How these Alabama siblings became top-level kayakers

This story was originally published by the Ledger-Enquirer.

When the world’s best freestyle kayakers come to Columbus for the 2022 International Canoe Federation Freestyle World Cup this fall, two competitors will have a mighty short commute.

Phenix City siblings Makinley Kate and Mason Hargrove live less than 15 minutes away from RushSouth Whitewater Park on the Chattahoochee River, so they will have home course advantage come Oct. 3-9.

And if they continue their elite-level performances, they will qualify for an even more prestigious kayaking competition on their home course next year: the 2023 ICF Freestyle World Championships, Oct. 9-14.

At the 2022 world championships last month in Nottingham, England, Makinley Kate, 14, won the bronze medal out of 20 competitors in the junior women’s division and, in the semifinals, set the ICF world record for highest-scoring ride by a junior woman.

Mason, 19, finished 10th out of 57 competitors in the senior men’s division.

‘I didn’t believe it’

Motivated by her older brother, Makinley Kate has been kayaking for six years. This year she qualified for one of the three junior women’s spots on Team USA by finishing second in the trials at Oklahoma City.

When she heard that she had set a record at the world championships, “I didn’t believe it,” Makingley Kate told the Ledger-Enquirer. “I am like beyond blessed.”

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

Then winning a bronze medal — after arriving in England on the first plane flight of her life — was “just super awesome,” she said. “I’m so grateful and humbled for all the people that have helped coached and get me to this point.”

Before her competition, Makinley Kate likes to listen to Taylor Swift music to get pumped up as she visualizes her routine.

“For prelims, I was a bit scared,” she said. “My first try wasn’t the best. But once I zoned in, I was like, ‘I’m OK. I’m just kayaking with my friends.’”

Mason is among them.

“He’s been teaching me so much, even just watching his training videos,” she said. “… He’s just an incredible paddler… He’s such an inspiration.”

‘Something I’ll never forget’

Mason has been kayaking for seven years. By winning a 2019 world junior title in Spain when he was 16 — while competing against 18-year-olds — Mason automatically qualified for this competition. The world championships are usually conducted every two years, but the 2021 event was delayed until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So the 2022 world championships marked his first senior division competition, and he was the youngest competitor in the division.

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

“I knew I had the rides to get to where I wanted to be,” he told the L-E. “It was just me trying to put myself out there, and I hope I did a good job doing that. It was just fun to compete against guys I’d looked up to in the sport for the longest time, and being able to share the eddy with them while I was competing is something I’ll never forget.”

‘It’s jam-packed’

Freestyle kayaking looks like gymnastics or halfpipe snowboarding in a kayak, amid a wave. Each trick has a point value. Three judges score how well the competitors do their tricks in 45 seconds.

“It’s jam-packed,” Mason said. “You’re moving as fast as you can to get as many tricks.”

Makinley Kate’s favorite trick is a McNasty, which involves a spin and front flip. The scariest part for her is the power of the wave.

“The big water is intimidating,” she said, “but once you get to know it, it’s super deep, it’s super safe, and if you have the proper gear on, you’re totally fine.”

Still, it’s a dangerous sport.

“I’ve had some friends die on a river,” Mason said. “That’s hard. You just have to know water is like the strongest force in nature. It’s nothing to play around with. Respecting it is a big part.”

‘This is my backyard’

The ICF World Cup is open to any competitor and doesn’t require qualifying through a national team, which is needed for the ICF World Championships.

Thinking about those competitions coming to his home course, Mason said with a smile, “This is my backyard… Y’all watch out. It’s going to be good. A lot of my friends are going to start coming over next month, just to start training. So it’s going to be cool to see them put their own style on the wave I paddle all the time.”

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Makinley Kate added, “I get to show them my home feature, show them my hometown, show them around and kayak with everyone. I mean, it’s really breathtaking.”

Mason encourages local folks to attend the competitions even if they don’t know anything about kayaking.

“It looks really cool because you see a lot of guys and gals flying off the water,” he said.

Making this spot on the Chattahoochee especially challenging for kayakers is that the water level fluctuates more than most rivers where they compete around the world, Mason said, accelerating from 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 9,000 cfs.

“One cfs is about one basketball, so imagine 9,000 basketballs flowing past you every single second,” Mason said. “… The Chattahoochee is something really special.”

The section of RushSouth Whitewater Park that will host the world championships is called Good Wave, which is the last rapid on the course at WaveShaper Island. The world cup will also use the wave in the Ambush rapid.

“This is probably the only wave in the world where you can walk up two streets and go get some amazing food and come down here and surf probably one of the best waves in the world,” he said.

‘Brought our family together’

The Hargroves, who are homeschooled, practice around four hours on a typical day, starting at 7 a.m. for about 90 minutes, then returning to the river for another training session late afternoon.

“We push each other to get on the river as much as we can, even when we’re not feeling it,” Mason said. “We’re always trying to learn something new or work on a different technique.”

They often challenge each other to perform trick combinations.

Credit: Mike Haskey

Credit: Mike Haskey

“I really want her to be the best paddler she can be,” Mason said about Makinley Kate. “She progresses really fast… She’s definitely a better paddler than I was when I was her age. It’s going to be tight to see where she is in four years.”

Makinley Kate likes freestyle kayaking because, “I get to express myself. I get to try different tricks, see what I like, add my own little personal touch.”

Mason described what he thinks and feels while kayaking.

“Being in my kayak is my happy place,” he said. “It’s kind of my place to reset. Everyone just kind of looks at a rapid and like, ‘What can I do to spice this up? What can I do that’s new and exciting? What flair of my own can I put into my boat?’ Being able to just be free and let the boat flow and do whatever I want is something awesome. I mean, it’s just like an artist painting a picture, just being creative with it.”

Two more Hargrove siblings are trying to eventually join them at ICF events as competitors, who must be at least 15 years old: Mary Claire, 12, and Mathis, 9.

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In addition to individual achievements, kayaking also has meant family time for the Hargroves. The six-person, two-dog family travels around the country in an RV with their kayaks.

“Freestyle kayaking really has brought our family closer together,” Mason said.

Their mother, Melissa, agrees.

“We kind of changed our lifestyle because of this,” she told the L-E.

Indeed, it started about 10 years ago, when Matt Hargrove went from just watching kayakers on his lunch break at his IT job in the Synovus headquarters overlooking the river to being one of those kayakers. His wife and children then picked up the sport. Fast forward to 2017, Mason won the cadet division (age 13 and younger) at the U.S. Nationals in Columbus, and their life hasn’t been the same since.

Now, Melissa and Matt teach kayaking through Whitewater Express, and Melissa helps provide free paddling lessons for military veterans as the local coordinator for the nonprofit organization Team River Runner.

The success Makinley Kate and Mason have achieved comes with this perspective from their mother:

“How proud I am of the children is not how well they did in the competition but what they did to get there,” Melissa said. “The work on the back end, on and off the water, to achieve the goals they set for themselves makes me so proud of them. It not only drives who they are as human beings but teaches them skills later on in life, being goal-driven and working hard toward something.”

Free kayaking lessons

What: Free kayaking lessons.

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursdays from March through October, during the months of Daylight Savings Time.

Where: Meet at Whitewater Express headquarters, 1000 Bay Ave., in downtown Columbus for proper gear before going to WaveShaper Island at the RushSouth course on the Chattahoochee River.


Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

Credit: Ledger-Enquirer

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