Paddling Ahead

Adam Van Grack flows through complex litigation just as he does whitewater rapids

Published in 2024 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

By Emma Way on December 13, 2023

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Whitewater kayaking is like skiing, but in an avalanche. The rapids are always changing, whipping the kayak and occupant off course. The feeling Adam Van Grack gets when he’s flying through rough rapids is one that’s matched only when he’s in the courtroom. Both require focus and flexibility.

“You have to take every rapid in every moment, understanding that your game plan might change immediately,” says the Olympic-qualifying athlete and commercial litigator.

If an opponent presents new information in the middle of trial, Van Grack paddles through, adjusts his course and finds a way to move forward. “You can’t always have a set plan. What strokes are you going to take with what’s in front of you?”

Van Grack grew up around law—both his father and uncle were lawyers. His path to whitewater kayaking was more serendipitous. In high school, he worked as a counselor at a summer camp and was assigned to teach kids how to kayak—a sport he knew next-to-nothing about at the time.

He white-knuckled through the rapids at first. “You’re restrained until you can solidly roll your kayak—because it’s going to happen,” Van Grack says, sharing the same words he’d tell his campers.

Once he mastered the combat roll and successfully flipped himself back up, he remembers feeling, “I now have freedom.”

His love of the rapids grew from there—and living close to the Potomac River, a whitewater mecca, certainly helped. Van Grack stuck with the sport through law school at Washington University and in the early years of his career, training before the sun rose and after it set to prepare for the 2004 Olympics.

For most Olympic hopefuls, their sport is their only job. After one race, a teammate invited Van Grack out for pizza, but he turned him down because he had to finish document review and brief analysis for a case. “It almost didn’t compute in his head that one of his friends and competitors at the Olympic trials not only had a full-time job, but was an attorney,” he says.

Although Van Grack didn’t make the Olympic team (though he did crack to top 20), his passion for the sport has endured through his legal work and beyond as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s National Governing Body for canoe and kayak sports. After serving on a number of local, regional and national boards for whitewater kayak and canoe, the USOC awarded Van Grack the prestigious Havens Leadership Award in 2015.

At Longman & Van Grack, the firm he helped open 10 years ago, Van Grack has grown a specialty in sports law. He has represented Olympians and other professional athletes, as well as team owners and athletic organizations.

Now he’s paddling toward more turbulent waters. In November, Van Grack ran to become one of the next city councilors in his hometown of Rockville, the same city where his dad served as mayor in the 1980s. “If you can give back, you have an obligation to do so,” he says.

Complicated issues don’t scare Van Grack in appellate courtrooms. He credits the rapids with preparing him for them.

“I love the detail of complex legal arguments. I actually look forward to it. I’m getting the opportunity to really get into the detail of a legal argument with the people who know this law the best. How lucky am I?” he says. “I’m definitely an eternal optimist. Glass half full? Absolutely.”

Van Grack’s next big adventure is the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in remote Idaho, which he has done before but his 14-year-old son Caleb hasn’t. They’ll spend the next year prepping for the challenging class IV conditions, but Van Grack knows you can never fully prepare for the untamed rapids.

All you can do is paddle through, adjust course and find a way to move forward.

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