Columbia pediatrician set to race homemade kayak in the Missouri River 340

Monday, July 30, 2012 | 8:40 p.m. CDT; updated 11:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 30, 2012

COLUMBIA — Thomas Selva’s wood shop was too quiet for his liking. With no projects to tackle, it was time for a new adventure.

Selva started reading books about kayak building. Piece by piece, a boat began to take shape.

Kayaking for a Cause

While Thomas Selva sees the Missouri River 340 as a fun challenge, he’s also using it as a chance to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes, a disease that two of Selva’s three children have.

“I can tell you from first hand experience, it’s a whole new reality that your child has to live, that the whole family has to live,” Selva said. “Getting off on the right foot is the best measure of future success.

“Insurance often pays for the hospitalization, but it doesn’t often pay for the supplies that these kids need when they go home. That’s what they (the pediatric diabetes team) really needed, was a fund they could tap into for the families that can’t afford the supplies so they can get them off to the right start.”

Selva recognizes that the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Association do great fundraising. However, those fundraising causes are usually for research for a cure or better treatment. Selva feels this fundraiser is “a little more tangible and something closer to home.”

“The fundraiser is really there to raise awareness about kids with diabetes, and I think if we do that, if we get people to be aware of it and just ask questions along the way,” Selva said. “If they say ‘Hey what’s that Children’s Hospital thing on your boat for?’ I think it just gets the awareness out there.”

For more information or for those interested in donating, visit and download the pledge form. A one-time donation can be made, or you can pledge per mile. Contact Dale Powers at MU Health Care public relations at 573-884-1190 or 866-260-4517, or by email at for any questions.

“You’re watching this thing kind of take form in front of you, and as it does, you can start to see what it’s going to look like,” Selva said. “It’s not pretty, it’s got glue all over it, but you can kind of see what it’s going to look like. And then you just get this itch to finish it.”

The building of Selva’s kayak began as a project but turned into something more. He started in January 2011 and finished it six months later.

“It just got to be almost addictive every night, going down putting two more strips on and thinking about what kind of decoration you can do,” Selva said. “And then when I finished it, it was beautiful.”

Selva is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and division chief of general pediatrics at Green Meadows Pediatric Clinic. He will be racing in the seventh annual Missouri River 340. The race begins 7 a.m. on Tuesday. Racers have until midnight Friday to complete the 340-mile journey on the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Charles.

Selva has been kayaking since only last August, but his love for woodworking has been with him since his childhood.

“Where I grew up, you had to do a lot of the repairs yourself,” Selva said. “So always around the house, my father and I, and my brothers, we were always working on something.”

Selva, 48, has built cabinets, tables, bedroom furniture and boxes for Christmas presents. Although he calls his shop his “personal go-away space,” he has at times made the projects a family affair.

“It's fun to do. I get my kids down to help me sometimes, or my wife will come down to help me,” Selva said.

His son had some key design insight on the kayak.

“I had this idea of putting some accent strips in and I just couldn’t see it,” Selva said. “He came down and he said 'Dad, why don’t you try putting the mahogany this way?' So the hull design was totally his idea.”

The boat is made out of western red cedar — a lightweight, but also strong and pliable material — as well as mahogany and white aspen accents. The wood is covered with epoxy and fiberglass.

“You can probably bounce it off the ground and it wouldn’t crack. Not that I'm going to try,” Selva said.

Selva will be using the kayak in his first attempt to complete the Missouri River 340. A kayak differs from a canoe in the way that one sits in the boat. In a kayak, a person sits directly on the bottom of the boat. In a canoe, a person sits higher up. When Selva first built the kayak, he had no intention of using it for racing.

“I didn’t even know if I could paddle the darn thing,” he said. “As you get more comfortable you realize how much you can really push it and how durable it really is.”

Although the boat is more suited for riding into the surf, Selva is confident it will survive the race.

“The common misconception about these boats is that because they’re so pretty, they’re not durable,” Selva said. “They are incredibly durable. The first scratch always hurts and you realize that most of the scratches are not going down through the fiberglass, they’re just scratching the varnish.”

Selva is focusing on finishing the race, not winning it. However, with the length of the race, finishing is a challenge all its own. Selva hopes to make it 120 miles in the first day, sleep four hours each night, and with his typical pace, his plan is to finish Thursday afternoon.

His biggest concern is something beyond his control.

“It’s gonna be stinking hot,” Selva said. “I keep praying that the temperature will fall, but it looks like we’re probably gonna have 90-plus to 100-plus degree temperatures the whole time. Keeping up with hydration and nutrition is gonna be really important.”

Selva doesn’t anticipate the heat posing any problems for the boat.

“I had the boat out when I went camping with my son for 10 days in southwest Missouri,” he said. “The boat actually sat out in 100 degree heat every day — just had a cover on it. It does just fine.”

Selva has been training since January: lifting weights, stretching, doing 100 pushups every night and strengthening his core. In addition to the physical strength, Selva has built up his mental strength by reading and watching videos to learn the proper technique that will lead to efficiency on the water. Weekends have been spent doing runs down Perche Creek and the Missouri River.

“I keep telling myself, there’s a family here I know in the hospital,” Selva said. “Their grandfather who is 75 has done the race five times, and I figure, if he can finish, I can finish too.”

This will be Selva’s second race after participating in the Perche Creek GutBuster in March. While Selva hopes to do more races in the future and has even started sketches for a 20-feet racing kayak, his immediate goal is the finish line of the Missouri River 340.

“I figure, I’ve put my family through all this, and I’m taking a week off from work and remember a 75-year-old guy finishes this race every year, so by God, I’m finishing this thing.”

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