“I compare whitewater kayaking to airborne operations I did while in the Army,” said David Sapp, a wounded veteran. “Despite taking precautions when I paddle whitewater, it still engages me with a thrilling, heart-stopping adrenaline rush that easily relates to jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft.”
While serving in Iraq in 2006, Sapp sustained three bullet wounds, which permanently impaired his physical abilities. His injuries resulted in a traumatic brain injury, a blind left eye, a shattered humerus with no range of motion in his right shoulder, and a shattered right femur that was replaced with a metal rod.
“Even though I thought I was incapable of doing anything of this nature, it was made possible by volunteers at Team River Runner,” Sapp said. “Since having this training as a participant, I now give back as a volunteer. In April 2019, I became president of Team River Runner-Atlanta (TRR).”
The main idea behind TRR is that healing is never done alone. More than an adaptive kayaking program, TRR provides military veterans and their families an opportunity to find health, healing, community purpose, and new challenges through adventure. The nonprofit gives hope and strength to the brave veterans who give much, yet ask for so little, and allows them to spend time on the restorative waters of the river.
Participants start training in a swimming pool. “Cherokee Recreation and Parks gives TRR-Atlanta pool access at the Cherokee County Aquatic Center twice a month during cooler months,” said Michael Hurndon, a 30-year Army veteran and certified kayak instructor with TRR. “We get the veterans familiar with basics, security and safety, while practicing how to roll the kayak back up after a flip.”
All equipment and instruction is free for veterans. TRR-Atlanta serves the communities of North Georgia, and for whitewater thrills often frequents its home river, the Cartecay, in Ellijay. This river is great for beginning to advanced kayakers, with whitewater rapids classified from skill level I-V (none-expert).
Dennis Walters, a Marine veteran and spinal cord injury survivor, said, “Anything is possible, if you put your mind to it. I heard a lot of ‘Nos’ when I first tried to conquer adaptive kayaking, but Laura Dillon (of TRR-Chattanooga) believed in me and bought me my first boat. I then connected with Michael Hurndon of TRR-Atlanta, who trained me to roll my kayak back up, using my own special technique. On the water, no one knows I’m wheelchair bound on land. I blend in, and am thrilled by the rush of the river.”
Founded by Joe Mornini and a group of fellow kayakers in the Washington, D.C., area, TRR carries the belief that every wounded and disabled service veteran deserves the chance to embrace new challenges.
“I was not a veteran myself, but my father served in World War II in the Pacific theater,” said Mornini, executive director of TRR. “I spent 40 years teaching at-risk kids. After living through 9/11, I wanted to give back to those who sacrifice much. We launched our first kayaker at the Walter Reed Medical Center in September of 2004.”
Ever since that first kayak hit the water, Joe Mornini’s goal remains “butts in boats.”
Headquartered in Maryland, TRR has grown exponentially the past 16 years, and offers weekly paddling sessions at its more than 65 chapters nationwide, as well as biathlons, and a host of other activities and events. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s biathlon was held virtually.
As TRR has evolved, an increased emphasis has been placed on the development of leadership skills for all of the participants. These programs teach veterans the necessary fundamentals and skills to become leaders in their respective chapters. Another facet of the organization is its Outtasight Series, where disabled veterans teach blind veterans to kayak, increasing camaraderie. They also reach out to the community by teaching visually impaired children to kayak.
Veterans interested in programs offered by Team River Runner should email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, to donate, or to volunteer, visit www.teamriverrunner.org or call 706-974-4832.
– Susan Schulz, a wife, mom, writer and mentor who lives and plays along the Etowah River in Canton. She loves serving at Woodstock City Church.