Four Austin residents who make it their business to spend time outside
by Pam LeBlanc
Photographs by Matt Conant
You can keep your air-conditioned office cubicle, thank you very much.
Here in Austin, we love the outdoor lifestyle and everything that comes with it, even if it means mosquito-bitten ankles, perpetually wet hair and sunburned ears. It’s why we live in a city with easy access to rugged hiking trails, lakes and rivers where we can take a cooling splash, and parks that invite us to hang a hammock or pitch a tent. We can pedal bicycles into the hills, practice yoga outdoors and dine alfresco beneath big Texas skies when it’s time to refuel.
We caught up with four Austin residents who have plunged into the outdoors full time, making it not just a way to spend leisurely weekends, but a lifestyle and career choice.
Sonny Guadarrama started kicking a soccer ball around when he was just 2 years old. His father gifted him with a love of the game and later coached him and his two brothers on a youth league in Leander. The skills stuck. Guadarrama played for Cedar Park High School, landed a full scholarship at Campbell University in North Carolina, then left school after his freshman year to play professional soccer in Mexico. He’ll never forget suiting up on November 6, 2006, in Torreón, Mexico, with Santos Laguna, a team that he and his father had grown up watching.
“The journey took me to the same team and the same stadium, and my parents were there watching me play that very first game,” he says.
Now the accomplished midfielder is fulfilling another dream: playing on Austin’s first pro soccer team, Austin Bold FC, whose inaugural season launched in March with home games at Circuit of the Americas. “I think it’s the world’s game,” he says of soccer. “There’s not another game like it, and you don’t need much to play. I fell in love with it at an early age and am still in love with it now.”
He says hours of training, not natural athletic ability, made him a good player. He wants to pass along what he’s learned. When he’s not sprinting down a field after a soccer ball himself, he coaches youth at the Lonestar Soccer Club’s Junior Academy. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t playing soccer. I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now if I was sitting inside all day,” he says. “I wouldn’t change this job for any other job in the world.”
Between the sixth and 12th grades, Rodolfo Galván spent a lot of time outdoors, learning to rock climb, canoe, hike and bike through Explore Austin, a nonprofit organization that uses outdoor recreation as a way to empower and teach leadership skills to low-income youth. These days, he serves on the board of directors. “It’s difficult to say how my life would have been without it,” says Galván, 21, who was born in Mexico but grew up in East Austin, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
“Every year we’d take a trip to Colorado and do a solo night, where we slept one night far away from everybody else. It’s on those solo nights, just being in nature and being by yourself, that you step out of this whole hectic city life. It ended up changing the way I thought. A lot of our problems seem very big in this big, chaotic, always moving life. For a moment you feel like you can take a breath and step out of that.”
Now he’s working on a business degree and has created his own nonprofit organization, Código Austin, which encourages minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And thanks to Explore Austin, he says, he still likes the occasional paddle session on Lady Bird Lake. A lot of Latinos in Austin don’t climb, run trails or standup paddleboard because it’s something they just assumed they couldn’t do, he says. “It’s not part of the culture. Sometimes they’re too scared, it looks too expensive or it’s seen as a luxury,” he says. “Explore Austin takes that away and says, ‘You can do this.’”
Rob Canales swam competitively at Stanford University, then moved to Austin to attend law school. That’s when he decided to enter a half-Ironman and quickly discovered that racing wetsuits weren’t built with swimmers in mind. He and Kurt Spenser, a Stanford teammate, dreamed up a better one, designed to fit a body positioned with arms extended instead of hanging at the side. The suit revolutionized triathlon wetsuit design and spurred the swimmers to develop other products, from goggles with tilted lenses that make it easier to spot buoys or objects on the horizon during open-water swimming to neoprene jammer-style swimsuits that encourage better body position in the water.
Now, through their company, ROKA, they’re focusing on performance sunglasses that are lightweight, grippy and don’t, as Canales puts it, “look like a spaceship landed on your face.” The work includes a good helping of in-the-field testing, and Canales enjoys a dip in Barton Springs Pool to test his creations. “We have to prototype our ideas in the real world, sometimes a ridiculous number of times, until we get it right. That can’t happen behind a desk,” he says. Canales enjoys solving design problems in novel and elegant ways. “When you build something from scratch out of your garage with one of your best friends, then nurture and grow it over several years with a dedicated team and a supportive and patient group of investors, that experience, for me, transcends the common understanding of a ‘job,’” Canales says. It requires research, working with design teams and testing solutions. “To help make all of that happen, I can’t just sit behind a computer or grind numbers,” he says.
Kathleen Parker spent nearly every summer weekend as a kid at the family vacation house on Lake LBJ, learning to water ski when she was 5 and driving the boat while her dad skied behind it at 9. She studied business at the University of Texas and worked as a recruiter but ditched the more traditional career 12 years ago for a life encouraging women to do stuff they didn’t believe they could do.
As a coach and fitness instructor at iGnite Your Life, she teaches cardio strength classes outdoors and at area parks, and on Wednesdays she grabs the boat keys and picks up students for a “lake escape” — three hours of water skiing and wake surfing on Lake Austin.
“Some of the women haven’t skied in 20 years, and they’re out there slalom skiing now,” Parker says. “We’re bringing joy to these women who thought they couldn’t do it anymore.”
She prefers a shady tree to a rumbling air-conditioning unit and says she’d rather be in the water than just about anywhere. “The water to me is just warm-fuzzy — it’s where I grew up,” she says. “My mission is to empower women to get out there and not be afraid of the water. So many people are afraid to get behind the boat, and it’s not a scary place.” Don’t even try to take her away from those green-blue waters. “I just love it, and I plan on doing it until I’m 100,” she says.