Eric Jackson
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June 16, 2017

Eric Jackson: The Making of a Legacy

How Eric Jackson Went from College Dropout to the World’s Winningest Kayaker

While listening to a pop psychology tape my dad gave me while attending engineering school in 1982, I made the decision that I was going to do something special with my life. A line in The Psychology of Winning audio series by Denis Waitley had a profound and immediate effect on me that my dad, and just about e veryone else in my life, didn’t expect. The line was something like, “Are your prejudices inherited, or are they your own?” I realized at that moment that so much of what I believed, including getting my engineering degree, was passed down by my parents, not necessarily something I wanted for myself. I wanted to be a whitewater kayaker, compete in the Olympics, be a w orld champion and be a millionaire by the time I was 30. I dropped out of engineering school and started training full time in Bethesda, Maryland with Team USA.

Here is Jackson sporting a Performance Flex Softshell Jacket

Jackson sporting a Performance Flex Softshell Jacket

It took five years of full time training and getting married to my wife Kristine, before finally earning a spot on the USA Slalom Canoe/Kayak Team in 1989 where I could compete in the World Championships. In the lead up to that time, my reputation had been that of an extremely hard training, but inconsistent athlete who was also a bit of a loose cannon. My wife helped to stabilize my training habits and mindset and my career as an athlete began to flourish.

“In the lead up to that time, my reputation had been that of an extremely hard training, but inconsistent athlete who was also a bit of a loose cannon.”

In 1992, I earned my place on the U.S. Olympic Canoe/Kayak Team competing in the Summer Olympics in Bar celona, Spain and was the top American finisher in the men’s kayak event - at 13th place - but I was left still hungry to be at the very top of the game.

With the Olympic goal completed and behind me, freestyle kayaking and extreme racing was taking center stage in my life and in 1993 I won my first of what would eventually be four World Championships. I trained all day every day leading up to the event once I realized that I was behind the other competitors – I trained so hard that my hands were beaten and bloody. That first major win was my bit of evidence that I could potentially make a lasting career out of kayaking, even though I had already given up on the idea of being a millionaire at this stage and instead just surviving financially became my focus.

You can find Jackson kayaking in Sparta, TN

Jackson kayaking in Sparta, TN.

I was definitely on the opposite side of financial independence with my only real income coming from knocking on doors asking for donations. Then, USA Today had a front page article titled something like “Olympian Panhandling in the Streets of D.C.” Needless to say, this created a stir with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the USA Canoe/Kayak Team. However, it was another indicator that I would do whatever it took to survive as a full time kayaker and I was determined that eventually the business side of the sport would catch up to my athletic side.

Through perseverance and a focus on being the best and learning everything about the kayaking industry, I slowly started finding more opportunities with kayak companies in sales, design and brand management. I cut my teeth in leading a brand through a major growth phase but like my engineering school days, I felt my calling was to do things my own way and that meant starting my own business, Jackson Kayak.

Jackson working at his Kayak factory and design center

Jackson Kayak factory and design center.

Jackson Kayak was created in 2003 and was born unique. No trade shows, no sales reps and no advertising. My business focused on the product and marketing it through my athletics and the athletics of my team. An industry first, a whitewater kayak designed for my 10 yearold, 44 pound son Dane, is what I used t o launch the brand, even against all of the advice of friends in the industry. It wasn’t an easy start but we made a statement, we were going to make product that nobody else was willing to make, and we were going to succeed doing it.

“It wasn’t an easy start but we made a statement, we were going to make product that nobody else was willing to make, and we were going to succeed doing it.”

Within the next three years, I won another World Championship, this time using my own kayak design, both of my kids became dominant junior kayakers and my kid’s kayaks were selling successfully.

In the beginning, the manufacturing of boats was always hard for us. We only had 735 square feet in an old laundromat and we subcontracted out all of the molding work. Our four assembly stations got really busy, we were cramped, our customer service department was added by removing the bathroom and tents were pitched to keep parts dry outside.

My team didn’t waver however and next we found a 100,000 square foot vacant factory in Sparta, TN that opened up a big business opportunity for a new growth phase and the ability to control all aspects of the manufacturing in-house. Jackson Kayak began purchasing big ovens for molding the kayaks and brought some of the best molders in the business in-house to help with this major transition.

Now Introducing the Performance Carpenter Flex Duck

Introducing the Performance Carpenter Flex Duck Pant

Every aspect of the kayak business is a challenge but each challenge can be overcome with hard work and a focus on the big picture. Making everything in the U.S. and in our own factory gives us control over so many aspects of the business. But it also means my team works hard at keeping the ovens running 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Manufacturing isn’t for the faint of heart. However, one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced in my life, even considering the championships, is being out on the w ater in a Jackson Kayak we made right here in Tennessee. Also, knowing that the kayaks we design and make, one at a time, have added up to ensuring we remain the dominant and leading kayak brand isn’t bad either.

“Also, knowing that the kayaks we design and make, one at a time, have added up to ensuring we remain the dominant and leading kayak brand isn’t bad either.”

It’s worth noting that in the factory, turning raw materials and craftsmanship into the world’s best kayaks is equally as challenging as winning a world championship. The kayak designs are born from the ideas of many on our design team and have to be masterfully massaged into a manufacturable, high performing design that will work for both expert and beginner kayakers alike. After the design is done and the mold is cast, special framing and fittings are required so the kayak is ready to run in our ovens. Cutting, grinding, welding and tweaking the mold with air amplifiers, insulation and other thickness controls for the kayaks are ways to make an even better boat. It isn’t rocket science, but the knowledge and work required to pull it off a 100 kayak-a-day pace — in a factory that can sometimes reach 90 degrees — is more than most people can muster.

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My dad always told me you can beat 90 percent of everyone just by working harder than they do. This is a principal theory in my life and I’m known to repeat this to my team and family often. At the factory, everyone works hard, but the attitude and feeling is that of pride and honor in doing a great job. The “master boat builders” as they are called, base our kayaks off of talking about making something that will be used for winning world championships or exploring the world via kayak in some of the most r emote and dangerous places. Carting the hot, ovenbaked kayaks from one step in the birthing process to the next is grueling. However each step we make is treated with utmost care. The sign I had made back in 2004, with the motto, “Build it like it’s yours” still hangs proudly in the factory as a reminder to each team member that what they are making is going to be somebody’s personal kayak.

Now that I think of it, I wonder if the University of Maine would give me an honorary engineering degree. Only kidding, I am happy just knowing that my dad has come around to approving my decision to leave school to kayak full time.

“My dad always told me you can beat 90 percent of everyone just by working harder than they do.”

What’s next? The future of Jackson Kayak is looking bright with a new pedal drive system that we think will revolutionize the kayaking industry and we’re also creating our own high-end ice cooler brand, Orion Coolers. More hard work, more manufacturing and more excitement as we look forward to growing our business and brands for everyone involved, including our customers. After a two-year kayaking competition hiatus, I’m officially back on the horse at 53 years-old having made the USA Kayak Team and will compete in the World Championship in Argentina this November. Of course I write this while gazing as if in another world. In my own world most likely.

Watch the video below for more of Eric’s story and to see his kayak in action.