Thirty-one-year-old Tao Berman made a name for himself leaping from 100-foot waterfalls in his kayak. Canoe and Kayak magazine called him ‘the Michael Jordan of extreme kayaking’ and after more than 50 first descents and numerous world records, he now plans to do something no kayaker has ever done before: paddle down a 40 foot wave. WideWorld meets the legend of the falls.
You just won a competition in Virginia involving launching off a 30ft slide, doing tricks in the air, before plunging into a pool below. But you’d never attempted anything like this before. What did you think and how did it compare to your traditional whitewater stuff?
It’s completely different. When I was asked by Red Bull and Dominion Riverrock if I’d do the event I was going to turn them down because I had never been on a ramp before. But I got a bit of practice in the day before. There’s quite an impact when you go off the ramp; it’s pretty jarring on the body and I had gone off it seven times before trying to figure it out. My racing season’s very important and I didn’t want to be too sore for that. But I’ve been over waterfalls much much higher – including a 100 ft vertical, fall and a 300 ft climbing waterfall so I decided to do it. This event was very different because the kicker on the ramp was unlike anything I’d seen in nature, plus we were landing in green water which is much harder than natural. Plus on this one, we had to perform barrel rolls and twists before we landed.
What was the most hair-raising experience paddling?
There was one in Mexico – we were stuck on the river for an extra day with no food or water; that was a memorable experience. But the most hair-raising experience was a single drop – Lacy Falls. A sheer 300ft sliding waterfall. You had to land at the deepest spot, in three feet of water, at around 50 mph. To make it even tougher, if I landed too far to the left there was just dry, exposed rock, and too far to the right, the water was just eight inches deep. That was the most dangerous drop I’ve ever done.
What competitions are coming up this year and next?
The Teva Mountain Games are in early June. And the weekend after that is the Lions games in Colorado. I’ve just finished competing in the Northwest Kayaking Championships and won all three of my races so now I may go to Europe for the worlds this Fall – it depends how busy I am with my ‘Big Wave’ project.
Big Wave Project?
I want to surf the biggest wave ever surfed in a kayak. When I got into the sport, my focus was on extreme kayaking and I set three world records, but then I was looking for a new challenge. I knew if I pushed it any further I was going to kill myself, so I got into freestyle kayaking. I won the 2002 pre-world championships – the biggest freestyle kayaking event in world. So then I retired from freestyle and got back into extreme kayaking and racing. Shortly after that I went over Lacy Falls, a 300 ft sliding waterfall. Then with extreme racing, I won 80% of all my races in the last three years. So now I’m at a crossroads and wanted a new challenge. I needed to set more goals for myself – and the latest is this Big Wave project. I have no experience surf kayaking. My goal is to surf a wave between 30 and 40 feet tall. No surf kayak exists that has the hull speed to do this, so I’m working with a kayak company called Murky Water and a designer called Randy Phillips to design a kayak that will outrun a wave this size. I’ll have to use a jet ski to tow me out there. It’s going to be a Red Bull project and we’re looking at a number of different locations. We’ve not pinpointed which one just yet.
How much do you have to train to compete at your level and what does training entail?
When I’m training hard I’m on the water four to five days a week, plus I have a gym at the house so there’s a lot of out-of-boat training as well. I do two or three hundred pull-ups, then, then with 25 lbs on my back, I do 10 or 12 sets of abs, plus interval training on the water. The next day I’ll work different muscle groups, then try to race my previous time on the water with a heart rate monitor. I’ll also do mountain biking and running stairs for the legs.
Where do you live and describe the whitewater there?
I live in the Columbia Gorge area of Washington state, on the Oregon border. I’ve been to every continent but Antarctica many times but I’ve never been anywhere that matches this. The Columbia Gorge is .75 miles across with Mt. Hood looming above. Look to the north, and there’s Mt. Adams. There are seven sports you can do at a world class level within an hour … and the Little White Salmon river has five miles of continuous Class V rapids. It’s perfect for me as I have water to train all year round.
Are there any other adventure sports / activities you do when you’re not kayaking?
Mountain and road biking, rock climbing, surfing, skiing, and… golf. The nice thing about living where I’m at is when I have free time I don’t have to go anywhere.
You ran for political office a couple of years ago as a Democrat. Tell me about that and whether you have any further political aspirations?
I’ve always been interested in politics and thought at some point I may run but I didn’t expect it to be when I was so young. But I felt so disenfranchised with the decisions politicians were making on my behalf. So instead of sitting on the sidelines I wanted to get involved and make a difference. I knew I would have a better platform if I was running for office. I knew I had no chance of actually winning but I got 38% of of the vote in my district. At some point I will run again, but maybe not until the time is really right in my life.
Who do you admire most in your sport?
Good question. I would say I have a lot of respect for anyone who has focus and dedication to put in the time they need to to achieve their goals. And there are a number of them out there: guys like Eric Jackson, Jay Kincaid and Scott Shipley.
Which is the toughest event you’ve ever competed in?
It was actually a charity race. I train for my races so when I get into a kayak they’re not really that difficult, physically; they’re difficult to win because of the competitors, obviously. But the most difficult event was one put on to raise money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. It was a 25 minute kayak race, followed by a 2 hour 35 minute mountain bike race, then a 10k run and then a 45 minute mountain bike race. But all this happened at 8,000 feet. That was definitely the most difficult race I’ve ever done. Out of 350 runners – real runners, unlike myself – I placed around 50th. My time was an hour and one min.
What was the most beautiful river you’ve ever paddled?
It’s very hard to settle on a favourite or most beautiful river because my career puts me in environments where I see so many. I’ve paddled some amazingly beautiful rivers in Thailand, South and Central America and Norway. I could never limit it to one.
Which river do you most want to paddle that you haven’t yet?
I’d like to paddle in Africa. I’ve been to the continent to go dirt biking but never to kayak.
For more information on Tao, visit his website: www.taoberman.com; To check out Tao in action, visit WideWorld’s video section. For more on the Dominion Riverrock festival, visit: www.dominionriverrock.com