The Best Friend You’ll Ever Have

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Coach Aasim (pronounced "awesome") with some area kids in one of his many paddling classes with the OKC RIVERSPORT.
Coach Aasim lending a hand to his students as they carry their kayaks to the river.
Kids participating in the summer camp are keeping cool on a hot summer day while having fun with their camp leaders.
Coach Aasim
Coach Aasim instructing a kayaking student on how to adjust the seat of the kayak.

BY KANNA DEUTSCH

“Yes!” Along with a shy smile, that was the answer a little girl gave her mom after being asked if she enjoyed her first time paddling and wanted to take more lessons. Around her, about seven other kids also clamber up from the river dock, carrying their boats with the help of an instructor. All of them appear happy, sufficiently pleased with their day’s paddling, and, with the exception of one unfortunate boy, fairly dry. Though, to be honest, this boy actually appears the most pleased of anyone. These are just a few of the kids that the Boathouse Foundation has attracted in the past year through their camps and youth league, lead by Aasim Saleh, program director and head coach of the Youth Canoe/Kayak League.

Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Saleh was recruited to the Sooner State to start a youth paddling program. Just one year after the launch, Saleh says that the program has grown from “a ragtag group of kids to hitting it dead on.” Before resettling in Oklahoma, Saleh operated and won a few national titles with a paddling club in Seattle. After retiring from competition, he began coaching as a way to give back to the sport that gave him so much. He says that before he started paddling, his life was headed on a very different path and that  “life would be very different without paddling.”

His passion for the sport is evident as is his eagerness to instill that same level of passion in others. Throughout the year, Saleh travels to schools around the Oklahoma City area and teaches free physical education classes. With him, he brings kayak machines to engage students and spark their interest in the sport. This past year was his first recruiting season, which brought a 1000 percent increase in enrollment.

Perhaps the best aspects of paddling in Oklahoma City are that it is easily accessible and has no optimal body shape or size. Paddling is basically the best friend of sports—always there when you need it and never judging you, no matter how much ice cream you may or may not have just consumed. Because all the boats are adjustable and relative to the paddler’s size, paddling is an all figure-friendly sport. “You buy a kayak like a shoe size. Everything is extremely relative,” Saleh points out, illustrating his point by mentioning that one of the top athletes in their Olympic training program measures about 5’4” while another towers over six feet. The boathouse also supplies kayaks designed to make paddling accessible and enjoyable for those with physical disabilities. “We run practice 365 days a year. We’re one of the few sports that never cancels practice,” says Saleh also adding that on days when the outside conditions do not allow for paddling, the boathouse offers alternative training and conditioning methods, such as weight lifting.

One-week camps in the summer are available in half and full day options. Also offered is the youth league, which has fall, summer, and spring seasons. Kids learn directly from pro-athletes, providing both gold-medal knowledge and experience to the kids, and employment for the athletes, many of who have relocated from other parts of the country or world to train at the foundation.

For anyone requesting financial assistance, the foundation offers scholarships and aid packages. However, Aasim says that “if they [kids] can get to the door- they’re in- no questions asked.” This coincides with the boathouse’s principle that the children’s programs are a means to give back to the community, not a means to generate revenue. “We don’t make money off of kids programs. We are here to create opportunities,” Saleh remarks. The program also caters to parents’ busy schedules by offering five different lesson options at two facilities, located on both sides of the metro. “It’s all about convenience and accessibility. We are painfully accessible,” Saleh notes jokingly. The purpose of this system is to ensure that the only obstacle a child may face in pursuing paddling is his or her own will. “We’re complete enablers in the sense of paddling.”

And like the perfect best friend, Oklahoma City paddling gives without asking for anything in return. “The Boathouse District is here to stay—it’s going to be self-sufficient. It’s not taking, it’s giving back,” Saleh says, also adding that the Boathouse Foundation will help transform Oklahoma City into “a tourist destination for people.” Within only two years of opening, they are already sending six athletes to the U.S. Olympic team; a statistic that Saleh says is “unparalleled.” Along with the rest of the staff, Saleh hopes that the youth programs will ultimately produce some Oklahoma-native Olympics athletes. “Kids that want to learn, excel,” he says, commenting that what may seem like play at first can potentially amount to more, “in that play, that’s how they learn to be Olympians.”

“All these things that are coming are making us the coolest thing in Oklahoma for kids. Once the kids decide this is what they want to do, we have an endless supply of cool factor and role models,” Saleh remarks. Basically, paddling is the best friend you will ever have who also happens to be a cool jock. Bonus.

 

More about OKC RIVERSPORT

Summer Camps are available for youths between the ages of 8 and 17. There are no tryouts or cuts for the canoe/kayak league.

Because the Oklahoma River the only river in the nation to be designated a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site, many athletes have relocated from other parts of the country and the world for the opportunity to train in Oklahoma City. The OKC National High Performance Center is sending six athletes to the U.S. Olympic team and two to the U.S. Paralympic team.

 The Boathouse District is growing, continuing to offer more opportunities for active adventure. Soon they will have a youth pavilion with indoor surfing; the world’s tallest Sky Trail ropes course; a whitewater center and more, which will let them give youth and families even more opportunities to get active.

To learn more about OKC RIVERSPORT canoe/kayak programs for youth and adults visit riversportokc.org, call (405) 552-4040 or email info@riversportokc.org.

OKC RIVERSPORT programs are offered on the Oklahoma River downtown and on the canal at Lake Overholser:

Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River

725 S. Lincoln Blvd

Route 66 Boathouse at Lake Overholser
3115 E. Overholser Dr.

 

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