Ashley Nee racing at the 2016 team trials in Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning — courtesy of Ashley Nee
An addiction to kayaking first gripped US women’s paddler Ashley Nee at ten years old while she was attending Valley Mill, an outdoor summer camp near the Potomac River just outside the nation’s capital. The camp and its kayak school are known to have produced a number of the top racers in US paddling history. One day at Valley Mill, Nee was coerced by a friend to ditch her open canoe and give kayaking a go. The next day Nee met with her first coach, Martin Nevaril, and began what would grow into a 17-year journey to the Olympics.
Persistence has been key for Nee who narrowly missed out in qualifying for the games in both 2008 and 2012. Finally in August 2016, Nee will race in Rio de Janeiro at her first Summer Games.
The idea of competing in the Olympics is something Nee still finds unbelievable despite the great enthusiasm she displays for the sport. In Brazil, the 27-year-old Maryland native hopes to find the kind of runs where she is "moving with the water" and reaching a potential in the sport she feels she has yet to attain.
Beyond personal success, Nee holds a goal to bring more women into slalom and use her abilities and coaching to pave an easier path for them. Through all the challenges she has personally faced in the sport, Nee tries to never lose sight of what she believes is most important in paddling. To remind herself – and advise the next generation of racers – of this, the US athlete thinks back to an anxious day at the Great Falls of the Potomac and the words of her late friend Louise Jull: “It’s just kayaking. Go have fun.”
"I think that’s the best part about the sport," says Nee. "You meet a lot of really cool people along the way, but you’ve got to enjoy it."
C&K recently had a chance to catch up with Ashley Nee and learn a little more about the 2016 Olympian:
Ashley Nee 2014 world championship. Deep Creek, Maryland. Photo Regina Nicolardi
Canoe & Kayak: You are currently over in Europe at the world cup with the rest of the US team. During training sessions do you and the team have a favorite type of practice routine or fun way to take the edge off?
Nee: It’s a bit of a secret, but Casey Eichfeld and I have had a game since we were kids that we play whenever we are at big whitewater. The name of the game is ‘I’m better than you,’ and it’s kind of like horse. One of us picks a move and we each try it. Whoever does it better gets a point, and we challenge each other that way. We have done some real crazy big whitewater moves before. It can be a little scary, but it’s always fun.
C&K: Twice before you came close to qualifying for the Olympics. How does it feel to finally make the US squad?
Nee: In 2008 I qualified in the berth for the Olympics then dislocated my shoulder in China. I trained on it for five months and unfortunately was fourth in team selection so I didn’t even make the national team that year. I quit the sport and moved to Hawaii for two years. Then I came back for London and it was a technical tie. So even though I won in the 2012 Olympic trials, it reverted to the year before and I lost. So I had to watch that from home. The next day I started training for Rio. Now it’s happening, but I’m not sure I’m going to truly believe it until I walk into the opening ceremonies. The whole idea of actually accomplishing the dream I set out to do over 12 years ago is kind of unreal.
C&K: What brought you back to slalom after quitting in 2008?
Nee: It felt like unfinished business. I knew I hadn’t paddled as fast as I could or reached my potential. I had a funny conversation in Hawaii with my now wife, who said, ‘You know you love kayaking.’ And I told her I didn’t need it anymore and she said, ‘Yeah you do.’ Two weeks later I moved back to Maryland in the middle of snow-mageddon, while my teammates were in Costa Rica and started training again. I was lucky she moved back to Maryland with me. It’s been slalom ever since.
C&K: What do you hope to accomplish in Rio?
Nee: Having qualified is an achievement for me. My goal in Rio is to have as many of my best runs as I possibly can. I really want to race to my potential. When I came back to the sport I knew I hadn’t reached that yet. I still maybe haven’t. I want to just do as well as I can. A lot of people talk about medals and of course you dream about them. The pictures of them just came out and they are gorgeous. That would be incredible and unbelievable, but for me what I really want is to do the best I can.
I guess in Rio I’m looking for those runs where you’re with the water, where you’re moving with the water and it’s not a total struggle. If I can do that I’ll be really excited.
C&K: Do you have a favorite distraction from slalom?
Nee: When we are in Europe, we get a day off about every ten days, and my dad always told me, ‘You’re traveling, go see the world.’ I love to check out the new city I’m in by going sightseeing or doing some touristy stuff. When I’m at home it’s probably my dog. I love to go take her down by the creek. She loves kayaking too.
C&K: What kind of role has your home river, the Potomac, played in your paddling?
Nee: The Potomac River is amazing. It has Class I through VI rapids. You can start below Great Falls and paddle up to it, and really train your skills, and get ready for bigger stuff. It also has one of the best paddling communities in the world. All of my friends are whitewater boaters. They are always pushing me to get out there in the big stuff. One of my best friends, Geoff Calhoun, he has been pushing me to get out on the falls all the time, and I keep saying, ‘After the Olympics.’ Soon I won’t have an excuse anymore.
C&K: The Potomac also has a rich history in Olympic racing, how inspirational has that been for you?
Nee: We have some great training environments. We have the Feeder Canal. We have Dickerson Whitewater Course at part of NRG’s power plant. We have the David Taylor Model Basin. They let us paddle inside in the middle of winter, and that’s incredible. All of these things wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have the people that came before me. I remember being a kid, and Davey Hearn training me my first winter. That’s incredible. Sarah Leith was my total idol growing up, and I remember watching in awe as she paddled at the Feeder. I wanted to be like her. Scotty Parsons and I trained together. Recently Fabien Lefevre moved to DC and I got to paddle on his wake for a year and a half absorbing everything I could. So yeah there’s been a really great history. And my coach Silvan Poberaj has been to seven Olympic games. You would be surprised that on the little feeder canal there are so many Olympians and so much Olympic history.
Ashley at the 2016 team trials in Oklahoma City. Photo Tom Dunning — courtesy of Ashley Nee
Follow Ashley Nee on her journey to the 2016 Olympics:www.ashleynee.com
Stay tuned to C&K for ongoing coverage of the Road to Rio