Submitted by jeffb on Tuesday, May 30, 2006 - 10:48am

Total Immersion

Dirk McCuistion runs his business and leads his life the same way he paddles his kayak: totally immersed. He can talk for hours about playboating—a relatively new type of boating where the paddler basically does gymnastics on the river while firmly implanted in a six-foot-long plastic torpedo. He almost jumps out of his chair with excitement as he describes doing barrel rolls across a standing wave, and how you have to fully integrate both sides of the brain to process doing these tricks facing both forward and backward with 20,000 cubic feet of water per second roaring by below, on both sides, and sometimes above you.

This animated, wild-eyed river rat will then instantly transform into someone as reflective as a Buddhist monk discussing the Heart Sutra. In this case, it is more like the Eskimo Roll Sutra.

“You know,” he says, his intense green eyes inwardly focused on foaming white water located hundreds of miles away, “there is this instinctual fear surrounding novice kayakers because they are not in control of their surroundings. Once they realize they have to stay totally focused, yet at the same time totally relaxed, they start to get it. They need to let go and give in to the river.” Our water-skipping monk is not done yet. “When you are on the water, practicing a move, floating down a river, or running some rapids, you are not stressed about work, or anything else; you are totally focused in the moment. The instant you think about something else, the river gods give you a nudge, and you flip over,” he says, laughing.

Dirk admits he took naturally to white water kayaking. “My wife and I took a class together when we first started. I volunteered to be the first to try to Eskimo roll. I did it the first time I tried.” There is no hint of superiority in his tone, more a simple acknowledgement of his immediate connection to the sport.

His love for kayaking started in San Diego, where he attended college. He took a course in sea kayaking and, after working in the outdoor program, he found himself teaching the class. This was during a time in his life when he was attempting to earn a living racing bikes. Dirk was invited by the US Cycling Team to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. His training paid off, and he earned a silver medal in the US National Cycling Championships. After a season racing in Europe with other young American riders, he felt he had taken his cycling career as far as he wanted. He was ready to move on and returned to the States.

Dirk moved to Summit County, and spent several years skiing. He relocated to Boulder to attend the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. It was here that he discovered his life's work. He graduated as a certified massage therapist in 1995.

If Dirk is involved in something, it is because he is passionate about it. His business, Massage Specialists, is one example. After graduating, he came to a crossroads. He didn't have much money and realized he could either rent an apartment to live in, or open an office for his new massage therapy practice. He opted for the office and lived in the back of his truck for eleven months, “sleeping in different neighborhoods each night,” he says, so he wouldn't get caught.

Living out of his truck wasn't easy for Dirk, and he took it as a challenge. Sincerely believing that anything is possible with a little determination, he looked at what he had—a truck, a massage therapy certificate, and lots of time—as a starting point for where he hoped to go.

 “You know,” he says with this little glimmer in his eye, “I had one client at that point, which translated to one hour of work a week, and 39 hours of marketing time available.” He pauses, smiles, and continues, “You can do a lot of marketing with 39 hours every week.” He committed himself full-time to building his massage practice, no small task in a town with the highest number of massage therapists per capita in the country.

Dirk started talking to people about how he could help them “without sounding like a used car salesman,” he says. His knowledge, energy, determination, and infectious grin paid off. His downtown business now employs 40 massage therapists. He recently expanded into One Boulder Fitness, also located downtown. He will be opening a location in Denver this spring. “When the Denver office opens” he says, “we'll employ a total of 80 massage therapists.”

Dirk attributes the success of his business to the overall vision behind Massage Specialists. “Our goal is to educate our clients as to why we are doing what we are doing, and what they can do on their own to help themselves.
“Also,” he continues, his eyes narrowing as if he is getting ready to drop through some class V rapids, “we believe our clients can be proactive in maintaining their own health. We are the catalyst to help them heal themselves.”

His enthusiasm for helping people through massage therapy and education is finding new avenues. He now presents seminars to massage therapists on treatment and marketing techniques, supporting the individual goals and talents of the therapists working for his company.

His business and his love for kayaking have come full circle. “Last year, I was really lucky because I spent a lot of time playing in the water. You have to be very tuned into your body to be kinesthetically aware, to be good at kayaking. This pays off with my clients and allows me to be more effective at work,” he says.

As for the kayaking aspect of his life, Dirk is having more fun every season. He recently learned to “loop” (an aerial move), and he can also be spotted doing cartwheels in his boat—another recently learned technique. During the kayaking season (which is at its peak from early April and runs until July, depending on flows), you can find Dirk playing at the Black Bear Hole in Lyons or the Golden White Water course during the week. Most weekends find him running a river somewhere. This summer, twelve to fifteen friends are doing a six-day trip on the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, a fact that makes his eyes grow wide and his grin even wider.

Dirk loves what he is doing and is in it for the long run. Whether he is working, playing, or exploring new methods to help his clients and his employees, Dirk is totally immersed in whatever he is doing. He practices the philosophy that to approach any facet of your life without passion and commitment is meaningless. As he puts it, “Anything else is short-term.”

Edward Bass
is a freelance writer based in the back of his Volkswagen camper. He can be reached at