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Jasper Caddell is a long way from easy floats across the pond on his family’s west Petaluma property.

Caddell, 16, says his first exposure to kayaking was cruising slow speed sitting on his dad’s lap. These days, the rising Credo High School junior is powering kayaks at much higher speeds and on a much grander stage. After pulling in five medals at the American Canoe Association Sprint National Championships in Oklahoma City on Aug. 1-4, Caddell was tapped to compete for the U.S. national team at the Olympic Hopes Regatta on Sept. 14-16 in Poznan, Poland.

“Going into nationals, it was a little bit of a stretch,” he said of his chances of making the Poland-bound squad. “But once racing started I was fairly confident that I would get a spot — but not too sure.”

It was his best showing at nationals in three tries. Caddell made the podium in the two-man 1,000-meter, one-man 500-meter, four-man 1,000-meter, one-man 1,000-meter and the one-man 500-meter races.

Caddell and his Petaluma-based River Town Racers coach Susan Starbird were loading up the boats after the finale when the head coach for U.S. kayaking approached Starbird. Caddell kept loading the boats until Starbird returned and pulled him aside.

“She gave me a big high-five and big smile and said, ‘You made it,’ ” he said.

Caddell has a ton of the X-factor elements that make a good kayaker, according to Starbird. He’s got a bit of the perfectionist bug, he works hard and he doesn’t mind paddling and getting wet in all kinds of weather.

Caddell found Starbird and the River Town Racers when he was 11. He’d been paddling on the Petaluma River with his dad, Craig, when they spied Starbird and her not-normal-looking racing kayak. It was a totally different animal than the boats Caddell had been paddling.

He signed up for the club’s racing camp. He was the youngest participant. Half the battle early on, according to Starbird, is helping people simply balance the boat. The crafts are, in some cases, a mere 12-inches wide and, under the command of newbies, prone to tipping.

Caddell rode it out and asked for more.

“He’s just sort of been a water baby from the beginning,” she said.

Like other members of the racing team of River Town Racers, Caddell works out five days a week, including some early, cold mornings on the Petaluma River.

“In the winter, it gets a little brutal,” he said. “I show up to school sometimes and just have my parka on and I’ll be super cold and slightly wet and my friends are like, ‘Why? Why do you do it?’ ”

Caddell chalks it up to a love of competition and a love of being on the water.

Starbird said it Caddell’s willingness to focus on the little things involved in form and paddle stroke that also makes him a strong kayaker.

“It’s a very mental sport,” she said. “I see a lot of very mental strategy and mental self-discipline … Jasper certainly has that.”

Since Caddell joined River Town Racers, more have followed. The squad that went to nationals in Oklahoma City earned 19 medals in all. Lead among the medal collectors was Petri Alva of Rohnert Park who brought home eight medals. Alva, just 14, was competing in the bantam division which does not send athletes to the national squad.

“He did amazing,” Caddell said. “He destroyed his division.”

“Overall we are just so thrilled because until this year, we didn’t have anyone to compare ourselves to,” Starbird said. “We didn’t know how we were going to hold up in competition nationally.”

Now Starbird gets to see how one of her racers will hold up in competition internationally.

Starbird was also chosen to coach at the Olympic Hopes Regatta so she’ll see firsthand how Caddell stacks up against competition steeped in the sport of kayaking. After that, she’s been tapped to keep the national team apprised of Caddell’s workouts and progress through the winter.

“Every month, I’ll have him do benchmarks,” she said. “They keep tabs on every athlete on that track.”

That’s the track on which Caddell hopes to stay.

“I would love to be an Olympian,” he said. “I think that, you know, in the future I might try and do that, but for now I’m just taking it one step at a time.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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