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Wildwater Paddlers in America

A real passion for the sport

by Haley Popp
USA Canoe/Kayak
Wildwater Junior Team Member

May 21, 2010 -- Chattanooga, TN

The majority of wildwater paddlers in America, as you may well know, train alone. The geography of the United States is relative to the sparse population of competitive boaters in many of the whitewater disciplines, but wildwater stands out from the rest in a very unique way. The individuals in this sport are athletes who must repeatedly rely on their strong mental capabilities to endure and take advantage of a very solitary experience on the water. Ironically, this individualized approach is the very circumstance that holds the sport of wildwater in America together. Every one of these paddlers empathizes with the others because every individual goes through the same struggles as the others; this is the glue that binds us as a community, as a family, and as a team.

It doesnít take much time to realize and accept this- as any one who is or has been a wildwater racer will tell you. It takes a very strong, very passionate person to successfully train and perform in this particular discipline for any amount of time. There have been many that leave the sport not because they lacked the ability to train, but because they lacked the passion needed to overcome the struggles. A true racer is hard to come by, someone who realizes and maximizes the potential of their paddling career for the pure love of it.

One could wonder why or even how this comes out of the mouth of a 17-year-old girl, with only a year of racing to her name, whose name hardly anyone knows. I sometimes wonder that myself: part of the challenge of training and becoming a racer is the doubts and the uncertainty one must face. At odds with myself in my sophomore year of high school, I found wildwater as a wonderful stress relief, the very rock I could rely on to hold my existence together. I left my mainstream private school in pursuit of a life of paddling and independent study, a move that left many people curious and sometimes confused. As I left my other life quietly behind, I settled into a routine of training, traveling, and working. Itís a very quiet, lonely existence at times; I go to the gym alone, I walk down to the creek alone, I time myself and I study myself carefully as the days go by, one after one, each day much like the others. Even when my brothers or father paddle with me, I am alone in my own thoughts, staring at the heart rate monitor, gripping a little too tightly on the paddle as I take each stroke in the calm, flat water of the creek.

For the life of me I cannot even begin to explain the reasons this works for me, why I suddenly am so happy, or how I know that it is the right feeling: being on the water, heart racing as I dodge waves and holes, eyes clouded with splashes of cold water, hurting as I reach for every stroke a little fasterÖ As the racing season quickly began to approach, I attended training camps, met up with other southern racers, and found the extra fire I needed in my workouts. Spring passed quickly. Illness unhappily followed my early successes, and I found myself rewound a few months back in training. Frustration after frustration has followed me as I have struggled to regain everything lost.

Put in perspective, however, I have accomplished a lot this past year. It is not the faster times that tell me this, nor the coaches and friends that remark on my progress. I know after every single workout, on the water or off, that I have overcome todayís challenges; that for today at least, the struggles are over, and I can start anew tomorrow, building up on what I have learned and felt already.

I truly believe it is not only juniors or beginners that have this experience- I readily expect to be dealing with the same, or more complicated issues next year, and for many years afterwards. Thatís the beauty of the sport- there are always barriers to be broken- personal, national, or international barriers. I know I will be a wildwater paddler for as long as I come across these challenges; I feel the love for the sport, I want to grow and learn to be the athlete I know I will always be, sharing that love with every like soul on the water with me.