At age 38, David Hepp had a full life even before he attempted this athletic comeback that some might describe as quixotic and others as admirable.
Hepp and his wife have three daughters. He walks the younger two girls to school every morning in Charlotte before going to work. He has a job that keeps him outside a lot – paddlesports manager at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
Once a world-class paddler, Hepp retired from competition in 2004. He missed making the U.S. Olympic team in two-man canoe (called C2) by a single spot in both 2000 and 2004. Frustrated with those near-misses and that even the best whitewater paddlers in the U.S. make hardly any money, Hepp “quit with a vengeance,” as he said.
In 2006, Hepp moved to Charlotte to help run the whitewater center, where every day he saw paddlers training for a shot at the Olympics just like he once did.
The lure of the water – and of the thrill of competition, and of those five Olympic rings he never quite got to try on – eventually became too great. Hepp is starting over one last time in the sport, trying to make a comeback and finally earn the U.S. Olympic spot that eluded him for all these years.
“It’s actually a lot more fun this time around,” said Hepp, who will compete from 3 to 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday along with dozens of other elite paddlers at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Charlotte’s whitewater center. “We don’t have the pressure. We’re not supposed to win.”
The “we” Hepp speaks of includes his old partner Scott McCleskey, who is 33 and from Sylva. McCleskey has one more Olympic near-miss than Hepp.
Only one two-man canoe qualifies for the Olympics every four years from the U.S. Hepp and McCleskey finished second together in C2 in both 2000 and 2004, and McCleskey finished second in the same event with another partner in 2008.
“Cursed!” Hepp joked. “We’re both cursed!”
An all-around athlete
Their quest is not as far-flung as you might think, however. In October, on the Nantahala River in western North Carolina, Hepp and McCleskey sprung an upset over several higher-profile teams and won the U.S. national championship for 2011. The duo should at least be in the running in this weekend’s competition. But the Olympic spot won’t be awarded until the top teams also compete in a World Cup race in Great Britain in June.
Hepp, who bears a strong resemblance to former Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, has packed a lot into his 38 years. He grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., an all-around athlete who played basketball and set his high school high jump record by leaping 6 feet, 9 inches.
After that, Hepp walked onto the track team at the University of Colorado.
As a teenager, Hepp learned to pilot a canoe at a camp he attended for five years and caught the eye of a counselor who was heavily involved in whitewater paddling. When an opportunity arose, Hepp dropped out of Colorado after his freshman year and started pursuing whitewater paddling full time.
Hepp did that for the next decade, holding an assortment of jobs – owning two gourmet chocolate shops, working at The Home Depot, working for a casino – to make ends meet and eventually going back to college. He graduated from Western Carolina University.
Hepp thought he was done with competitive paddling when he moved his family to Charlotte in 2006 to take the whitewater center job.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not drinking any more water, I’m going from coffee straight to beer every day and I’m taking pride in it.’ ”
But Hepp still would get in the water for recreational paddling, and he remained very good at what he did.
A ‘somewhat obscure sport’
In whitewater kayaking and canoeing, paddlers must traverse a series of 18 to 24 gates (a series of double poles suspended vertically over the river) as quickly as they can, in sequential order, without touching the gates. Any touch nets a 2-second penalty. A missed gate earns a 50-second penalty. A good run in C2 takes about 105 seconds.
The sport is much bigger in Europe. Most of the high-level meets are in France, Germany and England. If you’re an American paddler, you often lose money each year because of the travel costs involved and the lack of sponsors in what Hepp admits is a “somewhat obscure sport.”
But Charlotte’s whitewater center occasionally hosts big events. In 2011, Hepp and McCleskey reunited to try out a new course setup for race organizers. “For not being in the water for seven or eight years together, we were not bad,” Hepp said.
McCleskey, 33, is a carpenter by trade but has competed at a high level for years. He had also retired, but for a shorter time than Hepp, and he didn’t need much convincing to return.
“To have someone as good as Hepp in the boat with me, it’s just insane,” said McCleskey, who at 5-foot-6, 160 pounds is slightly smaller than Hepp (5-foot-10, 165) and always sits in the front of the boat.
“We just thought, ‘Why not?’ ” Hepp said. “We probably overtrained during those seven years we were together the first time around. Not this time with all we’ve got going on – we’re definitely going to be more well-rested.”
And whether or not they make it, he’s been surprised at how much he loves the “pit-of-your-stomach” nervousness that comes with competition.
“But now that we’ve done this a couple of times, I actually kind of like it. I had missed that feeling. I wanted it one more time.”