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Freestyle Focus: Sage Donnelly

The teenage paddling phenom (and newly crowned junior women's world champ) is busting down the door

Photo by JOHN RATHWELL

"This is a moment I’ve been dreaming of since before I can remember," Sage Donnelly declares in front of the crowd on the Ottawa River. The 15-year-old beams with laughter as she claims her title as junior women’s champion at the 2015 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships. Donnelly reached the minimum age required to compete just one month prior to worlds. She made her entrance on the international championship scene by not only claiming gold in her junior category, but also posting a finals score of 588.33 — a single ride total higher than any of the senior women’s through the course of the entire event.

JrKW1 congratulate their new World Champion Sage Donnelly.
The field of junior women’s K-1 competitors congratulate their new World Champion Sage Donnelly. Photo Regina Nicolardi

In her 15 years, Donnelly has already put together a resume that would please anyone with a lifetime of professional paddling experience. It includes winning the women’s freestyle contest at the 2013 GoPro Mountain Games and her hometown Reno River Festival, placing on the podium at the GoPro Games’ Steep Creek Championship the past two years, and even being voted as Canoe & Kayak’s 2014 Female Paddler of the Year. That only scratches the surface of trophies she lugs around in a van, traveling North America with her parents Stephanie Viselli and Matthew Donnelly, who also takes on the role of coach and paddling buddy. If her success as a prodigy in the sport isn’t impressive enough, throw in the fact she has accomplished all of this while wearing an insulin pump.

"It makes it harder, but I take it as it comes and just kind of work with it," Donnelly explains of managing her life as a world-class athlete living with type 1 diabetes. To say that Donnelly, who also has thyroid disease and celiac disease, has not let her condition stand in the way of living an active lifestyle, would be a massive understatement, and she hopes the story of her early success can positively influence others.

"I do try to show that I don’t let things stop me, and I hope that inspires others to not let things stop them from achieving their goals," says Donnelly. "My big motto is ‘Never give up on your dreams. You can become anything you want to.’"

Sage Donnelly tearing up Garberator in the JrWK1 Finals.
Sage Donnelly tearing up Garberator in the JrWK1 Finals. Photo Regina Nicolardi

When she isn’t on the water, Donnelly is involved with organizations such as American Whitewater and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), an organization seeking a cure for type 1 diabetes and providing support for those living with the condition.

The young superstar also takes time to speak with her peers, mostly at schools local to her home base of Carson City, Nevada, which Donnelly does not personally attend as she is home-schooled. She has spoken to her fellow teens on such topics as living, and being an athlete, with diabetes, and even a presentation on the different career paths you could have involving kayaking, such as cinematography, guiding, and of course, competing.

"They seemed pretty jazzed about it," says Donnelly, believing the students responded well to the idea of being a professional paddler. "Hopefully they looked up more about kayaking and some of them have gotten into it now."

Hearing everything Donnelly has already fit into her life makes it easy to forget she is just teenager, complete with paddling idols, which she has competed directly against, and who are also impressed with what the junior world champion has been able to accomplish to this point.

"She is busting down barriers," says Adriene Levknecht, who competed in the women’s kayak at the freestyle world championship, and has faced off against Donnelly in creek races and freestyle events. "I’ve watched her grow up since she was 7, and it’s been fun watching her bust in on the scene," adds Levknecht, who stood in Donnelly’s corner in the coaches’ raft throughout her campaign at the freestyle worlds.


The young phenom only plans on picking up steam. She wants to continue progressing in the sport and taking on new challenges through the different disciplines she participates in.

Next year she hopes to compete in the Elite Division at the North Fork Championship on the Payette River, after competing in the Expert Division this year and also completing her personal first descent of the Elite Division rapid, Jacob’s Ladder.

In her slalom kayak she is training to make the U.S. team for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and says no matter what type of boat she is in, an Olympic berth is the goal.

"Everything I do is focused on making the team for that, and hopefully coming home with a medal."

With such a clear vision of what she looks to accomplish, winning the freestyle world championship is just the beginning for Sage Donnelly.

Sage Donnelly. Photo Regina Nicolardi
Sage Donnelly. Photo Regina Nicolardi

— Read more in our Freestyle Focus series with a look at U.S. competitor Adriene Levknecht.

— Watch Donnelly’s acceptance at the 2014 Canoe & Kayak Awards.