Sage Donnelly: Beyond Her Years

A conversation with 13-year-old paddling prodigy

Sage Donnelly killing it at freestyle. Photo courtesy Sage Donnelly and Steve Silk

Sage Donnelly killing it at freestyle. Photo courtesy Sage Donnelly and Steve Silk

Is Sage Donnelly Female Paddler of the Year?
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We’re used to hearing about young kayaking phenoms with the last name Jackson. Now there’s one named Sage Donnelly.

Forget for a second that the 13-year-old from Carson City, Nev.  creekboats, paddles slalom and SUPs better than most women twice her age. Her real forte is freestyle, as evidenced by her winning the women’s – yes, the women’s – division at this year’s GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colo.

And forget that she lives half the year in a van with her five dogs and parents, paddling all over the country. She does this all despite having Type 1 diabetes and celiac and thyroid disease. Her success is proof that you can still go big no matter what is trying to keep you down.

While other kids her age are smitten with Justin Bieber, Sage is obsessed with kayaking. For good reason. Her parents Matthew Donnelly and Stephanie Viselli began taking her out in an Eskimo Topo Duo at age 2. She was paddling her own kayak,  a Jackson Fun 1, by age 3, and by 5 was running Class II. Her roll came when she was 7, as did runs down the likes of Satan’s Cesspool on the South Fork of the American and the Grand Canyon.

Her river-paddling resume has only become more padded since then. After wrapping up 2012 as the year’s Point Series Champion, as well as Slalom K-1 and C-1 Cub Cadet national champion, she’s upped her game even more, taking first place in Women’s Pro Freestyle, Slalom and Boater Cross at the Reno Festival; first in Junior Women’s Freestyle at the Buena Vista PaddleFest; and then first in the women’s division of the GoPro Mountain Games. Throw in another first in Junior Women’s Freestyle at the Payette River Games and it’s clear she’s a rising star to be reckoned with in the world of whitewater.

We caught up with her after she finished competing in early Octobers’ Slalom Nationals (which, yes, she again dominated in her division) while she was on the road to yet another river.

CanoeKayak.com: What do your friends think of your lifestyle and kayaking ability?
Sage Donnelly:  All of my friends kayak so they don’t think I’m too crazy at all …

How do you handle school?
I’m homeschooled so I just do school work wherever I am. We are flexible. Some days I will do multiple lessons, and then not do any school for a few days. It depends on what I am working on.

You spend a lot of time on the road in your van with your mom and dad. What do you like about it?
I love how close it makes my family and that I get to see so many new places and meet so many new people. My dad is with us most of the time also, so it is great for the family.

Does all that traveling and kayaking make you miss the more conventional upbringing of a regular kid?
No. I’ve never been to regular school. I have so many friends across the country who go to the same competitions as me and have the same passion, so I’ve never really wanted to have a normal upbringing.

How’d it feel to win the GoPro Mountain Games this year, especially competing in the senior women’s division?
It felt awesome, but it was also very humbling to compete against the caliber of women there. Competing against the women was fun and very exciting; they’re a great group of women!

What type of boating do you like best?
I like all of the different disciplines that I do equally. They all have something different that makes me love them. I feel each discipline—freestyle, slalom, creeking and SUP—add to each other and make me a better overall boater.

We hear you’re training for the Team Trials next year … excited for that?
Yes. I’m only 13 and can’t make the official teams until I turn 15, so I have two more years of training in both freestyle and slalom before I can make the teams. I think it’s actually a benefit for me since it gives me a few more years to grow, strengthen and mature before I am eligible. And since I compete in K-1 and C-1 in slalom, as well as freestyle, I still have a lot of work to do.

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