By Charli Kerns
In July, after Wave Sport announced it was closing shop in North America, C&K published online a series of interviews with some of the kayak manufacturer’s former team paddlers. The article celebrated whitewater’s boom years in the words of eight well-known male athletes.
Missing from the story was any mention of the women who contributed to Wave Sport’s rich legacy — a glaring omission that former Wave Sport athlete Tanya Shuman was quick to point out.
“Unfortunately the article overlooked a large part of the heart of this company — women!” Shuman wrote on her Facebook profile, tagging many of the women who contributed to whitewater’s boom years. “Like many sports, the female contingent was downplayed (no interviews, no photos). Shocking, since the founder, Chan Zwanzig, was a huge advocate for women athletes.”
Big drops are photogenic and easy to write about. And, most of the time, the protagonists in those narratives are men.
Shuman’s criticism was spot-on, and it pointed to a larger issue: The paddling media as a whole has a history of overlooking women paddlers.
The post caused some soul-searching among C&K’s all-male editorial staff, and they asked me — an avid whitewater paddler, former C&K staffer and lifelong female — to investigate. I took the question to some of whitewater’s top athletes, and dug through old magazines, river histories and competition results. What I discovered is that the paddling media, and the industry as a whole really, is not necessarily overlooking women. They just don’t know where to look, or sometimes even what to look for.
In other words, the contributions women make to paddling are often more nuanced than the things we celebrate men for. Big drops are photogenic and easy to write about. And, most of the time, the protagonists in those narratives are men.
One woman who fits that go-big mold is Adriene Levknecht, known as the Queen of the Green for winning the famous North Carolina creek race a record seven times. She’s garnered plenty of press thanks to her paddling exploits and, it must be said, her world-class smile. “Female paddlers are beautiful,” Levknecht acknowledges. “Our bodies are sculpted and amazing.”
While the easy narrative about women athletes too often focuses on their looks, there’s a deeper story to tell. The river challenges women so differently, Levknecht says, that writers often overlook how far women push themselves mentally and physically on whitewater. There’s a depth to that experience — teamwork, mutual support, pushing past barriers — that resonates with all paddlers. It goes to the soul of the sport.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, as whitewater boomed and Wave Sport thrived, Zwanzig made sure women were equally represented in his company’s marketing and pro team. Wave Sport’s most influential kayak,the XXX, was originally designed as a women’s boat, and the company promoted the revolutionary playboat with a photo of Shuman performing a monster boof.
“Wave Sport’s progressive approach to boat design allowed women to take their first cartwheel and flatwater loop. It made all of the freestyle tricks possible for women,” Shuman says.
More than a decade on, whitewater’s boom years are a dim memory. The industry dollars that fueled the freestyle circuit are long gone. The world’s most prestigious whitewater competitions are now athlete-organized affairs like the Green Race, Idaho’s North Fork Championship and the Whitewater GrandPrix. The common denominator is creek racing, in which river-running skill trumps gender.
“In creeking, you have a rope in your boat and the guys have a rope in theirs. You’re paddling buddies, and the rest doesn’t matter,” says Nouria Newman, a Grand Prix champion and the first woman to claim a full descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, in 2014.
In other words, seeing women paddlers in the media matters less than seeing them on the river. And on that score, women have come a long way, says kayaker Katrina Van Wijk. “I’m enamored with how many women are paddling Class III and IV and mastering the basics, and I’m stoked that there’s now a women’s paddling scene. I didn’t have that when I started.”
Van Wijk is one of the world’s best female paddlers, and a co-founder of TiTS DEEP, which is perhaps best described as a media collective for women who rip — a hive of good times and mutual support that spins off cutting-edge whitewater videos.
“We decided to start our own little group promoting women’s strength on the water,” explains Van Wijk, adding that the group’s focus may change to camps and events designed to grow the communityas a whole. “Just being out there and being happy and having fun on the river is what’s going to change how women are seen in media and the sport,” she says.
Van Wijk’s words resonated as my friends and I caravanned to North Carolina’s Green River on August 30. We expected to join a big group that day, but when we rolled into the Fishtop Access parking lot, we were shocked. Women were everywhere, like everywhere, gathering their gear for the Green River Takeover. The brainchild of Dagger athlete Laura Farrell, this second annual gathering had no insurance waivers to sign, no fees to pay. It was just another fun day on the river with the ladies — all 56 of us.
After a few hours laughing, paddling, and soaking in the sun on the Upper Green, 27 of us continued down the Narrows. As Kesha Thompson glided through Go Left, I wondered how I had never met this woman who’s been paddling the Narrows since 1998. Being on the river with all these other women — some of them old hands like Thompson, others as fresh to the Green as I — made me feel that I belong to something. That was the idea for Green River Takeover, an experience that spoke to me with a voice more compelling than anything a pen or camera could create.
— This story first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak
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