Interview with a Champion: Rusty Sage

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He did it ten years ago and he’s done it again: for the second time Rusty Sage proved he’s the man to beat by winning the High Performance Finals at the World Kayak Surf Championships held last October in Basque Country, Spain. In an impressive display Rusty put a six point spread between himself and Sean Morely, who finished second. When he isn’t tearing up the surf, Rusty can be found running drops in the Sierras and playboating wherever there’s a big wave at hand.

PL: How does it feel to take back a title you won ten years ago? Is it even better than winning it the first time?

RS: Yes, winning the championship this past year is an incredible feeling. I injured my ribs mid-way through the week and it was extremely painful forcing certain maneuvers. I had to change my style a bit and make everything very smooth and critical. I paddled to the best of my ability on that particular day and made the best with the waves that were given to me, for that I am very happy.

The sport has come a long way in ten years; the level of competition and the maneuvers are incredible. I am glad to have been a part of it for so long and to witness and assist in the evolution.

The first time I won, I didn’t realize the significance of winning the world championships. Now I understand how incredible that feeling is and how difficult it is to obtain this title. I appreciate it much more this time around.

PL: What did you do to beat Sean Morely? Was there one move that really sealed the deal?

RS: Sean, Edu and Chris all paddled incredible in the final heat. I was fortunate to get a couple of waves towards the end of the heat that lined up perfectly for me, and I made the best of them.

My last wave was the clincher, in my mind. I took off pretty deep and Chris “Air” Harvey was on it as well, but I had the right of way. He kept checking back to see if the waves going to close and it lined up perfectly for me, so he got off (so no interference would be called) and I made two big snap turns in the critical section. This was in the last two minutes of the heat and I rode the wave into the beach with a great feeling that I did my best.

PL: How much did you train before heading out to Spain, and what boat do you usually compete in?

RS: I spent about six-eight weeks before the event in my Reaction (surf boat) about four-eight times a week on all different types of waves. I also was cross-training for the worlds by kite-surfing about three-five times a week as well. I was fortunate to not have a job at this time; I was living the dream in my sprinter.

PL: What’s the difference between the surf kayak scene and the freestyle river scene these days? You’ve now won World titles in both disciplines.

RS: The surf scene is great, hanging by the beach watching your buddies push their limits and get terrified, then fire it up and try it again. At the Santa Cruz event this year it was great to see all different types of new crafts that are available in the ocean. It is very similar to the freestyle scene about ten years ago; an exciting vibe, new designs/ideas, everyone knows each other, and incredible competition.

PL: What type of gear do you use out in the water?

RS: It is very important to blend in as much as possible with the surf scene; I wear mainly neoprene type of material. It has been used for decades in salt water and doesn’t give a nasty neck rash at the end of the day. Depending on whether it is winter, I wear a long sleeve 0.5-1.0 skin top connected to bottom, a Dakine impact vest, Gath Helmet, AT2 Flex Shaft (192 r45), and Oakley board shorts. I got a lot of that stuff from Murrays.

PL: What’s the difference between today’s surf culture and paddling culture? Where’s the sport of surf kayaking heading?

RS: It’s amazing how two groups can be so similar, yet so far apart at the same time. We’re both water people and need to be in water and to be scared at one point or another in our session. We love every minute of being challenged by nature and have full respect of Mother Nature and the causes and effects that we have on it. We are people with passion for our bodies and passion for travel.

The Surf culture is at times aggressive in particular areas due to overcrowding. This overcrowding creates, at times, an uneasy tension in the water at popular spots, similar to that at Hell Hole on the Ocoee.

The more that I think about this the more that I realize the two cultures are very similar. I recently had a late session north of Santa Cruz and had a beach fire with random friends that I just met, and we were all united on the common bond of passion for the water. Just like a fire next to the river, sharing stories, drinking beer, and trying to stay out of the way of the smoke. It’s all about the good time.

PL: Been getting any river boating in lately?

RS: I haven’t been as much as I have wanted to recently. The rivers are just coming up here in the Sierra’s which is exciting and will fire me up for some trips. I have been basing my play schedule based on what the weather has in store for me, on a powder day I go snowboarding, when it is windy and there are waves I go kite-surfing, when the dirt is tacky I go mountain biking, and now that the snow is melting it’s time for river running.

PL: You took third in World Cup Men’s at the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival and 4th in the Wave Ski Open…how did that event differ from the Worlds in Spain? Anything in particular that Chris Harvey and Matt Radis did better than you in Santa Cruz?

RS: The Wave Ski Open is a sit-on-top craft meant for the waves. This type of surfing is extremely popular in Australia, South Africa, and France. These crafts are the most maneuverable/radical type of sit-down craft that can surf a wave. I have been using one for the last couple of months working big snaps, airs and balance.

During the Finals of the Santa Cruz Surf Festival I was extremely tired from making two finals and the conditions were changing big time. I was paddling out after a couple of minutes in the World Cup finals heat and Chris “Air” Harvey boosted a huge air right in front of me, and I couldn’t help but be stoked and completely demoralized at the same time. Last year I didn’t make the finals and he took my two year reign from me, and at that moment I knew that he had his own two year reign of Santa Cruz, he deserved the win and it was an incredible move. I watched Matt “Rad” Radis take off on some beautiful waves, he was positioned for the best waves of the heat, and he made the best of them.

The event was incredible, some of the best waves that I have seen throughout a contest. We can only hope that it can continue for another 22 years.

PL: Any other big events coming up that you have your eyes on?

RS: We are just finalizing the World Cup Finals slated for September 14-20th in France. I will be coordinating this, I am not sure if I will be competing yet. I will be at the Waveski Nationals in October in Ventura, CA.

PL: As well as being a professional kayaker you’re a professional engineer. What kind of constraints does that place on your travels? What are some current projects you’re working on?

RS: I’ve been fortunate to have traveled a ton while I was in high school and college, so if I only make it out of the country once or twice this year I won’t be all that bummed. Working and having a job is a great thing to fall back on when the “Fun Train” runs out of steam. I have a vision of where I want to be and it doesn’t come without hard work.

I am working in the Photovoltaic industry; I propose, sell and design solar electric systems for residential and commercial systems around the Bay Area. It is a growing and exciting field to be in, and I am learning a ton about running a small business in one of the most entrepreneurial areas of the world, Silicon Valley. It’s a great experience, and I get to live by the beach no complaints.

PL: Any advice for the aspiring surf kayakers out there?

RS: Safety – never go outside your comfort zone, just like the river there are serious consequences if you screw up when it is big.
Respect – Always respect people that are around you. “Give a wave, Get a wave” – “Respect gets respect” – Never paddle straight to the top of the line-up, work your way up.
Fun – The purpose of life is to find joy, and to have fun. If you aren’t having fun or people are ruining your day by yelling at you, go somewhere else or do something else. We are out here to have fun not beat our heads against the wall. “Evil begets Evil”

PL: We’ve got a picture here of you beaming with two mustachioed characters; what’s up with those hats?

RS: A cool shot actually, Generational World Champions – Grand Master (over 50), Ross Fulcher – Masters (over 40), Buck Johnson – and Open (any age), Me.

The hats are given to the World Champions; the locals wear similar ones (but smaller) around. The hats keep your head warm, the rain off your head, and a cool stylish look as well.

The Basque are great hosts and have a beautiful country. If anyone is thinking about a trip to Europe be sure to make a trip to this area, incredible history and incredible culture. Our last night in town we went to a festival in a small town called Gernika, something that I will never forget 20,000 or so people celebrating life, music and alcohol.

Sam Weiss

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