For one of the greatest bass anglers in the history of our sport, the number 19 is not a destination. It's a stepping stone to bigger and better things in a career that seems to have few boundaries.
Kevin VanDam has qualified for the Bassmaster Classic 19 consecutive years — every year since he turned pro in 1991 (which is just a 19 and its mirror image).
Of course, 19 is not the record. The record is 28, and it belongs to the man who basically owns the Classic record book, Rick Clunn.
Clunn qualified for the Classic every year between 1974 and 2001. His streak ended at age 56 in 2002. If VanDam can stay on top of his game until that age, he'll make it to 33 straight Classics ending in 2023.
Can he do it? I think most bass experts would agree that he can ... if he can stay focused and healthy. Focus has never been a problem for VanDam, but he's still relatively young and driven to succeed. He still has mountains to climb — like Clunn's consecutive Classic record or Roland Martin's record for BASS wins (19) or Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles (9). If VanDam surpasses those records, there's no one to compete against but himself.
As long as there are records, numbers and icons to shoot at, VanDam seems likely to stay right on track. But what happens when the only target he has to shoot at is himself? That's when his drive will truly be tested.
As for his health, that seems to be very good now, but the lifestyle of a professional angler — especially one who pushes himself as hard as VanDam — is a grueling one. KVD looks like an athlete, but he's very lean, even thin, and the fact that he probably makes many more casts than any other pro on the trail doesn't help him. All that casting, all that reeling and all that fishing under the toughest conditions has to be hard on joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles.
Now in his 40s, VanDam is showing no signs of letting up. His tournament and personal appearance schedules are challenging. His dedication to family and business is admirable. His focus and drive are unquestioned. But he's now over 40, and who among us who has reached that milestone can say we're as strong, as nimble or as driven as we were 15, 10 or even five years before.
For now, we should marvel at KVD and all he is and does. He is an athlete on top of his game. With absolutely nothing to prove to his fans, sponsors or competition, he still goes out every day and impresses. No tournament can be considered over until he weighs in, no how-to story is complete without his comments and no discussion of the greats of the sport can end until he is paid his due.
VanDam is something very special to the sport of bass fishing. Years from now, if we last so long, we'll be telling our children or grandchildren that we saw him fish just as our grandfathers and fathers talked about seeing Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan.
For now, though, it's 19 and counting. Who knows how far he'll go?
Eighteen is tomorrow's number. It's a day for women and bass fishing.