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Three local teens to paddle in Europe for Team USA

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Gus Cook, 16, of Jones High School (front) and Colin McMullen, 16, of Edmond North (back), earned first place in K-2 kayaking at Seattle, WA, in June 2018. [Photo provided]

Gus Cook, 16, of Jones High School (front) and Colin McMullen, 16, of Edmond North (back), earned first place in K-2 kayaking at Seattle, WA, in June 2018. [Photo provided]

When they started paddling on the Oklahoma River half a dozen years ago, local high schoolers Colin McMullen, Camden Sexton and Gus Cook probably didn't weigh more than 150 pounds — together.

The three were so small they were in a constant battle just to maintain forward motion against the Oklahoma wind, but it turns out that is a good thing. Our windy weather actually benefits the OKC Riversport Canoe Kayak program.

The boys' coach, Aasim Saleh, Director of Paddlesports at the Oklahoma City Boathouse, said, “Learning to kayak or canoe in the wind in Oklahoma makes you a better person. It's not easy for kids to do, and so the kids that learn to persevere and paddle in that environment, they're learning these really great skills.”

Coach Saleh has discovered that fighting headwinds and crosswinds day after day builds muscle and determination. The muscle part is obvious when you compare grade school era photos of the three boys, with the toned high school juniors today.

Their determination will be put to the test this week, when the trio take on the world's top paddlers.

McMullen who attends Edmond North High School, Sexton who attends Carl Albert and Cook who attends Jones High School, are in Poznan, Poland this week for the Olympic Hopes Regatta. They are there to represent Team USA in the world championship for paddlers ages 15 through 17.

Coach Saleh says, “It's basically a stepping stone for athletes that are hoping to race at the junior worlds, the Senior World Championships and one day the Olympics.”

The road to the Olympics is comparatively shorter for canoe, kayak, and rowing athletes here, because the Oklahoma City Boathouse District is home to a U.S. High Performance Training Center for those sports.

“So it is a super unique opportunity,” said Saleh. “This would be the equivalent to a kid growing up on the side of a mountain who wanted to be a snowboarder or wanted to be a skier. It's pretty rare to see these facilities in the center of a city.”

The Olympic possibilities are big motivators for kids in the Oklahoma City programs, according to kayaker Gus Cook, who — in full disclosure — is my son.

“I've been thinking about going to the world championships, going to the Olympics, since I learned I could, since I was a kid and I was just starting the program.”

All three boys will tell you the same thing about their Olympic hopes. To become internationally competitive, they have spent years paddling 5 or 6 days a week during the school year, with two-a-day paddles all summer, plus lifting and cardio all year long.

They carried away plenty of gold, silver, and bronze hardware from the recent American Canoe Association Nationals hosted here in Oklahoma City, including multiple national championships, which earned them all a second berth at Olympic Hopes, a name that sums up both their short-term and long-term goals.

“Making the O.H.R. team this year and last year definitely shows me that my work is worth it,” said kayaker Colin McMullen. “You're just part of a bigger team. I've always wanted to represent the USA, so it was nice being able to actually do it.”

Canoeist Camden Sexton said, “It was like a way of quantifying all the work we'd put in over the years into one thing.”

Last year at the Olympic Hopes Regatta, McMullen, Sexton and Cook learned firsthand how far the U.S. has to go to be competitive against the government-funded teams in Europe, where sprint canoe/kayak is a much more popular sport that draws the kinds of athletes who would be playing football or basketball here.

In the United States, where the sport is lesser known, all training and travel expenses are borne by the athletes, or in this case, their families. The competitive difference is obvious and significant. Last year in Europe the Oklahoma City boys felt like, well, boys.

“It was a little scary at first,” admits Sexton, who switched from kayak to canoe about three years ago. “Even freshman year, I was only 95 pounds, so now I'm getting a little bit bigger and it's not as scary, but those European guys are still really big, like huge!”

Cook confirms the Oklahoma City athletes had to experience for themselves how much more developed some of the European paddlers are.

“It's definitely a wake-up call, going to Europe and seeing it firsthand.”

Olympic Hopes competition is divided into heats, semi-finals and finals. Typically, the U.S. struggles to make it out of the semi-finals, and last year that was the case for all the American athletes, including the Oklahoma City kids. Improving that performance is the goal of the Olympic Development Program, for which all three of these boys have been chosen.

It's through the development program that these Oklahoma athletes will join some 30 other top high school paddlers from across the country for the trip to Poznan, where they will gather experience and hopefully build on gains made in recent years.

“The Europeans are classically the athletes that are doing well at the Olympics,” says Coach Saleh, who is also the American Canoe Association Sprint Junior Team Manager. “So our athletes being able to go and compete against them at a young age and get in the right mindset to continue their training, continue to stay on pace with those Europeans as they get older, that's what we want.”

“We're obviously not winning races,” says Sexton, “but we want to see better results as a team, like pushing into the finals.”

The Oklahoma City athletes know they are fighting long odds, but hope springs eternal — especially at a place called Olympic Hopes. The three Oklahoma City athletes say they will wear the U.S. flag with pride and be glad to share the journey with their two oldest OKC Riversport teammates.

Through thousands of trips up and down the Oklahoma River, across the country, and over the ocean — the three have become more like family than friends.

“Colin and Camden are like my brothers, if I'm being honest,” says Cook. “That's kind of the relationship we have.”

“We've just always helped each other out with things,” McMullen adds. “Being good friends to each other and having good times everywhere we go.”

And they hope someday that will include a trip to the Olympics.

You can watch the OKC athletes compete in the Olympic Hopes Regatta, September 14-16 online at www.canoeicf.com.

Related Photos
<p>Camden Sexton, 16, of Carl Albert High School paddling C-1 at the Canada Day Regatta in Regina, SK, in June 2018. [Photo provided]</p>

Camden Sexton, 16, of Carl Albert High School paddling C-1 at the Canada Day Regatta in Regina, SK, in June 2018. [Photo provided]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-23c0abdcb8ff8d3fd6324df1bf6dff27.jpg" alt="Photo - Camden Sexton, 16, of Carl Albert High School paddling C-1 at the Canada Day Regatta in Regina, SK, in June 2018. [Photo provided] " title=" Camden Sexton, 16, of Carl Albert High School paddling C-1 at the Canada Day Regatta in Regina, SK, in June 2018. [Photo provided] "><figcaption> Camden Sexton, 16, of Carl Albert High School paddling C-1 at the Canada Day Regatta in Regina, SK, in June 2018. [Photo provided] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c35f6f1b93dd114ed326be413cc325f9.jpg" alt="Photo - Colin McMullen, left, who attends Edmond North High School; Camden Sexton, right, who attends Carl Albert and Gus Cook who attends Jones High School, are competing at the Olympic Hopes Regatta in Poznań, Poland. They are representing Team USA in the world championship for paddlers ages 15 through 17. [Photo provided.] " title=" Colin McMullen, left, who attends Edmond North High School; Camden Sexton, right, who attends Carl Albert and Gus Cook who attends Jones High School, are competing at the Olympic Hopes Regatta in Poznań, Poland. They are representing Team USA in the world championship for paddlers ages 15 through 17. [Photo provided.] "><figcaption> Colin McMullen, left, who attends Edmond North High School; Camden Sexton, right, who attends Carl Albert and Gus Cook who attends Jones High School, are competing at the Olympic Hopes Regatta in Poznań, Poland. They are representing Team USA in the world championship for paddlers ages 15 through 17. [Photo provided.] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-ceadcf381625cbd0094ba3444b4d29c0.jpg" alt="Photo - Gus Cook and Colin McMullen, both age 12, paddle their kayak at USA Canoe Kayak Nationals, Lake Lanier, GA, in 2014. [Photo provided] " title=" Gus Cook and Colin McMullen, both age 12, paddle their kayak at USA Canoe Kayak Nationals, Lake Lanier, GA, in 2014. [Photo provided] "><figcaption> Gus Cook and Colin McMullen, both age 12, paddle their kayak at USA Canoe Kayak Nationals, Lake Lanier, GA, in 2014. [Photo provided] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-22e9fc54fc6ffd20a6b9558a5472bb8d.jpg" alt="Photo - Gus Cook, 16, of Jones High School (front) and Colin McMullen, 16, of Edmond North (back), earned first place in K-2 kayaking at Seattle, WA, in June 2018. [Photo provided] " title=" Gus Cook, 16, of Jones High School (front) and Colin McMullen, 16, of Edmond North (back), earned first place in K-2 kayaking at Seattle, WA, in June 2018. [Photo provided] "><figcaption> Gus Cook, 16, of Jones High School (front) and Colin McMullen, 16, of Edmond North (back), earned first place in K-2 kayaking at Seattle, WA, in June 2018. [Photo provided] </figcaption></figure>
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