Mike Gregory figures he paddled into paradise when he discovered Bellingham in his mid-50s.
"Bellingham is the best paddling/kayaking/rowing community in the country," said Gregory, a 65-year-old nurse practitioner who founded and designed Fairhaven's Village Family Health clinic eight years ago. "There are so many, many dedicated, proficient athletes here. I feel privileged to be a part of it."
The personable medical man finds frequent kayak races from Canada to California, and he works out several times a week year-round on all but the worst possible winter days. But now he's perhaps never happier than when he's using his fit frame to compete in the Ski to Sea kayak leg. This year's race is Sunday, May 25.
He's the paddler, so to speak, on the new Seattle-based Blue Rooster team in the open mixed division after he enjoyed several successful ventures for The Unorthodox. He sat out last year, then got itchy.
Unlike most Ski to Sea competitors, however, he came to the race with plenty of experience as a solo competitor in Eastern Washington's Ridge to River event, beginning in his late 40s when he first kayaked.
"I did it all solo, 371/2 miles," he said of his exploits in cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, running, cycling and kayaking. He won the Pro Masters division at age 59 in his last Ridge to River in 2008.
His best finish?
"One year, I cracked the top 10, and I could usually finish in the top 20," said Gregory, known to his friends as a "tough old bird" with a kindly bedside manner.
Is he really that tough?
In a word, yes, even though knee problems now keep him on the water, which is ideal for him. He was good enough as a distance freestyler and team captain to qualify for the Missouri state high school swim championships and has spent pretty much his entire life on water, including sailing across the Atlantic Ocean from Gibraltar to Barbados with four other guys in 1975.
"Water nurtures me, keeps my mind sharp and keeps me confident. My swimming skills saved my bacon 10 years ago, when I went out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge," he said. "The wind came up ferociously and blew me out of my boat. I swam several hundred yards toward the cliffs where I knew of this little beach.
"A huge wave actually deposited me over rocks and I wound up standing on the beach! A hiker did a double take and said, 'Where in the hell did you come from?' The Coast Guard came along and I was treated by a guy from a helicopter. The Coast Guard found my boat and I raced the next day and got third place."
Gregory's sons, Matthew, 25, and Daniel, 21, were Sehome athletes.
How long will he compete?
"As long as I can," he said. "Duncan Howat (general manager of the Mt. Baker Ski Area) is my paddling inspiration and my ideal."
Blue Rooster, new to Ski to Sea and sponsored by the Blue Rooster/Scan Snap cycling team, also includes cross-country skier Alyse Loran, downhill skier Colleen Skinner, runner Sara Hayden, road biker Mike Skinner, canoeists Craig Burgess and Todd Haas and mountain biker Andrew Wright.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.