He makes an immediate impression when you meet him; extremely friendly and effusive, Austin Kiefer strikes you as the kind of guy that's just happy to be wherever he is---infectiously bringing the party along with him.
Then he gets on a ski---where the transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde occurs---the smiling, easygoing young professional quickly becomes an 800 lb Gorilla with an attitude.
Having trained alongside some of the world's best, he's considered by many to currently be America's top male surfski paddler.
So if you haven't yet had the opportunity to meet Austin, read on to find out more about him and why he ranks among the best.
SN: Where are you from and where do you live now?
AK: I am from Asheville, North Carolina and I am currently living in Bellingham, WA. I just moved about 4 weeks ago and I am happier every day I am here.
SN: How have you found the state of surfski to be in Bellingham?
AK: Surfskiing in Bellingham is amazing! It really is the largest and most enthusiastic community of surfski paddlers in the country. The community here has been so supportive of my moving here and they have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.
Not only is the town littered with paddlers, but the paddling environment is incredible. Surrounded by three gorgeous lakes and the Bellingham Bay, you can find almost any conditions you are looking for. Aside from group paddles and a very active yahoo group, there is a Wednesday Night lake time trial every week. On any given Wednesday, anywhere from 20 to 80 people will show up to race the 5km course and talk enough good-natured smack to last the whole week. Not to mention any time there is a breath of wind, the town pretty much shuts down to go surfing (that of course is an egregious exaggeration, but the last time it was blowing I went down to my favorite bay launch site and there were already 20 paddlers on the water catching runs).
The community really is remarkable! I am so glad to be a part of it and help it continue to grow!
SN: How did you come to paddling in general?
AK: I started paddling when I was 11. My paddling started in whitewater kayaking and when I was in middle school I joined a local whitewater slalom racing club. The club offered free rolling clinics in the YMCA pool and after years of being pestered by a family friend to come give it a try, I spent my first two hours in a kayak on a Tuesday night. My love for the sport and the water was immediate. I loved it and have been kayaking in some form ever since.
SN: When and how were you introduced to the surfski?
AK: I raced whitewater slalom for over a decade after joining the local racing club and didn't actually pick up a surfski until 2011. I was visiting my friend and mentor from my early whitewater days, DJ Jacobson, in Bellingham, WA. It was the end of my whitewater racing season and he threw me in an old glass XT and I loved it! Two weeks later he took me to San Fran and in my first race I managed to somehow place top 20 at US Champs in the XT! I was in love with the sport instantly. Unfortunately, I was pretty bull headed and set on trying out for the Olympics in whitewater. As a result, after those two weeks I didn't touch a surfski again for about a year. However, when my season ended and I fell short of attaining the Olympic birth, I gave up whitewater entirely and threw myself into paddling surfski. So I would say my surfski paddling started in the summer of 2012.
SN: How close were you to making the Olympics?
AK: Haha, close, but didn't make it. I was on the Olympic development team for 4 years.
SN: Who have been the most pivotal figure(s) for you since being involved in paddle sports?
AK: Obviously, DJ Jacobson, who introduced me to the sport and helped introduce me to my first sponsor. He is an animal on the water and an all round incredible guy. If it were not for him, I definitely would never have discovered the sport. After DJ, I would definitely say the Mocke brothers. Dawid Mocke won the first two races I ever attended and watching him fly across the water and absorb even the most hectic ocean conditions, like they were flat water, made it an easy choice to pick Dawid as my first surfski hero. And then I met Jasper Mocke, who is every ounce the surfski animal his brother is. I was able to train a great deal with Jasper and we became very close during my time in South Africa. Sometimes your hero's lose their luster when you get to know them up close, but that is far from the case with the Mocke brothers. I still have the highest respect and admiration for them as athletes and even more as remarkable people. Their mentorship and friendship have definitely been instrumental in my paddling success and I think the world of them both. I also was able to spend time with Sean Rice and Tom Schilperoort in Cape Town. Both of whom have been so kind and helpful to me, as well as being athletes I really admire.
SN: Can you discuss what you found about the Mocke’s that made them remarkable?
AK: They are phenomenal athletes and exceptional watermen. They are two of the best surfski athletes and downwind surfers in the world and yet they are friendly, down to earth, compassionate, and extremely good-natured. I now consider them both my heroes in the sport and dear friends. I actually spoke with Jasper at length about my return to competitive racing and he was extremely supportive and helpful during the whole process. I am so excited to see them both this summer. That's actually one of the things I like most about the World Series Races in North America: it brings the best athletes around the world (and many of my friends) to us!
SN: What have you found to be your most valuable learning experience?
AK: I would say my most valuable learning experience was during the summer of 2012 when I was trying to figure out downwind surfing in the Columbia River Gorge. I had spent a few days getting thoroughly embarrassed on the waves by West Coast guys and then one day I just went too hard and bonked. I totally ran out of energy, I could hardly take 10 strokes in a row and I just watched everyone drifter farther away. And it was just when I gave up that I started really "surfing". I started letting the water do work for me and feeling when the waves wanted to pick me up and shoot me forward. I fell into an almost trance like state where I paddled very little and just felt like I was part of the energy of the water, moving with the waves instead of at my own pace. The result was astounding. I managed to make some serious ground on all my paddling friends, even after bonking. And just like that my surfing started to improve by leaps and bounds. I know consider it easily my strength in surfski racing and I can pinpoint the start of my progress to that one moment.
SN: You are one of the highest regarded Americans in a sport mostly dominated by athletes from the southern hemisphere. Do you see yourself travelling to more World Series races to continue competing against top tier athletes?
AK: The answer to that question is an emphatic, YES! After 2014, I stopped training for a third of the year, only paddling enough to enjoy the summer and fall of racing and then stopped again. I had this idea, that paddling was childish and I needed to grow up and find a "career". It took me about two years to realize it, but surfskiing is what I love and I was a fool to give it up (well maybe not a fool, because I am now grateful for every day I am on the water). Now, however, I really want to race on the circuit. I know I am not as fit as I was in 2014 and nowhere near the fitness of the top guys on the circuit, but I am excited to give it my all and see how fast I can go! I am trying to take it a step at a time and my first race, though I wish I had more time, will be the Gorge Downwind Champs.
SN: What went into your decision to spend time in South Africa?
AK: My sponsor Ocean Paddlesports recommended strongly that if I wanted to get fast, the best way was to train in South Africa. Train in the best ocean conditions with the best in the world. They were definitely right. The Mocke's were also instrumental in helping me make the trip a reality and encouraging me to come.
SN: Will you be returning to train there in the future? Will it be a regular part of your training year?
AK: In an ideal world, yes. I think if possible that is the best training out there. However, with holding down an job, the cost of getting there, and other logistics, I just don't think it will be possible for me in the foreseeable future. Hopefully, racing will take me back, but I won't be able to go for an extended training trip.
SN: Word has it that the South African women chased you around like the Beatles; care to comment?
AK: Hahaha, well if they were I think I was a bit oblivious. I was doing a lot of chasing waves. If I wasn't paddling more Miller's Run downwinds than entirely advisable, I was probably napping or talking shop with Dawid or Japs. (Next time, I hope someone will help cue me in if that was truly happening.)
SN: How do you find your experience in S.A. on the surfski differing culturally from the states or other locations?
AK: The culture is definitely bigger in S.A. There are faster athletes, better conditions, and more races. Not to mention the sport has an incredible culture of ocean sports for young people, which is the perfect feeder into distance surfski racing, which is the only way the sport will grow: injecting it with youth and new talent. That being said, the sport is really taking off in the US and I am definitely hoping it will keep growing.
The most significant comparison I have made between surfski cultures across the world, is how spectacular the people are no matter where you find them. Surfski paddlers, for whatever reason, are some of the nicest, most enthusiastic, and selfless people I have ever met. They are always bending over backwards to be hospitable to traveling paddlers and will jump at any opportunity to talk about the sport ad nauseam. I am so happy to be in a sport of such wonderful people and I try to do whatever I can to give back to the community that has given me so much!
SN: What will it take for Americans to make the jump up against the best Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans?
AK: That is a good question. I am trying to figure that out myself. I think it is going to take athletes who are willing to travel and race as much as possible against the best in the world. The only way to get better is to constantly test yourself against the best. In the long run, I think the US needs a few athletes, all trying to break through to the top tier of competition. Athletes who can test and push each other at home and elevate the training level all year long. Nothing is better than having a training partner who will push you.
SN: What boat, paddles and gear do you use?
AK: I use Fenn Surfskis. The boats are incredible, beautiful, and shockingly well made. FENN boats are made to surf and you can feel it every time you get in the waves. The reason I love the sport is because of the ocean and surfing and nothing surfs like a FENN. I recently made the switch to the FENN Elite S and I love it! I can't wait to race it during this summer, fall, and winter racing season! I use a Jantex Gamma Rio Medium Minus, soft shaft, 45 degree offset, 211cm. They never break. And I wear Vaikobi paddling gear. The clothing really is remarkable and if you haven't tried on a pair of their V Cold paddling pants, you are missing out. I recommend every piece of gear they sell at the highest level and their line of clothing really allow me to paddle all year long.
SN: It seems that the paddle offset used by most is around the 60 degrees. What motivated you to drop down to 45 degrees?
AK: Good question. I paddle with a 45 degree offset, because that is what I used in whitewater. I spent 12 years committing 45 degrees to muscle memory and didn't feel like changing things when I picked up surfski. I am a big believer in listening to your body. If you are comfortable with a paddle angel and it is working well, I don't see any reason to change to adhere to the standard (that is of course if you are a complete outlier paddling at 0 degrees or 90 degrees, then you might need to change something).
SN: After seeing your Fenn at the North Shore Cup this past year, I was inspired. It’s refreshing to see a ski that isn’t gleaming with wax and without a blemish. I am now fully embracing my boat’s scuffs and marks here and there as signs of speed worthiness. Does your boat have a back story?
AK: Haha, that Elite was the first boat I ever bought. I was able to get it at a steal because the previous owner had messed up the gel coat. For a young kid with no money it was perfect. And then I took it out to South Carolina during Hurricane Sandy. Lets just say we both had our world rocked in those conditions. And even after 5 patches and an poorly executed spray paint, she has never been the same (though it is a testament to the Durability of the FENN design that she could still win the North Shore Cup).
SN: What is coming down the road for you; what are your future plans?
AK: I want to race the World Series and see how fast I can go at Worlds in 2017. Right now I have landed in Bellingham and I am trying to figure out how to balance training and work. I am very lucky to have such a large paddling community here and I am doing a lot of coaching and I am training the Bellingham Canoe and Kayak Sprint Team, which has been a lot of fun!
AK: I graduated from Davidson College in 2012.
AK: I am a freelance surfski coach and I am the head coach for the local youth Sprint Kayak program, I just left my sales job in NYC and couldn't be happier.
SN: Most important wins?
AK: It wasn't technically a win, but taking 5th place and top American in the US Surfski Champs was definitely my biggest moment. To surf past people like Michael Booth, Kenny Rice, and Mark Anderson and finish just behind Dawid Mocke, claiming both the US National Title and my first top 5 World Series result was a spectacular feeling.
SN: Harrowing moments?
AK: Hurricane Sandy by myself. Crazy, eye opening, and stupid.
SN: Best moment on a ski?
AK: Any moment on a downwind. There is nothing like it. It somehow combines the exhilaration of an extreme sport, the fitness of an aerobic workout, the competition of a race, and the tranquility of entering into a trance-like state of focus and concentration. It simply is the best.