Five years ago I was brand-new to whitewater SUP, and SUP was new to Colorado. Like many others, I tried it once and knew I’d be hooked for life. It was difficult to find people who wanted to travel downstream on a river on (or swimming near) a little inflatable board through whitewater. I started racing to meet others who had fallen in love with river SUP.

Knowing nothing about racing, or whitewater, or SUP, I decided to face my life-long fear of competitive athletic women. I played no sports in high school, so I was more than a little out of my element.

My first race was the FIBArk downriver sprint. I worked up the courage to ask a few of my fellow competitors for some tips, as it was my first race and I had also never seen this section of river. They piled it on, but the only thing I really remembered was godmother of river SUP Jenny MacArthur telling me,  “Keep your knees loose!” It’s stuck with me to this day.

For cold water protection I wore a bikini. The race was a blur. There was a mass start, men and women chopping at the water in a frenzy, thrashing through a standing wave together, jockeying for position. My paddle, my board, and my body all went through the wave at different times.

The water was shallow and freezing. Both of these qualities I thoroughly investigated as I dug my (borrowed) paddle into the undulating wave trains and pulled myself off of my (borrowed) board into the Arkansas River again and again and again.

I finished dead last. The women who’d coached me at the top waited for me at the finish line, hugging me, heaping on praise for competing despite obviously having no SUP skills whatsoever.  I left with a pile phone numbers of new river partners and an overwhelming sense of warmth. The support was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to race again.

I lost a lot. Like, dead last almost every race. Someone once told me I had a great attitude about this, and I replied, “the big shots have to have someone to beat.” It’s true I was losing a lot, but I was racing against the biggest names in this tiny sport. The fact that amateurs can show up to races and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the pioneers of the sport—legends like Jenny, Nikki Gregg, Brittany Parker, Charle MacArthur, Dan Gavere—is pretty cool, and it made me feel a lot better about getting my ass kicked every weekend in the spring.

Sometimes a dozen or so women showed up to the races in Colorado’s competitive circuit—Golden Games, Yampa River Days, CKS Paddlefest, GoPro Games, Vail’s weeknight race series, FIBArk —but sometimes a lot fewer women showed up, too. Sometimes two or three of us women just had to race the men. No matter who showed up, I came in dead last every time that first year, and I always walked away grinning. My rivals coached me. I got a little better.

Eventually, getting beaten started to pay off. I got way better at paddleboarding, and I also got better at racing. (Want to know my racing secret? Don’t race hungover.) A few times the big shots didn’t show up for various reasons—injuries, personal conflicts, other races—and I started sneaking my way up towards the podium.  More women joined the sport, and as the playing field grew, I found myself more experienced than other racers.

I even made it to the top of the podium at FIBArk a few years later! It was pretty hard to believe. How did I win? I’d love to say it was countless training laps down the race course. But the truth is, there was almost no one to beat.

There were men in the water, but hardly any women. A few beginner women raced, and they were pretty easy to beat simply because I had experience. All I had to do was finish the 10-mile course in one piece, and I did.

Now it’s 2017. I haven’t made it to the podium yet this season, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Because now there are definitely women to beat, and it takes a lot of work to stay in front of them. And now there are definitely women who are beating me, and I have to work hard to keep them in my sight.

Last month I raced in the FIBArk downriver sprint once again. I had a great start, and began the 10-mile slog in a pack that included former Olympic kayaker Rebecca Giddens, and my Hala teammate, Cami Swan, who cross-trains for this sport by doing acrobatics on (moving) horses.

Cami fell, and I screamed unintelligible encouragement at her to get back on her board. I fell, and she did the same for me. It helped. Natali Zollinger caught up on a lightning-fast carbon board, and the pace quickened. We kept our eyes trained on Rebecca, her steady and measured paddle strokes flowing seamlessly out of her powerful body, pulling further away from us. It was mesmerizing to watch. I hardly felt my own paddle dip into the water as I watched these outrageously strong women raise the bar right before my eyes.

You see, I love these women for kicking my ass. I love them because they make me better. The days of showing up to a race with a hangover and simply finishing intact for a podium position are gone.

So I’m losing again. Not because I’m an under dressed beginner anymore, but because the women around me have seriously stepped up the game.

I love losing. These women make me work so much harder. They force me to get stronger. They force me onto the river when I’d rather sit around or do chores. When I consider having a lazy day, I consider Rebecca’s shoulders. If I paddle today, and paddle tomorrow, and then do it the next day, then maybe, just maybe I’ll look down from that top position on the podium someday.

 

Until then, I am humbled to race against—and lose to–these fierce female athletes I call my friends.

 

3 Comments

  • Dino Pavledis

    Awesome article, thank you
    I’ve been a loser since school and I love being a part of comps and stuff always learning something new. learning to surf sku in my twenties just starting out when my friends with sponsorships and years of experience calling me into bigger waves and going for more than I thought I could ever do. And laughing more than I ever have before. And now in my 40s learning to sup surf, doing it all again, learning new stuff, laughing and seeing the world refreshed again. Learning to say sod it and go for it is the most important thing, doing something you think you will fail at but then after some tries finding you can do it – what a great feeling that is 🤙

  • Kerri Rougemont

    I love this Ashley! I lose races too! I love to paddle so much and am so greatful for the sport as well as the people in it. Such a huge part of my passion for life. Thanks for putting winning and losing into perspective. Thanks for all the encouragement you have given me along the way and pointers you have shared. Paddle on girl!

  • Jenny Schmidt

    Your story is completely relatable! 10 months ago I experienced my first lake paddle, one month later I was shown the river at Back of Beyond in Moab, UT. That’s where I fell in love with the sport, hard. The women (and men) I’ve met along the way have been supportive, open, and completely inspirational. Being a part of the tribe is symbiotic – we belong to one another, we belong to the river. Thanks for the awesome article!

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