At 28 years old, Pat Keller is one of the most accomplished whitewater kayakers in the U.S. He's bagged at least a dozen first descents, including the 100-foot Ozone Falls in Tennessee. He may also be one of the most broken--he recently snapped his collarbone, his ninth major injury during his 15 years in the extreme sport.
But his attitude is, “Who’s counting, right?”
"I’d say do what you love and pursue your goals, however lofty, while your body is heading toward its peak," says Keller. "I know I’m gonna hurt when I’m older. But Tao Berman put it pretty well when he said, 'I don’t wanna regret having not run something.'"
Keller's choice of whitewater kayaking as his primary focus even began with an injury. As a kid, Keller participated in different sports until he tore the ACL in his right knee. "I focused my attention on kayaking at age 9 because I could no longer ski and do gymnastics," he says.
"Pat walked up to me around that time and said he was going to grow up to be a world-class kayaking instructor and travel the world," said Shane Benedict, Keller's old instructor at Adventure Quest and Liquidlogic Kayaks cofounder. "One of the strongest attributes of Pat as a paddler is that he has his own style and his own vision of what is possible in a kayak."
With a year of world-class instruction, Keller moved on to win short boat in North Carolina's Green Race at age 15 (and different classes again at 20, 21, 22, and 27), earn a silver medal at the Freestyle World Championships at 17, and win the Homestake Creek Race in Colorado at 20. There was no stopping him.
Except, of course, for the injuries, like when he broke the second metacarpal of his left hand running an 80-footer in Costa Rica, and a cracked a rib running a 40/40 on the Class V+ Toxaway Creek in North Carolina. These injuries are sprinkled in among others from sports such as dirt biking and motocross.
But Keller heals and then keeps on going, despite what some of his critics say.
"I've been told things like, 'You'll regret this when you're older and can't do the sport anymore at 35,'" says Keller. "Another good one is the simple 'Dude, what the f***?'"
Whitewater kayaking has entered an age where paddlers now run 100-foot waterfalls around the world and complete incredibly difficult first descents in remote and dangerous countries like the Republic of Congo and Mexico. Those who survive these expeditions usually end up with injuries, a broken back and shoulder being the most common, that affect them the rest of their lives. The evolution of this and other adrenaline sports begs the question: Is the risk worth the cost?
For Keller, it is.
"Few other sports exist where humans, in our tiny levels of understanding and thin muscles, can dance with and become a part of something so powerful and so visceral," he says. "Kayaking, mountain biking, and skiing all share that trait, and that’s why I love them. It’s whatever we want to make of it."
After a certain level, death becomes a bigger risk. Flush drowning and blunt force trauma are almost annual occurrences on Idaho's North Fork Payette. The Great Falls of the Potomac took a life a year and a half ago. A Class V+ steep creek in New Hampshire took the life of an American Whitewater staff member in 2012. These and other deaths were high-level paddlers on stout whitewater runs. At a certain point, the margin for error becomes razor thin.
Given the risks Keller faces every day, he must balance logic and safety with his desire to become one with nature--for the sake of his health and the sanity of his loved ones. This is why Keller says that kayakers must prepare as much as possible for the challenges associated with their sport--they must work on the skills they need and develop their body strength to keep themselves at that peak level as long as possible. They must also try to avoid injury by listening to their instincts, and making the best choices given their realm of experience, knowledge, and confidence.
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