Running against the stream: Ludden’s goal was to bring the rush he found in paddling to those with little hope.
After his aunt was diagnosed with cancer back in the 90’s, pro kayaker Brad Ludden was inspired to find a way to help her. In the process, he endeavored to also help the 72,000 young adults diagnosed with the disease each year when he founded Fist Descents (firstdescents.org) in 2001. The non-profit organization gives cancer survivors the opportunity to challenge themselves and grow through outdoor sports. The program began with paddling but has expanded to include surfing and climbing. We chatted with Brad about the incredible success of First Descents over the past decade and the upcoming film about FD.
First Descents is in its 12th year of programming. When you look back, what have been the highlights? The milestones?
I guess the first milestone was the original idea, which I came up with in 1999 at the end of a world tour. At the time, my plan was ambiguous, but born out of the realization that kayaking had such a positive effect on me and that I was in the position to recreate that experience for someone else. Our first program launched in late July of 2001, and, once I saw it work, I knew there was no turning back. In 2008, we expanded from five to nine weeks of programming, which was big because we added climbing. We wanted to see if this concept of adventure therapy was specific to whitewater kayaking. It’s not. Last year we added surfing as well as a tiered programming model to address the need for a long-term healing trajectory, not just a one-off experience in one of our programs, so that was a big year.
What kind of feedback do you most want to recieve from your participants?
The fact that they want to come back again and again is certainly good. We also get emails from people who say a year ago they were bed-ridden in the hospital and they saw no hope for the future and they were feeling totally defeated by cancer. But after attending an FD program they are excited about life—they are planning on going surfing in Costa Rica. Hearing stories like that really help us to feel that we’re on the right track. Next year, 2013, we’ll have over 1,000 participants involved throughout the year.
Your work takes incredible compassion. Where does that come from?
My mom, no question. She graduated with a degree in special education and she’s always either volunteered or worked for some sort of an underdog cause. Right now, she splits her time between FD and the Special Olympics. That’s what makes her happy. I absolutely have so much of her in me. I need to give back to people and I can’t turn my back on that. My dad is a retired physician who ran a business for many years and he taught me the value of ensuring a business is sustainable. So I’ve applied lessons from both parents to build FD to be a compassionate and sustainable model.
What got you hooked on kayaking?
My parents really put family and the outdoors above all else. Every weekend, depending on the season, was spent camping, fishing, hunting, backpacking, skiing, kayaking… we never spent a weekend inside. At the time, as a kid, I was sometimes like “why are we doing this?” But in hindsight, it was the most valuable thing they’ve ever given me. Also, when I was 13, I had a real “coming of age” kind of experience and I’ve always appreciated that they wanted to treat me like an adult from such a young age. That was the point where I really started to pursue kayaking and what lead to kayaking as a career.
There’s a psycho/social healing that happens during your programs. Do you delve into they psychology of what your participants are going through?
I have read quite a few psychology books just to better understand what is going on and to be sure not to cause any inadvertent harm. I’m learning a lot. What we want to better understand is how the activity of the program is naturally changing how the participants think about themselves. We also want to understand what about our program eliminates fear, builds courage and helps them to better live everyday life in a cancer-survivor world.
And you just released a movie?
Yeah, the film is called Out Living It. At FD I think one of our most powerful assets is the stories of our participants. I always say each one of them is “Oprah worthy.” They have all been to hell and back and have persevered, and what they have lived through could inspire the world if told correctly. I think the best way to tell these stories is through the medium of film, so we reached out to Michael Brown and Serac. We finished filming last fall, edited all winter and just had the film’s debut at the Aspen Film Shortsfest this April.
Ed’s Note: Check out firstdescents.com to see where it will be screening next. •