Interview with Rafael Ortiz
We recently got the chance to sit down with Rafael Ortiz, one of the best professional kayakers in the world. We spoke with him about his first experiences with kayaking, and his experiences with Almost Heaven Saunas that led him to make a video featuring both his incredible kayaking skill and his brand new Almost Heaven sauna. Watch his fantastic video and read our interview with him below!
Q: You’re a world-renowned kayaker that has a world record on the steepest kayak descent. How did you initially get started with kayaking?
Rafael: “I was born and raised in Mexico City, and my family owned a ranch on the East Coast. We were close to some rivers, so I started rafting when I was young. When I turned 14, my parents actually gave me a kayak for Christmas and that’s where I got started.
It was hard to get started because there weren’t really any other kayakers around to teach me, so the whole first year in kayaking was just completely self-taught, trying to figure out skills on my own. Eventually I started buying and watching videos online for learning some actual proper skills.”
Q: What led you to decide to take kayaking to the next level? Was it a specific moment that happened while you were kayaking, or did you see someone else that inspired you?
Rafael: “At first I started freestyling, you know with being a kid and skateboarding, and the first couple years in my kayak career I was just trying to do freestyle. There was this whole phase of the sport that was about doing tricks in your kayak in competitions on little river waves. I was really frustrated with the rivers in Mexico that weren’t very good for that.
Eventually I had the opportunity to jump on an expedition exploring the upper section of the river where I taught myself how to kayak years before, and it just happened to be that that section of the river is full of waterfalls. It’s a mostly flat river with minor rapids, with a very skinny section with waterfalls anywhere from 300 feet in height to more manageable falls. I think it was a 60-foot waterfall that we ended up running there for my very first run.
That’s kind of where my whole career took a change, from being in a place where the river, or the “playground,” wasn’t helping me much to where I eventually was paddling in one of the best rivers on the planet for running waterfalls in a kayak.”
Q: You recently made an awesome video for us about using your kayaking skills to make it to a sauna date on time, and we loved it and are really thankful you took the time to do that. What about our saunas inspired you to make that?
Rafael: “So I’ll tell you my whole story and relationship with Almost Heaven Saunas. I was in Washington, DC scouting for a project that I later went and filmed, but I was staying in a friend’s house who had one of the smaller 4-person barrel saunas. I always liked saunas even when I was younger, and this year I’ve been pushing my performance way harder. I’ve been training a lot more and had actually been looking for a solution for my muscles after a full workout on the river.
I was looking for something like a hot tub or hot and cold therapy, and when I was at my friend’s house with his sauna everything kind of came together and I was like, ‘this is genius.’ It’s a very simple sauna that anyone can have in their backyard, because I always thought that with saunas you had to have like a room… but when I saw this product I realized this is genius because anyone that has a yard can have this.
I tried it and my friend actually had the sauna and also a little ice water tub next to it, and I did the hot and cold back and forth after a long day of paddling these rivers, and I was completely blown away by it. I made contact with Almost Heaven Saunas, and I had this idea of doing a cool video for them.”
Q: Where did the idea for the storyline of the video come from?
Rafael: “Regarding the video, it actually took a little while to formulate a storyline, cause originally I had wanted to do something that would be kind of laidback and funny for people to watch and would portray this character’s very dreadful lifestyle, and contrast it with the calmness and relaxation that you have in a sauna.
We started shooting for the video, and I was very lucky cause I live in a little town called White Salmon in Washington. It’s a place that’s not only amazing for kayaking, it’s across the river from Hood River, Oregon, and it’s basically a mecca for kayaking these days. It’s where most of the best whitewater kayakers on the planet live, and we also have this big community of filmmakers that have set up here, including my roommate.
It was actually my wife that said, ‘what if the video’s about a journey and getting home’ and I was like ‘oh yeah, everyone can relate to that.’ You know, sitting in an office or sitting with friends and having to run back home to get to your wife is an everyday kind of concept for guys, of ‘hey you need to be home’. And then that made it so I could use kayaking, cause I have to have kayaking, that’s what I do and that’s my profession.
Then it came to maybe it’s not just kayaking, but it’s also running, and more stuff. I do a bunch of different sports. I did this other video where I played like 4 different sports in one day, and it was kind of a similar tone of hustling all day to do these activities, so I was kinda basing it on that and I actually wanted to include kiteboarding, and attach it to the story with all these activities to get home. Unfortunately, the wind just died that day and there was no more wind in the forecast, so I had to scratch that.
We wanted to have another activity to add more flavor and then that’s when we came up with adding mountain biking, I kind of wanted to have a whole segment of mountain biking but the reality is that I’m a pretty mediocre mountain biker. I’ve been kayaking for 15 years and that’s what I do for a living, but with mountain bikes it would look kind of stupid if I try to look good at something I’m not professional with.
Then we decided to condense the mountain biking and use it more as a tool or a means of transport to connect the whole journey to the house. We had this idea to build a jump in my backyard, they were doing all this construction and digging in the lot next to our house, so it just happened that there was dirt around so we spent a whole afternoon building this jump. It was cool to use that for the video because then I didn’t have to tell the part of how do I get off the bike into the house and that made it way more natural.”
Q: How often do you use your sauna?
Rafael: “I’m using it every other day, sometimes even 5 days in a row. I use it every chance that I have for sure. That was definitely one of the questions I had, I wanted to know if it was gonna be one of those things where I put all this effort into it to finally have one in my house, and you know you get very excited and use it every day for the first week and then it starts dying off. But what’s funny is that the reality is that it’s turned into a habit, and it’s cool because I’m still pushing my physical performance on a daily basis, and I’m utilizing benefits from it in a healthy way when I come back from the river.
It’s also that the winter is coming in, and I come back to my house and I’m like ‘man a sauna session would be so good right now’ cause it’s so cold outside and my hands are semi-frozen, but I sometimes have to make myself wait cause I can’t just be doing sauna sessions all day.”
Q: What Almost Heaven Sauna model do you have and what made you choose it?
Rafael: “Originally I tried the 4-person sauna at my friend’s house, and I was really sold on having a simple, small one that would potentially heat up quicker and be more energy efficient. Rick actually sent me the bigger model, the 8-person canopy barrel sauna, and that while originally I just wanted it for myself and my performance, but having the bigger sauna is really cool cause now I have friends over all the time.
I was actually just texting a friend about coming over for dinner tomorrow night and having a sauna session afterwards, and it’s turned into a cool social thing with friends and family now.”
Many thanks to Rafael for his video and this interview! You can read more about Rafael’s kayaking adventures at his official Red Bull Athlete page.