From watching him work the crowd at the Jeep World Outside Festival, it seemed that could be an awfully long time. Amiable and easygoing, he helped people into boats and demonstrated the basic strokes in the wave pool, a 20-foot-long, five-foot-deep tank with a waterfall at one end that creates not only a hole, but also the impression that the paddlers are bobbing in a giant Japanese koi pool. At Jones Beach a stagehand with VH1 hair gave it a go and flipped three times in five minutes but still exited beaming, if soaked. "Bitchin'!" he said to Sage, who smiled back. "The key to all this is that you have to be able to convey how much fun kayaking is," said Blakeney as he sat tank-side. "You can't be like, 'I'm the s—,' or have an ego. And that's exactly why Rusty's so good at this. He's perfect for the sport."
Already Sage has three major sponsors, which makes him one of the few kayakers who can support himself. He says he would like to augment that income by getting into commercial acting. "I try not to think of it as selling out but as securing my future," he says with a laugh. With his boyish face (he shaves once a week) and eight-pack stomach, he's been a hit with ladies on the tour, though his fellow paddlers call him the ultimate gentleman. Then there's the name. His given handle is Charles Russell Sage III, which sounds about as agro as Donald Rumsfeld. But shortened to Rusty—by his aunt, when he was a toddler—it is a ready-made sponsor's dream.
Before freestyle is ready for the mainstream, however, Sage thinks there needs to be more innovation. Sitting in the tour bus, a colossus that includes a TV, a DVD player, 12 bunk beds and not one but two continually stocked beer "wells," Sage showed off footage on his iBook and spoke of what's next. "I think of it like skateboarding," he said as sipped from a Sierra Nevada. "I want to be able to do all the same flip tricks, like a 360 with a twist or an Impossible, which is a full front flip." He explained, however, that for him to get better, the boats need to get better, both in freestyle and surf. On the trip to Indonesia, Sage felt he was limited by his gear. "It's all about design catching up to execution," he said. "The goal is to do everything that a surfboard can do, and that's all about creating lighter, better kayaks. Or maybe even changing them altogether. Maybe we might have to sit on our knees, whatever it takes."
As he talked, his busmates sprawled on the onboard couches, drinking beer, eating chips and preparing for another night on the road. The muffled sound of a guitar solo could be heard from outside, and the smells of a concert—sweat, smoke and sinsemilla—wafted in whenever the door opened. It was a long way from the wilds of California, this asphalt island on a New York island, and the opaque waters of the wave tank were a far cry from the rapids of Hood River. But Sage understands that kayaking is a sport you have to bring to the people, not the other way around. So the next day he would do it all over again, this time in Virginia Beach, just another college kid stretching out an endless summer.