Indiana Jones meets Waterworld
Plunge over a 30-foot waterfall? No problem If it puts a smile on your face and doesn't kill you, dream it, do it, kayaker tells students
Life flows like whitewater for adventuresome kayaker Jesse Coombs. An extreme sport himself, he spoke to Estes Park middle schoolers about extreme sports and making good life choices last Thursday.
Coombs, named one of the finalists for National Geographic Adventure magazine's 2006 Adventurer of the Year award and Adventure Hero of 2007, for kayaking down unthinkable stretches of the world's most remote and untamed creeks, rivers and waterfalls, made it all sound like such fun. Even the part where he's traveling in Colombia, surrounded by jungles, canyon walls, cocaine traffickers with machetes and a river that drops between hotel-sized boulders as it turns north into a committed gorge held siege by paramilitary on the right bank, known for taking prisoners as ransom, and leftist guerillas on the left bank, who have traded farming tools for automatic machine guns.
He's kind of an Indiana Jones meets Waterworld. Perhaps that life isn't for everybody. But Coombs said that whatever your dream is, you should go after it with as much zest. His cousin, Anne Dewey, language arts teacher at the middle school, invited him to speak to the students before school let out for the summer. He encouraged them to follow their passion (even if it's down a waterfall), get an education and avoid drugs.
Coombs, who is sponsored by such companies as Timex, NorthFace, Silvertree clothing and kayak manufacturers, has kayaked all over the world.
He resides in Oregon now, but he grew up in Pennsylvania, where he played ice hockey. He went to Rutgers, and studied industrial engineering. A job with Hewlett-Packard took him to Oregon, where he received an MBA from Oregon State. He's not just another sporty face.
After working for Hewlett-Packard for eight years, he decided he didn't want to be a corporate employee. You have to figure out your choices in life and what's important, he told students.
He was introduced to extreme sports, such as adventure racing and eco-sports. Rock climbing and kayaking became passions.
They're fun and I was good at them, he said.
Through contacts, he branched out into obtaining sponsorships and making kayaking films.
A friend suggested he get into real estate investment.
There's a lesson, he said. You don't know what you want until you know what you don't want.
As an example, he cited a previous job he had as a ski instructor at Keystone.
It sounds like fun, but it's full of politics, he said.
In addition, the money is small, and the egos are big.
On the surface, it sounds like fun, but it's not, he said.
So, even though he thought he didn't want to be in real estate, he decided to try it. He was looking for a more meaningful career than a corporate job provided.
In my heart, I was not becoming the person I wanted to be, he said.
Additionally, when he told his parents about the real estate career move, they both cautioned him that it sounded risky and to be careful.
Dad doesn't like it, I know I'm doing something important, he said. Mom didn't like it, I know it's something important. When you're doing something that makes everyone uncomfortable, you know you're onto something big. You're stretching your limits, pushing the boundaries. When you do what everyone else does, you get what everyone else gets.
At the same time, your intentions need to be honorable, he said.
If you're mean to your teachers or your parents, if you don't study, you won't get a meaningful life, Coombs said.
He began investing in real estate.
I worked hard. I had a big goal and made sacrifices, he said.
He left Hewlett-Packard behind. While not becoming a millionaire in real estate, he found it provided him the freedom to live the kind of life he wanted.
You take care of your responsibilities, he said, but there's extra freedom and you apply that to your passion.
He applied that freedom to kayaking and his professional paddling career took off down river.
I'm here (at Estes Park Middle School) today because I'm a kayaker, he said. It's exciting.
Although he's been in life-threatening situations a few times, overall kayaking is safer than recreational swimming, he said. He cited the statistics: one in three recreational swimmers will be in a life-threatening situation; the numbers for kayakers are one in 10.
Kayaking gets a bad rap, he said.
A teacher pointed out that Coombs was in a roomful of swimmers and climbers.
Coombs said, These are confident choices for me. You make your own confident choices.
He encouraged students to set goals that they are not sure they can accomplish. When he first wanted to become a professional kayaker, it was ridiculous, when I started out. Those guys are from another planet. (I thought) I'm not that good. But having a goal that stretches you is important, he said.
He took an informal poll of students' goals. Among those in the audience, the students wanted to:
- go to MIT and be a mathematician
- go to South America and climb
- be an oncologist
- be an Olympic swimmer (2)
- be an Olympic gymnast
- go to Santa Monica University and be an actor
- run across America
- go to culinary school.
Coombs said the students had made the first step on their journey.
You need to verbalize your goals, he said. Make a conscious effort for it. Be committed to it. Some goals are more difficult than others. But you can't (let yourself) be waylaid. Push until you get it. Beauty is in the effort, the process of learning.
To reach your goal, be honest. Don't cheat or take advantage of others, he said.
Asked how you know if something is right or wrong, he explained, If you have to use logic to explain why it's right, it's wrong. Every time you make a decision, if you know it's right and you don't have to think about it, that's probably the right thing to do. If you have to use your logic to make it right, it's not.
Eat crow fresh
Coombs talked of eating crow, fresh " if you make a mistake, admit it and go on. That will inspire people's trust, he said.
Big goals engender big emotions. He asked students what emotions they attach to their goals. The answers: excitement; fear; nervousness; confidence; a sense of being overwhelmed.
Coombs agreed. I look at my goals and am overwhelmed, he said.
However, he says to underachieve every day " do something little toward your goal daily " and it will seem less daunting.
Show your commitment to your goal with every small action, he said.
He carries a copy of his written goals in his wallet. He suggested to the students, aged 11 and 12, that they make 10-year goals, and that those goals should include college.
You don't want to be an athlete without an education, he said.
What you don't want is to reach the age of 28, have no college degree and be out of luck. Regardless of your background, you can achieve, he said.
You can be a quadriplegic. Is that the end of you? he asked the students. You can come from poverty. Is that the end of you?
We all have different challenges. Where you end up is your choice, your responsibility. It lies nowhere else. The end result is your responsibility. Until you take ownership, you'll never be what you want to be. Your outcome lies on your shoulders, he said.
That is good, because you can either change a pattern to make yourself successful or take credit for your success, he said. Because of his passion for his goal, he has gotten to kayak, travel, has made money and lives the life of my dreams, he said. I designed it that way.
To be successful, keep a sense of humor and keep smiling, he said.
Make sure you're laughing, he said. You're in charge of your emotions. If you're not happy, you own it. I'm generally 95 percent of the time, happy. Hating somebody else is like taking poison and hoping they die. Avoid those people who are hurtful. If they're mean, don't let it affect you.
Consider your friends who create drama, and ask yourself whether you are creating drama for others, he said.
Drama is not helping your life, he said. If (people) do something that makes you unhappy, let them know. If they continue to do it, stop interacting with them. Get them out of your life, but don't be mean or a jerk.
The five people you spend the most time with in a day are the greatest influence on where you're going. Think absolutely about who you choose as friends and why. I'm very deliberate about who I choose as friends…. I invite good people into my life every chance I get. Those people affect my outcome and they're more fun to be with. The choice you just made will affect your next choice, he said.
He suggested students choose to tell their parents they love them " out of the blue " and watch what happens. Appreciate others and they'll appreciate you back. Smiling is a lot of power. Be empowering your outcome all day long, he said.
Because drugs drain the power from life choices, Coombs makes it a point to discourage students from using them.
He started the Jesse Coombs Foundation to positively influence youth to choose a life free of drugs. We introduce children to outdoor sports in a comfortable setting and talk with them about the damage caused by drugs. We help the children understand that the greatest excitements in life are achieved without drugs.The hope of the Jesse Coombs Foundation is that we can use role models who live lives the children would desire for themselves, to influence children to say 'No' to drugs.
Coombs said he is giving back, by helping kids to make good choices and take the power.
You take something you love and use it to fight something you hate, he said. I use kayaking to fight drugs, to encourage kids to stay off drugs.
He asked the students why people use drugs. The answers included: to be cool; to feel good; to escape; to hang out; to fight depression and to go along with peer pressure.
Drugs don't make you any happier, he said. I'm as happy as anybody out there. I wouldn't be anything I am, if I'd been doing drugs. The choice and the outcome is yours.
I have friends I paddle with who do drugs. I keep my mouth shut. We're adults. It's their choice, he said. But be very careful with drugs and alcohol. They can be very dangerous.
Kayaking down waterfalls is not scary
And this, from a man who plunges over waterfalls for a living. He maintains that kayaking down waterfalls is not scary. He considers the fun versus the fear factor when making a choice.
If the fun factor is higher than the concern factor, I'll do it, he said.
His favorite place to kayak is in Chile, at a spot that is now covered with ash after a volcano erupted there. He called the scenery unbelievable and the river amazing.
Even with the travel and excitement of his sport, he emphasized to students, Always come from a good academic background. Don't shortchange yourself. A lot of athletes don't get support. You use that as leverage to get exposure. That's how you garner the most money.
Sports he has played include wrestling, soccer, lacrosse, football and swimming. He said he was good at ice hockey, skiing and snowboarding and is an okay rock climber.
Ice hockey was the worst for injuries, he said. However, his broken hand last winter while he was kayaking in Newfoundland stopped him from kayaking awhile. He suffered an open fracture of four bones, requiring eight pins and three surgeries.
The athlete bristles at the doctors' question: Are you going to stop kayaking now?
Oh sure, he joked back, as soon as you stop doctoring. Just because you stumble doesn't mean you stop. I came back stronger than ever.
Coombs said those people who tell him to be careful, so he won't get hurt, are putting their limitations on me.
When you succeed in athletics or a relationship or jobs, it's a combination of the physical and the mental. I want to help you guys get ahead, he told the students.
He was invited to speak at the College of Business at the University of Oregon. Coombs told Estes Park middle schoolers they heard practically the same message he delivered to college students. He was featured in a 2007 Mens Fitness story on training to run big waterfalls; Paddler Magazine named him the Top Adventurer for 2006 and he was a featured paddler in a film, Hotel Charley: River of Doubt, produced by clearh20films, which has been on tour throughout the country.
National Geographic Adventure magazine wrote about the film, On the Rio Buey, outside Medellin, Colombia, Ben Stookesberry and Jesse Coombs were warned not to leave the water, for fear of running afoul of the guerillas and paramilitaries that controlled the opposite banks, and ended up making a dramatic descent of a 60-foot waterfall instead.Known as 'two ordinary guys doing extraordinary things,' they have become legends in a kayaking world.
This was not lost on the students, who asked for autographs after the talk and compared notes on their own sports.
Men's Fitness said you are well-suited for whitewater kayaking if you have ever looked into the window of a circulating front-loader washing machine and thought, What if?
A student asked Coombs whether he had received a scholarship for sports, and the athlete replied, I was almost a good enough hockey player, but that he had not received any scholarship. He is a professional kayaker now.
Asked about injuries, he said that last year he suffered his first in the nine years since he's been a professional kayaker. He started at age 28, and said, It's never too late to begin the life you want.
Time definitely favors the students, however.
Your power is your age, he told them. When a young person shows drive, everyone is galvanized. A motivated young person can create more energy around an idea than an older person. Everybody wants to help you. Youth is on your side.
He suggested that students find a mentor.
Find someone who does what you want to do, he said. Write them a letter, a couple of paragraphs on why you admire them " with meaningful praise, then tell them about yourself and ask for advice. I bet you get a response. If you did that twice a year until you reached your goal, you'd have a great set of allies. And you never reach your goal on your own, you always have help.
For more information on Coombs, see his Web site at jessecoombs.com.