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Original Issue

Splashy Pair Jimmy Blakeney and Erica Mitchell are the power couple of freestyle kayaking

On the surface it sounds like your typical tale of a child star
gone bad. At age 13 Erica Mitchell was attending Cincinnati's
School for the Performing Arts--her classmates included the guys
who went on to form the group 98[degrees]--and costarring with
Olivia Newton-John in the 1990 Yuletide TV movie A Mom for
Christmas. Five years later she was living in a van with three

Before you lump her in with Todd Bridges, consider that she was
gainfully employed. Well, maybe not so gainfully. A competitive
kayaker since age 12, when an uncle and her dad introduced her
to the sport, Mitchell was so gifted a paddler that she grabbed
the attention of officials from Wavesport, a whitewater kayak
maker. "She was one of the first pro kayakers to be put on the
road by a manufacturer," says her husband, Jimmy Blakeney, who's
also a top paddler. "They gave her 70 bucks a week, a van and a
gas card and said, 'O.K., go to every competition you can.'
That's how this whole thing started."

"This whole thing" is the professional freestyle kayak circuit,
and in the six years since Mitchell and her three teammates
started turning their big water tricks at whitewater rodeos, the
sport and Mitchell have exploded. Last year Mitchell, 24, won the
2001 world championship in Spain and is expected to make a
similar splash when the American Whitewater Freestyle (AWF) tour
begins next month.

Blakeney, 30, is no slouch either. After growing up
skateboarding and snowboarding, he got hooked on kayaking while
pursuing graduate studies at Virginia Tech. He got his master's
in 1997--the same year he met Mitchell at an event on
Tennessee's Ocoee River--and has been teaching ever since. This
winter he taught math and coached paddling at Adventure Quest, a
boarding school of sorts in which young kayakers travel the
world in search of big water in addition to pursuing their
academic studies. Blakeney also coaches his wife, and the fact
that they've been happily hitched since September 2000 speaks
well for his patience as an instructor. "It can be frustrating
at times," says Mitchell. "I'm kind of hardheaded, but to be
where I need to be as an athlete, having Jimmy as my coach is a
huge plus."

--Mark Bechtel

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Whatever floats your boatOnce upon a time Mitchell costarred with Olivia Newton-John; now her costar--who happens to be her coach and husband--is Blakeney.