A world-class kayaker who also happens to be a world class human being and one of 2016 CNN's "Top 10 Heroes!" By 18, Brad was living his dream. He was Nike's first sponsored whitewater kayaker, on the cover of Outside Magazine and traveling the globe in search of first descents - successfully paddling a river that no one has ever paddled before. But despite those successes, something was missing. At a young age Brad watched his Aunt battle cancer and realized how little support there was for her. Thirteen years later he founded First Descents - an organization that empowers people fighting and surviving cancer by providing free outdoor adventures helping more than 3,000 young adults live beyond their disease and pursue a journey not previously forged.
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Brad Ludden was born in Wyoming and raised in Northwest Montana. He spent his days in the outdoors with his family hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing and, of course, kayaking. Of all his passions, kayaking caught his eye the most. His parents gave him his first kayak when he was 9 and at age 12 he was traveling and competing internationally.
Brad established himself as one of the top freestyle kayakers in the world before the age of 20, winning numerous competitions, earning bronze and silver medals at the world championships, and landing several big-name sponsors, including Nike and Subaru. Over the last several years he has made more than 100 first river descents on some of the most exotic and dangerous rivers in the world. A first descent is the first time a person successfully kayaks a river or section of river that has never been done. Through his first descents he found immense challenge, adventure, community and personal growth.
Cancer went from being just some random word to something very personal when he was 12 and his Aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. After watching her endure cancer and seeing how little support there was available to her, Brad started volunteering for a local pediatric oncology program by teaching the participants how to kayak. He fell in love with it and decided it was time to do more so at 18, he started working on an organization that would soon become First Descents. Its goal- to help young adults like his Aunt by giving them the life changing experience of kayaking. “I wanted to recreate the experience of a ‘first descent’, that had so greatly impacted my life, for people like my aunt who really needed it. Even though thousands of people have been down the rivers they’re kayaking at camp, it’s still the FIRST time they’ve been down it and that’s the magic of FD!”
Brad's nonprofit - First Descents - offers free outdoor adventures based around kayaking, surfing and rock climbing. The weeklong camps are held at picturesque locations, where 15 young adult cancer fighters and survivors from across the country come together to challenge themselves physically and bond with others who've gone through the same battle. "While thousands of people have kayaked these sections of river before them, it's their first time down," Brad said. "You see it at the bottom of the rapids in the look of accomplishment and pride on their faces."
Since 2001, Brad and his group have brought these transformative experiences to more than 3,000 people.
"I have learned more from First Descents' participants than anything else in my entire life. I've learned how to be much more vulnerable, the importance of laughter and to not just accept each day as it comes but to go out and define it." Brad Ludden
Brad's first descents introduced him to risk taking, the feeling of being empowered, meeting challenges head on, and facing fear. Brad believes First Descents allows young adult survivors and fighters to be empowered through conquering legitimate outdoor challenges to push their limits and face their fears, and by doing so, they are able to regain the confidence and self-efficacy lost to cancer. The experience is designed to allow healing to happen naturally and organically in community.
Each year CNN honors 10 Heroes, men and women whose causes they support vary as much as their backgrounds and who have dedicated their lives to changing the world. In December 2016 Brad Ludden was featured as one of the "CNN Heroes" for 2016 and his efforts were highlighted at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," a global broadcast event on CNN, co-hosted by Kelly Ripa and Anderson Cooper. CNN aired this special 10th-annual show live from New York's American Museum of Natural History.