Longtime Steamboat resident and paddle sports pioneer Chan Zwanzig leaves lasting legacy
When Dan Brabec first rolled into Steamboat Springs in the 1990s it seemed that everyone had a Wave Sport kayak on their car or in their garage. As a Wave Sport-sponsored professional, Brabec traveled across the country, and when he mentioned he lived in Steamboat, everyone immediately brought up Wave Sport and its founder, Chan Zwanzig.
“He was really an incredibly well-known person,” Brabec said. “He definitely had a reputation for being a real fun-loving, intense person, extremely passionate about the things he’s passionate about and always wanting to share that passion.”
Zwanzig was a driving force in paddle sports in Steamboat, Colorado and the nation. He was innovative, pushed boundaries and sought first descents of powerful rivers.
On July 24, Zwanzig died at the age of 71 after battling a heart attack and cancer over the last 13 years. His wife of 44 years, Kate, was by his side in their Steamboat Springs home.
Zwanzig and his wife moved to Steamboat in 1972. Fourteen years later, in 1986, Zwanzig’s passion for kayaking manifested into a business: Wave Sport. He opened a production space in Oak Creek where kayaks were designed, molded, built and shipped.
Zwanzig’s company inspired a wave of whitewater kayakers in the area, which was part of the reason Eugene Buchanan moved the Paddler Magazine headquarters to Steamboat in 1992.
“Steamboat had a pretty big kayaking population back then,” said Buchanan, who served as the magazine’s editor. “It was kind of a hotbed of kayaking and other things due to Chan and Wave Sport being based here.”
Brabec moved to Steamboat in 1995 to take a job as not only a professional kayaker for Wave Sport but as a boat designer. Wave Sport was already a regionally-known name in the industry, but when Brabec qualified for the national kayaking team in 1995, the name became known across the country.
It helped get Zwanzig one step closer to achieving his goal of making Wave Sport and whitewater kayaking a hip, youthful brand and sport.
“That was Chan’s vision — to bring kayaking to be something you could see at the X Games,” Brabec said. “And he pushed hard for that, and he really based his brand identity on that, and he was hugely successful.”
Buchanan said Chan and Wave Sport attracted young athletes, showcasing how cool and extreme the sport of whitewater kayaking was.
“He sponsored a lot of elite freestyle and extreme kayakers and helped those guys get on the map,” Buchanan said. “One of them was Eric Jackson, who is arguably one of the sport’s most well-known figures who went on to found his own kayak company.”
Brabec said Wave Sport had a reputation for being on the cutting edge in design, videos and even its sponsored athletes.
In 1999, Wave Sport was sold to Confluence, a South Carolina-based outdoors company.
Zwanzig loved conquering first descents of rivers and creeks in Colorado such as Grizzly Creek and Rock Creek. He also earned first descents in Peru of the Rio Urubamba in 1980 and the Paucartambo River in 1983.
In 1989, Zwanzig founded what is now known as GoreFest, a Class V downriver race through Gore Canyon near Bond. It’s switched management a few times, but GoreFest is still in existence and is just one of the ways Zwanzig’s impact on the sport is still evident.
“I’m hoping that it happens again this year,” Brabec said. “I’d love to make it out there and be a part of it.”
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