Girls Gone Wildwater

Downriver racing's devoted core

This story is featured in the May 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

Tierney O'Sullivan at the 2010 Wildwater Nationals, Skagit River, Wash.

Tierney O'Sullivan at the 2010 Wildwater Nationals, Skagit River, Wash. Photo: Adam Elliott

By Susan Hollingsworth

THE QUESTION BEGAN BURNING IN MY MIND at the 2009 Cheat River Race: “What is that strange, bulbous boat and why does it always finish first?” Eventually, that question led me into the obscure and perpetually challenging world of wildwater (aka downriver) kayak racing.

Resembling the awkward love-child of a torpedo and a dragonfly, wildwater boats have long, skinny hulls that maximize speed while minimizing weight (and, unfortunately, stability). Their most salient feature is the widely flared “wings” aft of the cockpit, a concession to rules requiring these 14-foot, 9-inch boats to be at least 23.6 inches wide. They add a small measure of final stability and, more importantly, allow paddlers to lay the boat over onto the wing, and carve turns without easing off the gas.

Paddling these strange-looking thoroughbreds in whitewater is like nothing else in paddlesports. And they have long attracted a particularly devoted tribe of athletes.

Take Jennie Goldberg, a 54-year-old power utility environmental manager who travels from Seattle to Asheville, N.C., for occasional weekend training. Or Haley Popp, a veteran U.S. women’s junior team member, who chooses home-schooling in Chattanooga, Tenn. to optimize workout time. Or Tierney O’Sullivan, a Georgia college student who obsesses over her forward stroke.

“If you immediately love the feeling of being slightly tipsy, of going faster to feel more stable,” says Popp, already a wildwater aficionado at 17, “then you’ll be a wildwater paddler all your life.”

Goldberg, the founder and director of the League of Northwest Whitewater Racers, claims responsibility for introducing countless paddlers to racing in more than 22 years as an athlete and coach. In 2010, she claimed the female masters world title in Spain-a testament to a decade of what she calls a “hopeless addiction.”

“Once you are on your line, it suddenly becomes effortless,” says O’Sullivan, whose sweet smile hides the fierce power that won her the 2010 U.S. nationals. “Your boat and the current work together so you don’t have to fight anything, you can just paddle hard,” she says. I smile and nod because I know the feeling. Ever since that Cheat Fest two years ago, I’ve been paddling wildwater too. I’ve felt the rush of Mach 10 read-and-run, and I’m hooked.

And now, despite the thousands of miles separating us, I train with O’Sullivan, Popp, Goldberg, and a handful of other male and female members of the U.S. National Wildwater Team. Volunteer coaches monitor the progress and development of our small group, and we gather for several training camps a year.

Back home in Portland, Ore., slogging through another grueling flatwater session, I’m by myself, but not alone. I know the other girls are out there pushing themselves through the program’s same workouts. So I paddle a little harder. With nationals slated for Salida, Colo.’s famed FIBark festival in mid-June, and Team Trials on Kentucky’s Russell Fork in August, all our efforts lead to the June 2012 worlds on southeastern France’s Isère River. With the help of my coaches and teammates, I plan to be there.

Our commitment to this bizarre breed of racing might not turn any heads in Europe, the sport’s stronghold. But I’m betting this tenacious and disparate group bound by an uncommon obsession will yield the strongest female U.S. National Wildwater Team the sport has ever known.

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