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Learning how to live

NWS Teva Dowd Race2 SM 6-3 Vail Daily/Shane Macomber Wile in second place in the first round of the Pro league Brad Ludden looses his paddle down the last drop in the Dowd Chute race and is forced to finish backward using his hands.
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Brad Ludden has kayaked in more than 40 countries, recorded 75-plus first descents and has won his fair share of gold medals at paddling competitions across the United States. Ludden himself doesn’t even know off hand how many places he has paddled, or how many chutes, rapids and falls he has been the first human being to descend because the list is so long.”I should do a recount sometime,” says the 23-year-old local. “I really don’t know.”The chiseled paddler’s exploits have earned him international renown and a healthy income as an adventure sports athlete, but those are not the things of which he is most proud. In paddling circles his name is synonymous with the sports’ top guns – Tao Berman, Eric Jackson, Ben Selznick and Dustin Urban, to name a few – but Ludden doesn’t get hung up on how great he is, or how great people think he is. His shtick isn’t fake, either. He doesn’t buy into the idol worship thing just to make you think he’s a grounded athlete who’s not full of himself. He, in fact, is a grounded athlete who is not full of himself. “For me, it’s the only way,” he says. “I realized when I was 18 that I wanted to be a professional kayaker. I realized that the only way that that dream could be fulfilled would be to share my fortune through the sport with other people. Success unshared is failure.”And, Brad Ludden is no failure.His sharing of his success has come in the form of his First Descents Camp, a kayaking camp for youth combatting cancer that he established in 2001. The camps are places where Ludden finds his own life role models, and where the campers find inner strength as they cope with the deadly disease.”I know so many other people who have been affected through cancer, with my family and friends,” Ludden says. “I actually brought kayaking to a cancer camp one time per week, per year and I saw the positive impact that kayaking had with the kids. As cancer patients, they need responsibility. They need people to let them go out and share themselves, and do what they want. Cancer sometimes prevents them from achieving that.”

Life’s lessonsThe camp’s Web site says that, “At each camp, (Brad) Ludden, along with other professional athletes and instructors, teaches valuable skills and techniques to campers to deal with their disease by using kayaking and other outdoor activities as examples of life’s lessons.”Ludden says that is only half the truth. While he and his staff of pros instruct campers in the methods of kayaking and other outdoor sports during their time at camp, and guest speakers such as Picabo Street, Amy Van Dyken and Chris Anthony have come to share motivational speeches, it is usually the campers, Ludden says, who do a better job of teaching the life lessons.”When they’re told that they have cancer, the way they live their lives and sort of that lust for life that they have is something that I’ve tried to live each day with and hopefully spread to others,” he says. “I try to encourage others to be the same way.”The kayaking at the camp is simply a translation of that zest for life. While some of the youth that come to the camp are in a fragile state, whether from chemotherapy or bone-marrow transplants or other cancer treatments, the opportunity to do something exciting and challenging like kayaking allows them to feel human.As Ludden so painfully knows, some of his campers will end up dying young. But when they are with him at camp, they most certainly are living.”When these guys get cancer at this age, the families and the doctors and everyone gets really protective and they keep a close eye on them in everything they do,” he says. “Kayaking is a way for them to be teenagers again, to be young adults and be released. It allows them to have a sense of responsibility, seek adventure and grow mentally.”The best guide

As all kayakers know, there are always the bad holes – the ones that show no remorse, regardless of who is stuck inside. Cancer, like kayaking can be the same way, in that it doesn’t discriminate.Such was the case this past year for Ludden, who lost a beloved camper and friend in Sean Flanigan. “He came to camp last year,” Ludden says. “He was in a pretty fragile state, because he had a bone-marrow transplant and unfortunately couldn’t attend the entire camp. I became very close with him and kept in touch with him throughout the year. He passed away a week before Christmas.”Ludden has stayed close with the Flanigan’s family since their son’s passing, and was able to give them and Sean something that the 18 year old had always dreamed of on Sunday at the Teva Mountain Games.”Last year at the Teva Mountain Games, his parents said, was the greatest week of his life,” Ludden says. “The freestyle was always his favorite, and one of his dreams was to kayak with me through the course.”While Flanigan didn’t live long enough to fulfill his dream in the flesh, Ludden did the next best thing by taking his friend’s ashes down the course with him last weekend. Afterward, Sean’s ashes were spread into the river to rest peacefully forever. “Obviously, his dream couldn’t happen with his death,” says Ludden. “But, kayaking down with his ashes was the closest we could come to seeing his dream come true. “Sean was just an amazing individual. Not only did Sean have cancer and he had to carry himself through it. But, Sean also chose to carry his friends and his family through cancer as well and that’s not an easy thing to do. He definitely lived as loud and as hard as he could, and he went out and was happy and had fun and humor in everything he did.”One story in particular, Ludden says, symbolizes the persistent spirit of the boy he was proud to call a friend. “I got a call from him one day and he said that he was going to get his leg amputated,” Ludden says. “I was so upset. I said, ‘Sean, I don’t know what to say right now.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not worried about my leg, but you can help me out fitting my boat afterward.’ That’s the type of kid he was. He knew he got dealt a bad card, but that didn’t stop him from living. He was still a happy kid who chose to live as happily he could.”



The Full Throttle AwardOn Sunday, after paddling down the freestyle course with Flanigan’s ashes, Ludden accepted the games’ Full Throttle Award. “The award is given to the athlete at the Teva Mountain Games that really goes above and beyond,” says Joe Blair of Untraditional Marketing, the lead organizer of the games. “Brad was chosen for his great sportsmanship and results during the games, as well as for what he has given back to the town of Vail. What he does personally in life with working with cancer through First Descents and who he is as an athlete made him a perfect choice.”Ludden says he was “floored” by the honor, and that he felt humbled for being recognized as a humanitarian. After accepting the award, though, along with the $500 gift certificate for any Volkswagen car or product, he says he did the only thing he felt was acceptable by giving the award and the money to the Flanigan family.”The Full Throttle Award, personally to me just makes me proud of this community and makes me proud of the Flanigans,” Ludden says. “If anything, it goes out to anyone Sean’s age, 18 years old, who is fighting cancer. They’re the ones who deserve the attention. They’re the ones who deserve the award. I just had the pleasure of knowing him, but I’m truly honored to be presented with it.”A little idol worship, no doubt.Contact Nate Peterson at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at npeterson@vaildaily.com


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