Equality in the extreme

Recently, I participated in an extreme kayak event called the North Fork Championships. This event has become quite prestigious among whitewater athletes. The event has been taking place for the last several seasons and has attracted international talent. This year was the first time the event had a large enough field of female competitors to have a women’s class. In order to ensure that competitors in the women’s category would exist the organizers of the event secured enough funds to offer an equal cash purse for both male and female competitors. 

That is basically the sterile version of the facts as they apply to equality in sport. Now for the million-dollar question? What is it like to be a woman competing at a class V whitewater venue? In order to truly answer such a question, one must first observe the playing field itself: whitewater not just any whitewater big water class V. While many rapids may carry a class V rating not all of the rivers that are rated class V have the same characteristics as the North Fork of the Payette. The traits of this river are unique due to multiple factors. Many of the rapids were created due to the introduction of rocks and other debris non- indigenous to the original river bed. Although, snowmelt and precipitation can impact the water flow there is a dam that is controlled so the lake levels will not get too high. This keeps flooding from occurring on other rivers that are in more densely populated urban areas lower down in the water shed. So what does all this technical jargon mean, and how does it apply to being a female competitor? Believe it or not the details outlined in the above paragraph are the details that create one of the most equitable factors I have ever experienced in the sport. The  water was hi and quite variable for me the days leading up to the race just as it was for my male counterparts. The river did not just turn from a class V stream into an easier river just because I was a female. Nope the water was big and fast for me just as it was for everyone else that raced. 

Now one might ask such a question does training on hi water affect a woman differently than it does a male? This was something I got to find out. I did so because I asked. That is the thing for me that paddling in whitewater that is substantial has taught me if the conditions seem on the edge of my ability level how do I push it and still survive. When I began in the sport in the early 1990’s there were less women to refer to. The more experienced paddlers that were pushing the limits were men. That was the situation. Over the years I had to learn to take the gender question out. Had I limited myself to the concept that because my arms were shorter, my body not as strong and whatever else women are often told I would have not ever tried many of the feats I have tried in my lifetime. Early on what I had to do was figure out a way to make it possible to run the big whitewater I wanted to run where I was going to be in the least amount of peril. Surprise, the guys also must do this. It is often assumed that an extreme athlete is some sort of indestructible action figure. They fling themselves off big drops hoping to survive at the bottom. Its about having the gumption to fire it up no matter what the situation. This is not really the case. The real truth is that one must take a lot of time to prepare both their mind and body to preform in these circumstances. The big difference between success and failure over the long term is to know when things are out of range and to have the humility to slow down and observe the situation and make sure the conditions are going to be right for a successful outcome to occur. When people don’t take stock of the conditions 100% that is when athletes get hurt injured or even die. Watching the beater run on film is one thing but a beater is another. Running an entire class V big water rapid upside down after carping multiple rolls is almost as terrifying, as rolling up right before a crux move completely offline and having to create a new line right next to a cave or sieve. Doing this with a broken nose when one can’t breathe is not easy for anyone. This can be a do or die situation. These situations are not ideal for anyone despite gender. So there it was. I have to assess will I be a beater, or will I be able to nail it. If I can’t nail it now what do I need to practice so I can be successful at a later time?  

What happens when I apply gender equality to the equation of reality? This is a real situation for many women now who are pushing the limits. I am sure it has to be anyway. I know I struggle with the idea that I have something to prove. Racing this year at the North Fork race was ultimately just as much about the journey of letting go the baggage associated with being a female athlete as much as it was about racing on a class V river. 

Photo credit: Sarah Wysong

In the two decades that I have been paddling much has changed. How do I know this? It is simple the last time I drove to the North Fork to run it on the way back from west coast freestyle team trials in 1997 I left without even getting on the river. I had a long boat that was unstable, and I lacked the skill to safely navigate the river at all. My paddling partner that I was meeting Richard and I met at the pull out by Nut cracker to scout then we drove down the road to look at the other rapids pulling out by each pullout. I recall at that time having a desire to push the limits of the sport. I was a female athlete at that time just as I am now. I had a lot to prove because I had just been selected to the US freestyle team and I had a desire to make my mark on the sport. I was a newly sponsored athlete and I wanted to prove myself so I could progress up the ladder in the sport. On that day when I looked at the features of the many rapids and their length I knew that I was not ready yet to paddle this river. I was in my early 20’s at the time. I told Richard that I was not comfortable with my ability to paddle the run and I left. Richard ran the river that day with someone else and he ended up flipping of one of the reactionary waves and not being able to roll up because he was knocked unconscious. I read about this entire account six months later in American Whitewater. 

Recollection of this account has less to do with my gender and more to do with the simple aspect of wanting to preserve my life. In the twenty years that has passed since my first view of this run there has been enough change that running such water is not less dangerous by any means but more possible despite the risk due to technological advancement in equipment and skill. A lot of people had to beater so rivers that once were only classified as upper lever extreme runs can now be regularly run and raced on. In the time since my first trip to Idaho I did much to improve my skills. I learned to paddle slalom, I began training in the gym and doing other forms of fitness activities. I got coaching to better my paddling form and I got a more modern whitewater craft capable of better maneuverability. 

Even with all of these improvements I made to myself and my equipment the river was still substantial. That was the reality of it. There is a fine line between being a pansy and being conservative. I had to make sure that my past experience and my desire to prove myself as a capable female athlete stayed in check and did not overwhelm me to the point I could not be successful. 

Did I really have to do multiple laps of the whole river everyday to be capable of racing one rapid? Did I want to? This was the question I would ask myself daily as I would see some of the guys running the entire 14 miles of whitewater. I ran the lower 5 and I posted myself at the qualification rapid and made laps daily of this. The S turn rapid was not easy by any means however there was a large pool below the rapid. I could run the rapid and not have to contemplate the what if factor so much. This was my first year at the race. I did not desire to have a mess for myself. Perhaps that is what being a woman in the sport has taught me. Like it or not women seem to be scrutinized to a higher level than their male counterparts. If one flails badly as a female I have always felt that less of a chance for redemption is going to be granted. At a race where the objective was to integrate a  women’s class I certainly did not want to be the one to  show any incapability. Even if that meant reeling it in a bit and not pushing it so much. My goal was to show that women did belong on class V and should be there. I had to realize that as an athlete I needed to preserve my personal energy and just focus on what was needed. I realize that this might not get any sort of whitewater award, for my ability to be an extreme female paddler in the modern era. However, it would guarantee that I could return the following year to race again. Pushing my limits to the point that I end up injured or expiring because I had drowned does not. 

Being actually capable to run class V whitewater is a process that takes a while. Some people seem like they may be on the fast track to success. However, the thing that is often unique is that we don’t always have the real view of everyone’s path. Even the top people in the sport sometimes end up walking rapids. I know because on a day when I was somewhat discouraged because I was feeling uneasy about running the signature rapid on the North Fork river that is the site of the finals, I watched a group of recognized top level male extreme paddlers walk the rapid.  The 4000 level which was the level that the North Fork was at prior to the race was hi water. At this level a mistake at the top of the Jacobs Ladder rapid would have been a disaster area for anyone. I found it comforting to know that the top men that are deemed to be the rad dads of the sport also experience a limit and must assess these. This made me feel better about the fact that I was uneasy about firing up the Jacobs ladder rapid at the higher flow. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Wysong

The details of that rapid are stuck in my brain. I  spent multiple days studying every detail of that rapid. I will take these details home to the Gauley river and iron them out in a place that is predictable, and I am aware of the outcome. 

Although, I was a little disappointed that I did not get to be the first woman to fire it up off the ramp above Jacobs ladder I can take away the concept that I was now able to have the possibility of actually having the tools in my tool box to race in such an event at all. 

This is the point of creating qualifications for such races that are in a less substantial part of the river. Although, speed is the factor being used to define progression to the next level one must be grateful that something exists to be an indicator of capability. In the present day it is not just about being the only woman who shows up. The women are becoming a strong force in the sport. Instead of qualifying to the next level because only a few showed up one must rise to the occasion and be the best now.  This does not happen overnight for anyone. Male or Female. 

This is the thing that I wanted to write about for my female counterparts that are coming up and pushing limits and boundaries of the sport. In the age of social media posting one’s exploits is easy. Extreme sport is emerging as a mainstream sport of this generation. When I started kayaking it was a fringe sport.  It is like a fraternity of those who push the limits and everyone desires to be included. As women I think it is easy to desire inclusion and it feels as if an offense exists when people question our skills and abilities. Especially, if it is a male athlete. Is this guy questioning me because I am a woman often comes to our mind. When I began kayaking I pushed limits faster than my skills really could keep up with. I got myself into a lot of situations I could not always handle. This mindset took a very long time to rectify. I had to sit down and ask myself do I really want to be a beater? I slowed my roll a bit and took the steps needed to improve my skills. This took me a long time. The big thing that helped me more than anything was to find the other women in the sport that were respectable and learn. This was not easy for me to want to do. I think there is a certain mentality associated with being an athlete in general. When one desires to be the best, they absorb a mindset of superiority. This does not really help a person because it limits their humility so they can not learn. When I was young, I would see older ladies in the sport and say to myself I must be better than this person they are old. That was not really the case. As women we are often socially conditioned for years that as a gender, we are of limited capacity physically. Growing up hearing things like “ah honey you are not going to be as strong as those boys” This is the 1950’s era preface to every statement woman have been conditioned with for the last several decades. What hearing this does is it not only limits what we as women think of ourselves, but it limits what we think of other women. 

The fact of the matter is that the strength of our women’s sport community exists where at one time it did not. Where it exists is in the numbers of women who are now competing at top level events. We no longer must rely solely on the guys to push us. The women are strong enough in numbers and capability to now push themselves to higher levels. 

That is the thing that I feel makes running extreme whitewater for women possible just as much as the advancements in equipment. When I began paddling with other women I progressed and improved. This is a simple concept. Here is the thinking as an athlete I have had to learn to avoid. It is the solo mindset. This is a bit difficult sometimes because there are times when paddling alone feels comforting. As a competitor one just wants to win and not talk to anyone else. One must be social in order to paddle with other people and there are times when one’s well of sociability has run dry. 

I have experienced this as an athlete. There are times in the sport where one is not really a superstar yet. Clawing to the top takes time and energy and having to be polite to people one is ultimately competing against is difficult. I want to kick ass not kiss it. This too makes men an easier companion on the river because they are not really our competition. This is a mentality that often gets fueled by the people that encourage us. Unknowingly, we have this inner animosity that builds. No matter how sweet the exterior of the female athlete may be underneath all that women want to win. 

Honestly, that is the one difference between women and men as it applies to competition. Women can be very vicious competitors. This is how it is. The façade of gentility that women develop to placate societies viewpoint often covers a true sprit of ferocity. Aggressive women can be terrifying to the world. I know this personally. The struggle of the female athlete at least what I have experienced is how to reduce one’s inner vigor enough to train with others in a polite fashion. 

This has been a lifelong struggle for me. However, in order to truly be excellent, one needs others. There is a time and place for personal reflection and then one must find a way to reengage with the world. 

The reason is that our struggles as humans do not differ from each other. They are just the same. I think the challenge for women is to learn how to be supportive of each other. 

Sometimes, supporting another person means that we understand that this younger athlete might become better than us one day. 

This is a hard pill to swallow when it happens. This year I turn 45. Both men and women age and as one ages, they must know that added work must be done to maintain a hi level of competitiveness. It is just the way it is. One must accept that time changes things. The thing that people get in return for age is wisdom.  This is the gift of age that people may often discount. In any case today I wished to possibly impart my wisdom upon the world hopefully to improve things for others. 

That is it! 

– Tracy Hines

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