Athlete, Student, Coach. This is how Aaron Small describes himself on his LinkedIn profile, as unassuming as it is true. Aaron does kayak, ski and hike. He’s in his final year of college, set to graduate this spring. He has spent many afternoons and summers coaching kids at the local canoe and kayak club, minutes from where he grew up.
But at just 22 years old, Aaron has just won a bronze medal in the Men’s Kayak Double 500m Sprint at the Pan American Games. He’s researching Puget Sound pollution levels for his undergraduate senior thesis while completing the requirements for his minor in ASL. He is also a volunteer ski patroller and certified EMT.
Aaron still found the time to speak with Team Phonak about growing up and his experiences on the water – where he feels most at home. His story has been edited for length and clarity.
The first paddle
I started kayaking when I was 11 years old. I got into it because my mom’s friend had a kid who was doing it through school, so I tried it out at Green Lake at the Seattle Canoe and Kayak Club.
At first, it was more of a club activity and a great way to get outside. When you start out, there’s a lot more swimming than actual paddling because the boats are so unstable. You get in, you fall out, you swim back to shore, you get in, fall out… It’s just an endless cycle. But I really enjoyed it and stuck with it. It’s given me a lot of cool opportunities.
I started competing nationally when I was 16 and trained a bit more consistently. Since I’ve been competing internationally, I train two to three times a day. I train once in the morning on the water, usually for about an hour. It’s a bit difficult when it’s 32 degrees (0 Celsius) out because your hands get numb, and your nose gets nice and frosty. So a good day actually starts off with me being warm!
Out on the water
I find it very fulfilling to push my limits on the water and track my improvements over time. I also appreciate that I can limit my focus to one thing. When I’m paddling, it’s kind of my therapy for the day, and I find it quite meditative. Sometimes I even take out my hearing aids and tune out for a little bit. Otherwise, I can really hear all the splashes and the seaweed that gets caught on the front of the boat – it whistles when I’m paddling fast.
I really surprised myself last year when I started performing well internationally, making A-finals and earning medals. In my heat at the 2022 World Championships, I remember crossing the finish line in third place, knowing that the top three went directly to the A-final. That was my first senior-level A-final qualification, against athletes I had been watching on TV my whole life. I had something to show for all the hard work.
Whenever I get stressed or nervous at competitions, I try to sit back and remember why I am doing this sport in the first place: I love paddling. I love the training and community aspects just as much as the competitiveness. That helps to put me in a more relaxed mindset, which is how I race best. I also try to remember everyone that supports me – my friends, family, teammates and coaches.
Always by the water
Right now, I’m aiming to qualify for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics. We have the US trials in March next year. They qualify you to compete at the Continental qualifiers, where you have to win the double kayak event, or place in the top two in the single kayak, to get a spot at the Olympics. If all goes well, I’ll be heading to Paris and hopefully LA in 2028. This means I’ll be balancing full-time training with school again soon.
Because of my schedule, I’m taking a little break from my part-time coaching job with the kids. It’s really fun working with them, and I often think I learn more from them than they do from me. They’re around 10-17 years old, and I’ve realized that I need to communicate with them more and try to share my experiences and tips I’ve learned from my time in the sport. When I was younger and coming up in the club, I picked up most of the training skills and habits by watching older athletes. I would try to mimic them, or coaches would suggest I start doing something a certain way.
I grew up hard of hearing, which meant asking “What?” many times, and people having to repeat themselves. It was frustrating for me and frustrating for them. Getting hearing aids did help a lot. There were some bullying instances because kids didn’t really understand why I was wearing these “weird, alien” devices in my ears. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d try to encourage him and say that hearing aids are no different than glasses. They’re just helping everyone stay connected. It’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s just what you have to do to stay connected.
As for the future, a lot is up in the air. It’s hard to be a professional kayaker in the United States because there’s not a lot of funding, but I intend to keep paddling for the foreseeable future. There are a lot of cool oceanography jobs out there which I will explore when I graduate. I appreciate that oceanography encompasses many different STEM disciplines, like chemistry, physical oceanography and biology. And, of course, I like being by the water.
Note: Aaron wears the Phonak Audéo Life Lumity, the world’s first rechargeable waterproof hearing aid.