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Jeff Kolka Returns to AuSable Canoe Marathon to Fulfill Niece’s Dream

GRAYLING — Jeff Kolka is no stranger to the AuSable Canoe Marathon, even if he hasn’t raced in it for 16 years.

Kolka has won the race nine times. He first participated in the race in 1979 and called it quits in 2005.

“My father had a few second [place finishes] and stuff like that but he never managed to win it. So I kind of wanted to take on the torch and see if I could win it. I got fortunate enough where I did,” Jeff Kolka said.

But at age 62, he’s back in the race this year. His niece, Naomi Kolka, has been begging him to race with her for years.

“When I was seven years old I can literally remember telling my friends on the playground that I wanted to paddle with my uncle Jeff someday because I always watched him win,” Naomi Kolka said. “He was my idol when I was younger.”

But the dream of racing with her uncle would require a lot of work. Naomi Kolka had to prove to her uncle that she could race with him.

“In 2014 I decided to do my first marathon when I was 18 years old. I showed my Uncle Jeff I could make it to Oscoda that year,” Naomi Kolka said.

She raced the AuSable Canoe Marathon again in 2015, showing her uncle she could make it to Oscoda while at the bow of the boat.

In 2016, she raced again.

“I kind of showed him that I had improved my skills and I think that’s when he kind of started thinking that maybe we could race together.”

Jeff and Naomi Kolka were finally going to race together in 2019, but every dream has its setbacks. For the Kolkas, it started with a broken bone.

“I got all the way until about a couple weeks before the marathon, we got through the Harry Curley and I realized I had fractured my acromion,” said Naomi Kolka.

The Kolkas were forced to watch the 2019 race from the bank. Of course, there was another setback when the race did not happen in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, the Kolkas are finally getting to race together. They are finally getting to realize Naomi’s dream.

After time trials wrapped up on Friday, the Kolkas sit in 28th place with a time of 5:55.70.

Jorden Wakeley and Matt Meersman are in first place after a sprint of 4:51.79.