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17-year-old paddler afloat in success

July 22, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS


Watching 17-year-old Sharpsburg resident Seth Chapelle shimmy expertly into his spray skirt, rash guard shirt and personal flotation device and slide into his freestyle kayak, you'd never guess he'd ever been afraid of kayaking.

But he was. Once.

"I was about 10 and I was pretty scared of it," he said of his first time in a kayak. "I remember being afraid of flipping over, being upside down."

Now a member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak team, Seth treats his boat like a second skin and is known worldwide within the kayaking community for his skill in a sport that revolves around flips, spins and other stunts.


In January, he traveled to Australia for the 2005 World Freestyle Canoe/Kayak Championships and came in 10th in his division.

In freestyle kayaking, a paddler gets a certain amount of time to impress judges with as many stunts as possible, earning points for the difficulty of the stunt, the height and time in the air, Seth explained.

He uses a C1 boat, a one-person closed canoe in which the paddler kneels and uses a one-ended paddle.

Using a model kayak he made, he demonstrated a front flip, one of the stunts he does most often.

You start by aiming the bow into the foam of a wave, he said, then lean your body so that the boat's buoyancy shoots you up in the air and tuck yourself forward as it flips over.

Seth's goal is to shoot high enough in the air so that his head doesn't touch the water, but often he is plunged under water for part of the stunt.

For a helix, a new trick Seth is learning, he adds a horizontal spin to the flip, so that the boat goes through a 360-degree rotation on both the horizontal and vertical planes before, hopefully, landing back upright.

"He's good," said Scott Coulter, the owner of of a canoeing school called Outdoor Excursions, who has worked with Seth for about three years. "He's been working very hard. It takes natural ability and it also takes the ability to work really hard, timing the boat."

Seth's next goal will be to tackle waterfalls and other more dangerous rapids in a creek boat he expects to get soon from one of his sponsors. He plans to test it out first in a tricky spot on the Upper Youghiogheny River in Western Maryland before taking it to the 50-foot drops at Great Falls on the Potomac River.

He's a little nervous, he said, because he doesn't like to freefall, which he described as feeling "a lot like going down the first steep drop on a roller coaster, only you're totally in control of your own life."

But his mom, Sheila Chapelle, isn't too worried.

"Seth has really good judgment," she said. "He's always been willing to not do things where he might get hurt."

While she's not worried about his safety, she admits she does often get nervous during his competitions.

"I just want him to do well, and you only have two 45-second periods."

Sheila is a kayaker herself and all eight of the Chapelle children have grown up around water, she said. Seth got into competitive kayaking by following in the footsteps of his older sister Heather, now 21. Seth's younger brother, Sean, 14, is following in his.

The Chapelles hook up with other kayakers through online communities and message boards and are members of several local kayaking clubs. Seth said it's never been hard to find friends to kayak with.

"Everyone that kayaks is friendly," he said.

Seth and his siblings are homeschooled, which makes kayak and canoe expeditions easy to work into their schedules. They moved to Sharpsburg to be closer to the Potomac River and Seth's travels have taken him to Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Zambia and South Africa. Next on the list is Canada for the World Cup Series in September, and on the horizon is a hope that the increasingly popular sport may be added as an exhibition sport in the 2012 Olympics.

He doesn't know what else his future may hold, though he plans to go to college, probably Hagerstown Community College for two years and then transfer to a four-year college.

As for kayaking, he said he plans to continue competing "as long as I'm able to, until I have to get a real job."

"I love kayaking, so if I can compete while I'm doing what I love, that's what I'm going to do," he said.

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