The afternoon sun filters through the August haze, glinting off
the Oakleys of the early arrivals behind the Jones Beach
amphitheater on Long Island. On stage a roadie is testing a
guitar, sending power chords ripping through the thick, sticky
air. Shouting to be heard above the din, freestyle kayaking
phenom Rusty Sage is detailing the virtues of his summer job.
It's hard to pay attention, however, when 15 feet away Sheryl
Crow is bouncing up and down on a trampoline in a half-shirt,
like some sugarplum vision out of an Adam Carolla dream.
"It's so cool," Sage says of teaching kayaking at the Jeep World
Outside Festival, a music-and-adventure-sports tour. "We get
55-year-old women who have never done it, and they come out just
going superhard, just digging in the water and--what's that?"
He's interrupted by a bystander's question. "Yeah, that's
Sheryl, she's pretty cool, comes out and messes around sometimes
before her shows. But like I was saying...."
Like he was saying, Sage, 21, had one of the coolest summer gigs
in history. While his housemates at Northern California's Chico
State were spending the off months lifeguarding, completing
internships or taking classes, Sage was touring the country in a
rock-band bus, hanging with groupies, splashing around in a
portable wave pool all day and getting paid handsomely to do it.
It wasn't, he admits, the worst way to spend almost two months.
Viewed from the flip side, it was also quite an opportunity for
the spectators, in the case of Jones Beach, a collection of
well-tanned women and thick-necked men in FDNY T-shirts. They
showed up at the all-day concert to hear the roster of
adult-lite performers--Crow, Train, Five for Fighting--and then
had the chance to learn from Sage and three other world-class
paddlers: Erica Mitchell, Jamie Cooper and Jimmy Blakeney. (The
adventure "village" also had mountain biking, ski jumping, scuba
and trampoline exhibitions.) It was the equivalent of Kobe and
Shaq teaching Pop-a-Shot in the parking lot outside a Jay-Z
This is the life of a star in a sport that most people have no
idea exists. Even those who are vaguely familiar with kayaking
tend to envision the traditional slalom discipline, in which
paddlers run rivers in long, sleek boats while steering through
gates, much like a downhill skier. Freestylers, on the other
hand, are the river's answer to halfpipe skate rats, cavorting,
spinning, cartwheeling and flipping through waves and rapids in
short, stubby boats that are compact enough to be launched
airborne. Though freestyling is growing rapidly, flourishing at
whitewater rodeos, man-made water parks and river
competitions--it's still a laid-back, grassroots,
yeah-dude-let's-rip-it-up pastime, one that is many, many
organizing committees removed from the Olympics--or even the X
If there is a face that will carry this sport to the masses, as
Tony Hawk brought skateboarding to the suburbs, it may very well
be Sage, who has the whole package: bleached-blond, boy-next-door
good looks, an action hero's name, killer moves and an ambitious
plan, which combined with his engineering background will enable
him to, he hopes, effectively reinvent the kayak. "He's a total
badass," says Brad Ludden, 21, a top freestyler who won a silver
at the 1999 worlds. "He gets more air than anyone I've ever seen.
He's one of those guys who everyone else wants to be like."
The video clip starts, and all one can see is a small man in a
small boat amid big waves, a river that looks for all the world
like an ocean, no shoreline in sight. It is the Slave River in
the Northwest Territories, and the paddler is Sage, who is
competing for last year's Big Air Championship. Entering a swell,
he pushes down with the front of his boat, a technique called
preloading, and then shoots into the air like a cork that's been
submerged. Rising up, his kayak rotates and barrel-rolls in the
air like an F-16 before splashing back down. The move won him the
competition and even more love from the kayaking community.
Smooth and efficient on the water, Sage has a rare combination of
technical skill--he was a slalom kayaker until he was 15--and
freestyle freakiness, both on the river and in saltwater. On a
recent ocean-surf trip to Indonesia, he pulled off what tourmate
and current women's world champion Mitchell calls "epic stuff
that had everyone talking. He was just slicing up the waves." One
of the first paddlers to perform blunts (180-degree turns off a
wave), Sage and Tyler Curtis, 24, also became the first kayakers
to execute an assisted tow-in, on Manitoba's Winnipeg River in
late August. Pulled by a Sea-Doo, Sage went downriver at 18 mph,
which allowed him to boost off the waves and catch, he estimates,
10 to 15 feet of air. Considering that kayakers have only been
able to catch air at all for about two years now, it was a great
leap forward, or at least upward. "By far, it's the highest I've
gotten," he says. "I'd pop off the top and then look down at the
trough, so far below. It even hurt when I hit the water."
Sage has since flown back to Chico State to continue working
toward his degree in mechanical engineering. "That's the thing
about Rusty," explains Blakeney, a two-time U.S. freestyle team
member. "Since he's in school, he pops up once in a while and
does sick stuff, then disappears. Imagine what he'd be doing if
he was on the water all year round."
That he's not is a testament to his mom, Michelle, who drilled
one thing into her son's head from his childhood: Get a degree.
After Rusty's father, Michael Sage, an army helicopter pilot, was
killed by a drunk driver, Michelle raised the boy, then two, by
herself, putting off school. But six years and many part-time
courses later, she got her degree in art education from
California State University. An elementary school art teacher,
she was the one who introduced Rusty to whitewater, taking him
along when she ran summer rafting trips on the South Fork of the
American River, not far from their home in Orangevale, a
Sacramento suburb. By age nine Rusty was in a kayak, and by 15 he
was winning competitions, including taking first in freestyle at
the junior worlds. Still, when it came time to choose school or a
full-time pro career, the books came first. "Sometimes I feel a
bit locked down, because I know I could be out there paddling 200
or 300 days a year and traveling," says Sage, who used the money
he earned this summer to pay for his fall tuition. "But there
will be time for that."
Despite Chico State's (well-deserved) party reputation, Sage is
no slacker. His list of classes includes thermodynamics,
circuitry, and engineering courses heavy in computer-aided
differential equations. For his final design project next year
(he is in the fourth year of a five-year program), he plans to
build a modified kayak. His preliminary ideas include installing
a bulkhead in the nose of the boat to act as a shock absorber.
(A common problem in the sport is broken ankles, sustained when
a kayaker T-bones onto a rock during a drop.) A second idea
involves adding a boost factor he doesn't want to reveal yet
(though he is speaking with big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton about
the particulars). His goal is to get a master's in hydrodynamics
and design water parks. "But," he says, "I also want to ride
this pro thing as long as I can."
From watching him work the crowd at the Jeep World Outside
Festival, it seemed that could be an awfully long time. Amiable
and easygoing, he helped people into boats and demonstrated the
basic strokes in the wave pool, a 20-foot-long, five-foot-deep
tank with a waterfall at one end that creates not only a hole,
but also the impression that the paddlers are bobbing in a giant
Japanese koi pool. At Jones Beach a stagehand with VH1 hair gave
it a go and flipped three times in five minutes but still exited
beaming, if soaked. "Bitchin'!" he said to Sage, who smiled back.
"The key to all this is that you have to be able to convey how
much fun kayaking is," said Blakeney as he sat tankside. "You
can't be like, 'I'm the s---,' or have an ego. And that's exactly
why Rusty's so good at this. He's perfect for the sport."
Already Sage has three major sponsors, which makes him one of the
few kayakers who can support himself. He says he would like to
augment that income by getting into commercial acting. "I try not
to think of it as selling out but as securing my future," he says
with a laugh. With his boyish face (he shaves once a week) and
eight-pack stomach, he's been a hit with ladies on the tour,
though his fellow paddlers call him the ultimate gentleman. Then
there's the name. His given handle is Charles Russell Sage III,
which sounds about as agro as Donald Rumsfeld. But shortened to
Rusty--by his aunt, when he was a toddler--it is a ready-made
Before freestyle is ready for the mainstream, however, Sage
thinks there needs to be more innovation. Sitting in the tour
bus, a colossus that includes a TV, a DVD player, 12 bunk beds
and not one but two continually stocked beer "wells," Sage
showed off footage on his iBook and spoke of what's next. "I
think of it like skateboarding," he said as sipped from a Sierra
Nevada. "I want to be able to do all the same flip tricks, like
a 360 with a twist or an Impossible, which is a full front
flip." He explained, however, that for him to get better, the
boats need to get better, both in freestyle and surf. On the
trip to Indonesia, Sage felt he was limited by his gear. "It's
all about design catching up to execution," he said. "The goal
is to do everything that a surfboard can do, and that's all
about creating lighter, better kayaks. Or maybe even changing
them altogether. Maybe we might have to sit on our knees,
whatever it takes."
As he talked, his busmates sprawled on the onboard couches,
drinking beer, eating chips and preparing for another night on
the road. The muffled sound of a guitar solo could be heard from
outside, and the smells of a concert--sweat, smoke and
sinsemilla--wafted in whenever the door opened. It was a long way
from the wilds of California, this asphalt island on a New York
island, and the opaque waters of the wave tank were a far cry
from the rapids of Hood River. But Sage understands that kayaking
is a sport you have to bring to the people, not the other way
around. So the next day he would do it all over again, this time
in Virginia Beach, just another college kid stretching out an
COLOR PHOTO: JOCK BRADLEY GOING DEEP Sage's resume is full of splashy descents like this one on California's Kaweah River.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II THE HOLE PACKAGE Sage projects the image of the personable boy next door, but he's "a total badass" in the water.
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II ON TOUR The Chico State senior's summer gig included teaching his sport during the day and leading a rock star's life at night.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMES LOZEAU SERIOUS UPS During his history-making tow-in, Sage was pulled into some big waves, where he caught even bigger air.
If there is a face that will carry this sport to the masses, as
Tony Hawk did for skateboarding, it may very well be Sage.
"I think of kayaking like skateboarding. I want to be able
to do all the same flip tricks, like a 360 with a twist."