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How to Grow a Women’s Race

The Whitewater King of New York organizer tried everything to elevate the Queens of the sport, including prize kittens. What went wrong?

By Kenny Unser // Photos by Eric Adsit

In many ways, the Whitewater King of New York (KoNY) race series made great strides forward in 2017. Its three races saw record participation. It debuted a live electronic timing system at the Eagle Race on Sept. 3, while registration successfully moved online.

Participation by women, however, declined. And that trend occurred despite focused efforts to grow the women's division. The KoNY awards ceremony, a centerpiece of the Adirondack region’s storied Moose River Festival, left each female competitor present with a bounty of prizes consisting of gear and apparel. The newly crowned co-Queens of New York, Erin Savage and Genevieve Royer, even both won a free kitten from a local veterinarian. The men received nothing.

In 2017, video messaging and specific promotions targeting Queen of New York (QoNY) participation were among the most viewed and engaged posts on KoNY's social media pages. In previous years, participants claimed giveaway prizes like Dagger kayaks and Werner paddles awarded at random, with additional prizes exclusively reserved for QoNY participants. Often the value of women's prizes exceeded $100 per racer in the series, with gift certificates awarded to women worth as much as double the amount awarded to men. Still, the QoNY series averages four women competing in the each year, with only four women ever completing three races in a season.

Sarah Fick drops off Knife's Edge rapid on the Moose River. (Photo:Eric Adsit)

What gives? As the series organizer, I'm left wondering what more I can do to encourage women to participate. Looking for answers, I started by asking the most dedicated Queen of New York participant, Erin Savage, to provide some perspective. Savage tied for the QoNY title in 2014 and 2017. She is an Asheville, N.C.-based environmental activist working for Appalachian Voices. As an organizer herself of a multi-sport event (Jerry's Baddle), I know she has put some thought into how to drive women's participation in racing. Friendship plays a large part in Savage's willingness to make the 16-plus-hour drive to New York twice each fall. Savage has formed substantial bonds with other women competing in the series such as Daphnee Tuzlak, Margaret Williams, and Genevieve Royer. These enduring friendships have extended well beyond the Adirondacks, and cultivated a supportive, rather than competitive atmosphere.

Erin Savage boofs the narrow left line at Funnel Rapid on the Moose River. (Photo: Eric Adsit)

"I really enjoy racing, because it makes rivers I already know more challenging and teaches me a lot. I think it has made me a better, if not faster kayaker,” Savage said. “But racing also increases the pressure I feel. If you go fast, sometimes you crash hard – in front of a bunch of people. Sometimes it can feel like you're 'that girl' who crashed if you don't do well, whereas when a guy crashes, he might be singled out less. I try to keep a balance between kayaking for fun, and pushing myself to compete. I always hope that my participation might inspire more girls to try racing."

Top 3 point series finishers in the Queen of New York (l to r), Sarah Fick (80 pts), Genevieve Royer (260 pts), and Erin Savage (260 pts). (Photo: Eric Adsit)

Genevieve Royer tied with Savage for 2017 Queen of New York. She was the second-place finisher among a large field of women in the 2017 Quebec Extreme Whitewater Series and will be returning to North Carolina for her second Green Race this week. Royer is a talented paddler with a passion for kayak racing. Accustomed to the big-water rivers in her native Quebec, Royer admitted to being nervous about the rocky and technical courses of the King of New York. For her, facing the challenge of a new race course involves managing pressure and nervousness. As she contemplates new runs, Royer finds it helpful to confide in women for encouragement and the support to trust in her abilities.

Royer points to the Quebec Extreme Whitewater Series as successfully inspiring the community of Quebecois women to participate in racing. According to Royer, integrating race courses of varied difficulty brings top talent to accessible runs allowing novice paddlers to participate in events with the region's top paddlers. Royer emphasizes the value in mentors to act as both benchmarks and inspiration to aspiring athletes. Royer aims to encourage more women in the Quebec paddling community to compete for future QoNY titles.

Genevieve Royer follows Allie Burhans down the right side of Shurform rapid on the Bottom Moose. (Photo: Eric Adsit)

Absorbing Savage and Royer’s perspectives, I better understood their individual motivations to race yet I was still at a loss for how I could effectively grow women's participation in the QoNY series. Jean Slade, a representative of KoNY sponsor, NRS, pushed me to think about my concerns differently saying, "women don't necessarily want events and articles that are specifically tailored to us. We just want to have equal space and equal support on and off the river. That starts with women supporting women, but behind that, men need to help create an atmosphere of inclusion for women on and off the river."

Perhaps I can't coax participation with kittens and free gear. People race for many reasons and bring their ideas and perspectives along with them to these events. Grassroots paddling events like the Whitewater King of New York are reflections of their greater community.

Savage and Royer share a common passion and bring their experiences back to their respective communities. It's their energy and enthusiasm that may have the most influence on others to participate. Jean Slade encapsulated the task ahead best:

"Women will turn out for events that are welcoming and diligent about recognizing their participation,” she said. “Allow the existing women athletes to be the Queen of New York's best advocates. Their own social networks are likely the best platforms for organic growth."


— Read more on Moosefest, an examination of media exposure for whitewater’s female athletes, plus Paddle of the Sexes, looking at gender stereotypes on the river.