The unstoppable paddler

Dennis Ring is 67 years old. He’s a world class paddler, born and raised in Dartmouth, who recently returned from competing in New Zealand. This is his 61st year paddling.

His eyes are bright and he exudes a restrained, confident energy. He’s a cancer survivor and he had a heart attack in 2015. He was once an airline pilot, but he’s retired now.

He is used to winning. He’s been doing it since he’s been a child, and it runs in the family. He describes growing up in Dartmouth with a stoic, quiet father who delighted in the success of his children. “He made a big deal out of winning,” Ring says.

Ring has three siblings that made it to the national level in their sports.

Ring was a sprinter, hockey player, and gymnast; he competed in Canada Games gymnastics as a teenager. But eventually he settled on paddling. Dennis Ring’s family helped found the Banook Canoe Club in Dartmouth.

Ring has always loved being on the water; he won his first trophy for paddling in 1960 at age 10. At 17, he won the national championship at Expo ‘67. At 23, he won gold at the Pan American Games. He’s won 194 paddling medals.

Ring’s training partner, Timothy Schaus, has paddled with him for some 45 years.

“I’ve known him from when he was a young man,” Schaus says. “He’s still really fast. You’d have to say he’s abnormally fast. People become known for speed but he’s really something different.”

Schaus explains that watching someone compete at the level Dennis is able to now, at his age, is like watching someone who’s 5’4” do a slam dunk on a basketball court. “He’s a freak of nature,” he says. “His ability to go as fast as he does, at 67… you think to yourself, ‘did I just see that?’”

Ring was selected for Olympic trials in 1972. At that time, there was no race for someone like Ring — a paddler built for short bursts of speed. His specialty was 400 m races, but the Olympics only ran 1000 m races.
Schaus explains that in warm-ups during the Olympic trials, Ring was consistently up in a pack with the top paddlers in the country. However, he did not make it to the Olympics that year.

After renewing his focus on his air career, Ring returned to the water in 1978 with a beeper on (ready to fly a plane at a moment’s notice). That year he won gold at the North American championships.

He continued competing (and winning) for the next two decades. In 1998, a career highlight was winning at the World Master’s Games in Portland, Oregon. (“Master” means anyone competing in the sport over age 25.) Ring is also a Senior in the sport, which is based on points, but basically means he’s won a lot at multiple Canadian championships.

“You’ve got to understand how unusual he is as an athlete,” says Schaus. “Not just at 67; he was unusually good when he was younger, too. But what’s exciting for Dennis now, is that there are competitions for shorter distances, so he’s really been able to excel in the last few years, more than ever before.”

Being one of the top competitors in his category for canoeing has led Ring around the world: he has competed in Edmonton, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, and Lithuania. “I go after the best in the world: Germans, Russians, Poles. My nemesis is a Pole. He’s number one in the league. I’ve been racing against them all for years now,” he says.

Despite all this success, what makes Ring relatable is his candor: “peer recognition is all it’s ever been about,” he says. “It’s fun to win.”

And he works for it.

Take this last competition in April, in New Zealand. Some 80 per cent of eligible paddlers worldwide didn’t go to the race, because most lakes were still frozen during training time.

But Ring drove all across the province looking for a patch of water. “I was determined that by February 28, that was the deadline I set for myself, that I would be out on the water,” he says. “I finally found a little stretch between Fletcher and Charles Lake: 700 metres of open water. The reason it was open was the rapids and currents. It’s zero degrees. I’m out there dressed like Michelin Man, trying to go as fast as I can even though it’s hard to twist around.”

Add to that the possibility of spilling into the frigid waters. That happened 20 metres from the finish line in New Zealand. “Our boats are very tippy,” he explains. “They’re made for speed. You could take your baby finger and tip it over. You tip when you’re tired, when you’re going as fast as you possibly can… Miss a stroke and suddenly you’re off-balance. And before you know it you’re upside down.”

In a competition like New Zealand, Ring has to be better than his competitors just to hold even. “I’m out of my time zone, I’m on rented equipment, I’m racing against people that race against each other all the time, because they’re in Europe most of the time while I’m here,” he says. “It’s very difficult to come from a provincial level and compete internationally. You have to go in thinking you’re going to win, somehow achieve that mentality.”

Ring tells stories of getting out to practice at 5:30 a.m. when the temperature is -20, in storms and freezing rain. He estimates he travels around 2000 km over water every summer. That’s close to the distance between Halifax and Cuba,” he says. “Your shoulder starts to wear down a bit, so I do take the winter off.”
After his heart attack in 2015, he had stents put in. “Afterwards I felt better than I had in years,” he says. Eleven days after his surgery he was back on the water.

“There are days when I suffer, sure,” he says. “But it’s about knowing I’m going to compete at the end of the summer next to those Europeans. That’s what drives me… I’ll do it forever. There’s very little that stops me from getting out there.”

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