Games gold medalist in kayak racing, will be the first to say that you just don’t know who you might meet on the water. All kinds of people step into a canoe or a kayak and get hooked.

Rob Browne, right, and Boyd Wade train for the 29th annual Outdoors Inc. Canoe & Kayak Race near the mouth of the Wolf River. Wade has raced in the event 28 times and Browne 16 times.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“Our sport does draw people from different walks of life,” said Herbert, who with about 500 others will compete in the 34th annual Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race on Saturday, June 20, in Memphis. “You could find a mechanical engineer or a backwoods person.”

Or you could find 54-year-old Herbert, described by the race’s founder and director Joe Royer as “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.”

A nice guy who destroys that whole “nice guys finish last” theory, and still is as tough as they come.

Let’s start with how Herbert got into a canoe in the first place. He was a 15-year-old cross country runner in Rogers, Ark., when he was in a motorcycle accident and broke both legs in multiple places. He couldn’t walk for almost a year.

His father decided it might be good for young Mike to get in a canoe and paddle. At least he could start working on his upper body strength. That turned into father and son entering and winning races.

And that turned into an international career that included winning gold medals in the Pan Am Games, including in 1991 when Herbert defeated Cuba’s Angel Perez, who already had won three gold medals, in the 1,000-meter kayak singles.

The best part of the story? Cuba’s president at the time, one Fidel Castro, handed Herbert his medal and saluted during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. That single act made news worldwide. Herbert didn’t even realize he had inspired an international incident, positive though it was, until later.

“I just knew he had a strong dislike for the United States,” Herbert said. “It was an honor to have him salute our country like that.”

Herbert also is known for wrestling and pinning Victor the Bear, an allegedly 8-foot-tall, 725-pound declawed and muzzled bear that a trainer and promoter would entice men to wrestle with the tease of winning a Camaro Z-28 if they could win.

At the 1987 Pan Am Games, where Herbert also won gold, he told the Los Angeles Times, “It looked to me like the best thing to do was just kind of pick the old bear up, toss him down, and plop down on him. So that’s what I did.”

Herbert says he never got the car. But a lot of people have Camaros. Who has both a Victor the Bear story and a Fidel Castro story?

As for the race, he is coming this year just a couple of weeks removed from a bout with Rocky Mountain spotted fever: “Got bit by the wrong tic.”

“It’s always been a real good event,” said Herbert, who won in 2001 and 2013 here. “It’s always been competitive. That’s one of the reasons I race it.”

In recent years Royer moved the race from May to June to get better weather, to hopefully avoid a repeat of floods and tornado warnings and to let the Mississippi River warm just a touch.

“The water is still cool,” Royer said. “But this has turned out to be more stable.”

As always, Royer’s first goal is to put on safe event. Next goal, start on time, then get the results right, hand out the awards, and clean up the park and leave it neater than what they got there.

“If you don’t have any injuries, then the party’s great,” Royer said.

Among the other notable competitors this year: Greg Barton, double Olympic gold medalist for the United States and six-time winner of this event; Karen Lukanovich, Canadian Olympic team member; and Kata Dismukes of Cordova, who set the women’s course record last year.

Paddler Magazine of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, voted the event the Best Race in America. Canoe and Kayak Magazine, which recently named Memphis among its best paddling towns in the nation, called the Outdoors Inc. event the South’s biggest paddling event. Canoe and Kayak also pointed to the event’s signature mass start, where novice paddlers can be right next to Olympic gold medalists.

“Joe does a great job of including everyone, from the elite paddlers to the novices,” Herbert said.

For more information about the event, which begins at 10 a.m., go to www.OutdoorsInc.com. Registration closes at 6 p.m. Friday.

Herbert loves the competition, of course, but more and more he loves the experience. Same as he did the first time he got in a canoe.

“When you get on the water and connect your paddle to the water it’s a good feeling,” he said. “You never know as you get older when your last paddle is going to be, so I try to enjoy every day I have with it.”

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