Tuesday, August 19, 2003

"Mad Hops"

While covering the Great Outdoor Games in the summer of 2002 for the Burlington Free Press, I saw Big Air Dogs in person for the first time. The sport’s premise: the master stands at the edge of the dock and throws a ball or toy into the water as the dog leaps for it. The longest leap wins. A year later in Connecticut, in Stamford and Norwalk, I met the owner of two dogs that gained big sponsors for their big jumps.

Holding a photo of his dog Kiki soaring above the Newman Mills Falls in rural Stamford, Chris Litwin points just beneath the black Labrador and dreams of sports marketing stardom.

“Can’t you just imagine the swish and ‘Just Do It’ under here,” Litwin says, invoking the popular logo and marketing slogan of Nike. “He’s like 10 feet in the air, and he’s actually on his way down at that point. It looks like he’s dropped out of a plane.”

In street vernacular, Kiki, a four-and-a-half year old male Lab, does indeed have “mad hops” and has gained popularity competing in the rapidly growing sport of dock jumping.

For Litwin, a Stamford resident and dog lover, Kiki’s exploits have become a fulltime
endeavor. Litwin sells T-shirts adorned with a picture of the handsome lab, and they travel to sanctioned events across the nation with the hope of finding a major corporate sponsor (like Nike) to endorse his dog’s world-class jumping ability.

While Kiki is an established star, Norwalk resident Doug Kilmartin has only recently discovered that he has an up-and-comer in his yellow Labrador Jake.

Jake established himself as a world-class jumper in his competitive debut last weekend at the Rex Plex in Elizabeth, N.J. To the surprise of Kilmartin and other observers, Jake jumped 19 feet 10 inches on his second competitive jump ever. His second place finish, with a jump of 22 feet 2 inches, was within nine inches of Kiki’s winning leap.

“We went down there thinking we would be bumped down,” Kilmartin said about his 20-month-old dog. “But I found my dog had a natural ability to jump. They were amazed I had a world-class competitor.”

Kilmartin had seen Kiki on television before the event, and had contacted Litwin
by e-mail through a mutual friend. Having just met, they hope to start a regional club with sanctioned jumping events since there is no club in the Northeast.

“I think Jake and Kiki will be the two stars in the Northeast, and hopefully other
dogs will follow,” Litwin said. “I hope Jake goes out there and beats Kiki because it will bring more interest to the sport and attract more sponsors.”

Litwin is on his way toward his goal of creating a profitable business from “Big Air” and “Dock Dog” events, which organize competitions where dogs jump off a rubber-matted dock into the water.

According to their Web site, Dock Dogs is “like NASCAR, we establish the rules and standards of our sport, and track the results and records as well as support and promote the growth of our athletes, events, spectators, and sponsors.”

The sport’s recognized birth took place in July 2000 at ESPN’s “Great Outdoor Games Big Air” competition, or simply put, the Super Bowl of dog jumping. Litwin said fire marshals had to stop letting people in at this year’s event because they all wanted to see the world’s top 12 dogs compete.

“This sport is exploding,” Litwin said. “It’s made for TV. It’s something that
everybody can relate to because most everybody has dogs. It’s fun to watch dogs
jumping in the water, having a great time.”

Kiki’s popularity has grown with the sport. After two years of competition, two world records (a career best jump of 26 feet 9 inches in 2002) and a national title, Kiki has appeared on major television networks, including the David Letterman Show. Kiki even has his own Web site (www.gokikigo.com) (www.gokikigo.com)and a life-time
supply of dog food at Choice Pet Supply.

While Litwin wants to breed and train elite dogs for a living, Kilmartin views the
sport as a hobby because of his obligation as an orthopedic sales representative. Still, they share a similar path to competition.

Kilmartin’s uncle has an older yellow Labrador that he jumps in his swimming pool. So when Kilmartin first got Jake, just a seven-month-old puppy at the time, he took
him over to his uncle’s to see how far he could jump. Ever since, Kilmartin has been
jumping Jake at his friend’s dock in Westport.

“As soon as I came around the corner (near his friend’s dock), Jake went crazy in the car,” Kilmartin said. “I don’t feel like I’m forcing him to do this. I think dogs will do whatever they’re bred for. And he’s bred to swim, jump and retrieve.”

Litwin discovered Kiki’s love for water the first time he took him to the Mianus River at eight weeks old. As soon as he set Kiki down, the young lab bolted straight into the river despite never putting a paw in the water before. Then Litwin started taking Kiki for regular jumps and was floored to see him sail about halfway across the 50-foot wide river.

“I was amazed at how far he could jump going into the water, and we weren’t even aware of these competitors,” said Litwin, who has attracted crowds of about 100 people. “We were just doing it for our own entertainment.”

Like Kilmartin, Litwin saw dogs jumping in events like the prestigious Big Air competition at the Great Outdoor Games and became interested. Kiki won his first competition at the Purina Dog Challenge, an eastern regional event in New Jersey in July 2001.

The two dog trainers also use the same uncommon technique. Most handlers run next to their dog with an object in hand that they toss into the water. Kilmartin and Litwin
use a “sit-stay” technique, where they tell their dogs to sit and stay while they walk to the takeoff point on the dock. Holding a stick or tennis ball high in the air, they call their dog and release the object at the last second before takeoff.

Litwin has developed some exercises that he uses to increase Kiki’s vertical jump,
speed and stamina. He creates a competitive atmosphere by racing Kiki with Lala, his
black lab who’s two years younger, for a stick or tennis ball in his yard.

“I’m looking forward to working with Chris,” Kilmartin said. “To get some pointers from somebody who’s been doing this longer than I have.”

The growth of the sport has created a wave of excitement for spectators, and especially for the competitors.

“Over the past year the sport has blossomed,” Kilmartin said. “The best part is the
dogs love it. They’ll jump all day long.”

This story first appeared in The Hour in August 2003.

Monday, August 4, 2003

Django Haskins

When Django Haskins first came to the National Guitar Worshop at age 14, he found his niche.

“I had this weird name growing up and people were always getting it wrong, or spelling it wrong or making fun of it,” said Haskins, whose parents named him after legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “I come here and everyone here knows how to pronounce my name and thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. It kind of was like the ugly duckling finds his crowd.”

Growing up on a farm in Gainesville, Fla., his parents were musicians, exposing him to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and Elvis Costello. Haskins started playing classical violin at age 6, but he found his calling when he discovered his father’s electrical guitar seven year later. The following year, 1988, Haskins enrolled at the National Guitar Workshop, located on the Canterbury School campus, as a student. He has come back every summer since, and has been a faculty member for the past decade.

Established in 1984, the workshop has six weekly sessions each summer, attracting a wide variety of musicians from around the United States and even overseas. Haskins says it is one of the top two or three summer programs of its kind that he has seen. Students range in age from 13 to 79 and from beginners to recorded musicians, who come to learn guitar, bass, keyboard, drums or vocals.

Like many faculty members, Haskins only teaches for three weeks because the schedule is so intense. He teaches seven hours a day for six days a week. His day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. with a break from 4 to 6 p.m.

“There’s always been really great teachers here,” he said. “One reason I really like coming back is my friends from all around the country teach here. And we all see each other every summer.”

Another thrill he gets is watching his students progress.

“Well, this is my first time here, but so far I’ve probably learned more than I have in the past year, just in a couple of days, with Django especially,” said Danielle Schwob, a 16-year-old guitar player from London taking Haskins’s voice class. “I’ve never had a voice class. I can already tell there’s going to be improvement in the way I sing.”

Still young himself, Haskins, 29, recalls his not-so-glamorous journey to becoming a professional musician.

At age 15, after playing in a band for a couple years, he began to seriously think about a career as a guitar player. His parents weren’t too keen on the idea and had a family friend, who was a saxophone player with Ike and Tina Turner, give him the lowdown on his new found love.

“He sat me down and said, ‘Look, you got to really like to eat peanut butter and jelly for the rest of your life if you want to be a musician’,” Haskins said.

So Haskins continued to write songs at home with a four-track recorder during high school, and then studied literature at Yale University to see if he liked anything more than music.

“I found a lot of things I was really interested in, but nothing that felt as right and personal to me as (music),” he said.

One of his interests was learning Chinese. He decided he wanted to grasp the language better so he felt the easiest way would be to live there, which he did, playing at local pubs and teaching English at a university.

“It was a really good learning experience for me as a writer because it just took one element away,” said Haskins about the songs he performed in English. “The lyrics are no longer going to help the song get over with an audience. It really helped me to develop showmanship, basically entertaining people.”

After his stay in China, Haskins moved to New York City in 1996, where he recorded an album and performed solo gigs. A few years later he assembled a band called “Django & the Regulars,” which he made a few albums with.

“When you’re in a band with someone it’s like having three girlfriends,” Haskins said. “It just has to be a close relationship because you’re working so closely together and you’re traveling and you’re sleeping on floors together.”

Much of his touring is done alone, solo acoustic. He now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., half of the year. The other half he spends traveling, often to New York City. His latest album, “overeasysmokemachine,” has catchy sounds and demonstrates his ability to play with a band and as a solo artist. But he mostly wants to be remembered as a songwriter since his music doesn’t fall into a particular genre.

Haskins has taught a song-writing class for the past few years at the National Guitar Workshop. Everyone in the class, including Haskins, is required to write a song a day, which they perform the following day and then write their next song. For Haskins, it something he enjoys because he never has time as a traveling musician to write at least 15 songs in a short time period – just another reason to come back.

And it’s always nice when people know your name.

This story first appeared in the Danbury News-Times and New Milford Spectrum in August 2003.