The afternoon sun filters through the August haze, glinting off the Oakleys of the early arrivals behind the Jones Beach amphitheater on Long Island. On stage a roadie is testing a guitar, sending power chords ripping through the thick, sticky air. Shouting to be heard above the din, freestyle kayaking phenom Rusty Sage is detailing the virtues of his summer job. It's hard to pay attention, however, when 15 feet away Sheryl Crow is bouncing up and down on a trampoline in a half-shirt, like some sugarplum vision out of an Adam Carolla dream.
"It's so cool," Sage says of teaching kayaking at the Jeep World Outside Festival, a music-and-adventure-sports tour. "We get 55-year-old women who have never done it, and they come out just going superhard, just digging in the water and—what's that?" He's interrupted by a bystander's question. "Yeah, that's Sheryl, she's pretty cool, comes out and messes around sometimes before her shows. But like I was saying...."
Like he was saying, Sage, 21, had one of the coolest summer gigs in history. While his housemates at Northern California's Chico State were spending the off months lifeguarding, completing internships or taking classes, Sage was touring the country in a rock-band bus, hanging with groupies, splashing around in a portable wave pool all day and getting paid handsomely to do it. It wasn't, he admits, the worst way to spend almost two months. Viewed from the flip side, it was also quite an opportunity for the spectators, in the case of Jones Beach, a collection of well-tanned women and thick-necked men in FDNY T-shirts. They showed up at the all-day concert to hear the roster of adult-lite performers—Crow, Train, Five for Fighting—and then had the chance to learn from Sage and three other world-class paddlers: Erica Mitchell, Jamie Cooper and Jimmy Blakeney. (The adventure "village" also had mountain biking, ski jumping, scuba and trampoline exhibitions.) It was the equivalent of Kobe and Shaq teaching Pop-a-Shot in the parking lot outside a Jay-Z concert.
This is the life of a star in a sport that most people have no idea exists. Even those who are vaguely familiar with kayaking tend to envision the traditional slalom discipline, in which paddlers run rivers in long, sleek boats while steering through gates, much like a downhill skier. Freestylers, on the other hand, are the river's answer to half-pipe skate rats, cavorting, spinning, cart-wheeling and flipping through waves and rapids in short, stubby boats that are compact enough to be launched airborne. Though freestyling is growing rapidly, flourishing at Whitewater rodeos, man-made water parks and river competitions—it's still a laid-back, grassroots, yeah-dude-let's-rip-it-up pastime, one that is many, many organizing committees removed from the Olympics—or even the X Games.
If there is a face that will carry this sport to the masses, as Tony Hawk brought skateboarding to the suburbs, it may very well be Sage, who has the whole package: bleached-blond, boy-next-door good looks, an action hero's name, killer moves and an ambitious plan, which combined with his engineering background will enable him to, he hopes, effectively reinvent the kayak. "He's a total badass," says Brad Ludden, 21, a top freestyler who won a silver at the 1999 worlds. "He gets more air than anyone I've ever seen. He's one of those guys who everyone else wants to be like."
The video clip starts, and all one can see is a small man in a small boat amid big waves, a river that looks for all the world like an ocean, no shoreline in sight. It is the Slave River in the Northwest Territories, and the paddler is Sage, who is competing for last year's Big Air Championship. Entering a swell, he pushes down with the front of his boat, a technique called preloading, and then shoots into the air like a cork that's been submerged. Rising up, his kayak rotates and barrel-rolls in the air like an F-16 before splashing back down. The move won him the competition and even more love from the kayaking community.
Smooth and efficient on the water, Sage has a rare combination of technical skill-he was a slalom kayaker until he was 15—and freestyle freakiness, both on the river and in saltwater. On a recent ocean-surf trip to Indonesia, he pulled off what tourmate and current women's world champion Mitchell calls "epic stuff that had everyone talking. He was just slicing up the waves." One of the first paddlers to perform blunts (180-degree turns off a wave), Sage and Tyler Curtis, 24, also became the first kayakers to execute an assisted tow-in, on Manitoba's Winnipeg River in late August. Pulled by a Sea-Doo, Sage went downriver at 18 mph, which allowed him to boost off the waves and catch, he estimates, 10 to 15 feet of air. Considering that kayakers have only been able to catch air at all for about two years now, it was a great leap forward, or at least upward. "By far, it's the highest I've gotten," he says. "I'd pop off the top and then look down at the trough, so far below. It even hurt when I hit the water."
Sage has since flown back to Chico State to continue working toward his degree in mechanical engineering. "That's the thing about Rusty," explains Blakeney, a two-time U.S. freestyle team member. "Since he's in school, he pops up once in a while and does sick stuff, then disappears. Imagine what he'd be doing if he was on the water all year round."
That he's not is a testament to his mom, Michelle, who drilled one thing into her son's head from his childhood: Get a degree. After Rusty's father, Michael Sage, an army helicopter pilot, was killed by a drunk driver, Michelle raised the boy, then two, by herself, putting off school. But six years and many part-time courses later, she got her degree in art education from California State University. An elementary school art teacher, she was the one who introduced Rusty to Whitewater, taking him along when she ran summer rafting trips on the South Fork of the American River, not far from their home in Orangevale, a Sacramento suburb. By age nine Rusty was in a kayak, and by 15 he was winning competitions, including taking first in freestyle at the junior worlds. Still, when it came time to choose school or a full-time pro career, the books came first. "Sometimes I feel a bit locked down, because I know I could be out there paddling 200 or 300 days a year and traveling," says Sage, who used the money he earned this summer to pay for his fall tuition. "But there will be time for that."
Despite Chico State's (well-deserved) party reputation, Sage is no slacker. His list of classes includes thermodynamics, circuitry, and engineering courses heavy in computer-aided differential equations. For his final design project next year (he is in the fourth year of a five-year program), he plans to build a modified kayak. His preliminary ideas include installing a bulkhead in the nose of the boat to act as a shock absorber. (A common problem in the sport is broken ankles, sustained when a kayaker T-bones onto a rock during a drop.) A second idea involves adding a boost factor he doesn't want to reveal yet (though he is speaking with big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton about the particulars). His goal is to get a master's in hydrodynamics and design water parks. "But," he says, "I also want to ride this pro thing as long as I can."