"When I feel exhausted during a race, I think about making it to the next bridge before the sun comes up,” said Rebecca (Barton) Davis, 28, about the AuSable Canoe Marathon, a 120-mile canoe race that starts at night in Grayling, Michigan and finishes the next day in Oscoda. “Then if we see a light from a canoe in front of us I think, 'We can get those guys.’ It's the little things — taking it one stroke at a time until we find ourselves at the finish line.”
Race organizers are working to increase gender equality in canoe races like the AuSable. Their efforts to make canoe races more appealing to women parallel Davis's incremental approach on the water—stroke by stroke, bridge by bridge.
"The women that make it here are tough," says Davis' race partner, Edith MacHattie. "It's still a man's sport, but they are trying to make it better for women by doing things like increasing prize money. Slowly but surely, we're starting to see a change."
While there were only five women's teams out of the 84 teams that started this year, it was the highest number of females to participate in the race (matching 2013, 2016 and 2017).
According to MacHattie and Davis, women's divisions used to offer little to no prize money for races. This year, the Clinton Regatta in New York offered extra prize money raised by women paddlers to support women in professional canoe racing, totaling $3,500 ($500 more than the C2 Pro Men’s and mixed division). Davis and MacHattie won first-place in their division for that race—the first of three races in the Triple Crown of Canoe Racing.
Beyond equal pay, which women struggle to attain in most sports and careers, Davis suggests that more women are participating in canoe races because it plays to their strengths.
"This is a sport where women can really excel,” said Davis. “Power is not everything. It's important to be efficient and run good lines. Canoe racing is about being smart and mentally tough."
This strategy has worked out well for the duo—they set the record for the women's division in 2017 and finished in the top 20 (out of 73 teams to cross the finish line) at the 2018 AuSable Canoe Marathon.
"I'm never going to give up, especially because I'm a woman,” said MacHattie. “All of these strong men around us are almost twice our size and have big muscles. Whenever I feel discouraged I tell myself, 'I have to prove myself. I've got to keep going.’"
Davis and MacHattie represent a contingent of female participants who are getting faster and moving up year after year. The canoeing world has taken notice of the women’s success and, according to Davis, organizers are starting to invest in women racers because they often do more to promote the sport and involve their entire families, while other teams are just there to compete.
Davis hopes to see more women get involved with canoe racing at all levels.
"There are other women out there who want to do the same thing, so it’s just a matter of finding them and going for it,” she said. “Don't be afraid to race. Everyone has been last before. You figure it out and learn along the way!"
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