Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Interview with Sarah Ruhlen

Sarah Ruhlen is an aspiring canoe and C1 racer from Bristol Tennessee and an avid club paddler. ACA took a few moments to pick Sarah’s brain about what makes a young paddler tick. Sarah rewarded us with amazing insights from the new generation.

ACA: What got you into paddling?

Sarah: Both my parents are paddlers, so it was probably in my genetic makeup somewhere that I have to be a paddler. I started out riding in the front of a tandem boat when I was young, probably about 1 and a half. One of my favorite things to do was to fall asleep on the front airbag. My dad made me a mini-paddle that had my name on it. It was shock-corded and carabinered into the boat so when I dropped it, the paddle wouldn’t float off.

Besides my parents, I would have to say the sport itself, the people and clubs particularly the Carolina Canoe Club helped interest me in paddling. I really love paddling. The sport really gets me out doing things with some amazing people. I love how beautiful the river is, whether it be in the summer when it feels good to get wet, fall when the leaves are changing, winter when you are bundled in about 15 layers and there is snow on the riverbank and thin ice in the eddies or spring when there are so many rivers running you can’t decide which ones to do!

I consider half of the sport of paddling to be the actual paddling and the other half to be the paddlers. Paddlers to me are the people who I’ve spent the weekends of my life hanging out with, the ones who have encouraged me and the people who knew me before I was off baby formula. I can go to almost any river and run into people like that. By growing up in paddling, I’ve had a constant stream of support and knowledge from a lot of paddlers. As I have progressed, they are there for teaching, encouraging, and hanging out. The sport would not be the same without them. Friendships are made quickly, and mature quickly. It is partly the nature of the activity, the common interests, and every weekend spent together that build these bonds.

The confidence I get in paddling carries over to all of my life, and that’s probably a lot of what has kept me in the sport other than the aforementioned things. Paddling is a way for me to do something I truly love, escape from everyday life, and do something that is all my own but that I share with hundreds of other enthusiasts. Paddling is more than an activity: It’s closer to a way of life.

ACA: What do you consider your personal milestones in paddling?

Sarah: Like everyone, I look at paddling a new, more difficult river as a milestone. I look at more difficult moves on rivers I’ve been paddling all my life as things to challenge me. The first time I caught 7 eddies in the entrance rapid to Nantahala Falls was a marker for me. Accomplishments are also paddling more challenging boats, perfecting moves, making boats perform well, being able to help others with their paddling and returning something to the paddling community.

ACA: What do you like about paddling?

Sarah: I love the people, the traveling, the outdoors, the adventure, the hanging out after paddling the rivers, the silliness often promoted by having a really good time, Mexican food and I’m a big fan of water (though not particularly of unplanned swims). So basically, the life of a paddler: Survive the week, pack Thursday, be ready to jump out of your seat all day Friday, jump in the car in the afternoon and head out. DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE. Get to the campsite and hook up with friends. Set up tent and then hang out around the fire telling horribly embarrassing stories of each other and the time when ______ got swallowed by the mystery move, etc. The next morning you gleefully hop out of your sleeping bag, into the car, grab some carbo-loaded food and head for the river. Gear up. Get in the boats. Then there is the paddling! Such fun! Such adventure! After reaching the takeout, perhaps there is a good spot to view carnage from. This is ideal. There are usually one or two embarrassing stories to be told of “river conquers paddler.” (if I am lucky…one is of my dad) Then, it is back to the campsite to repeat the day tomorrow.
Note: For best health, repeat process each weekend, when possible

Personal Challenges
I plan to be paddling until I can’t any more. I know there are other paddlers my age who are better than me or paddling more difficult rivers. In the past I didn’t push myself in paddling, which meant that there were others who excelled at a faster rate. I remind myself that it is an accomplishment just to be out on the river or racing and that’s what is important rather than being the best.

ACA: How did you get interested in competition?

Sarah: In 2007 I watched slalom nationals at the Nantahala River and thought they were just about the coolest thing I’d seen in a while. The racers looked like they were having a blast, the boats were pretty and there were women in C1s. I talked to them and told them that I was paddling a big Dagger Cascade. As I left I heard: “Hope to see you in a race soon!”. I wasn’t quite at the level of being able to race yet, but it inspired me to stay in the sport and be a bit more adventurous.

There was a time in my life when I had not really wanted to paddle. A lot of things about the river made me nervous, I didn’t want to go outside of my comfort zone or push the limits. There were others my age who were doing much harder things than I was, and I wasn’t at all satisfied with my own ability. I hadn’t yet learned to paddle by myself, which I believe was my biggest barrier.
In 2009, at the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s (NOC) Guest Appreciation Festival my dad asked what we were looking for. I told him, quite out of the blue, a glass C1. “Okay” he said, and we split up to wander around. Later I saw some friends who asked: “Guess what?”. “What?” “Your dad said you were looking for a raceboat. Well, we had one in the garage and he bought it!” At this point, I proceeded to jump up and down and do a bit of ecstatic screaming. About 20 people turned around to see what was so amazing. “Oh, by the way, its purple and sparkly”.

The boat was an ExtraBat paddled by Scott Strausbaugh when training for the Olympics. Old, edgy and my new, most prized possession. I fell in love with the boat. At that point I threw myself into paddling and solo boating where I had formerly been quite timid. I started going to races, using the miracle of YouTube to watch races and racers, meeting people and training. While I had a lot of people who could teach me a variety of tricks in regular boats, I didnt really know many racers who I could ask to show me the ropes of slalom racing. So I just worked with the new edginess however I was able, treated the poles like suspended rocks and ignored some of the weird looks I got.

I met an amazing woman named Shannon McGuigan. We paddled tandem. She mentioned her desire to paddle in the Open Boat Nationals. We decided we should go together and begin training for that goal.

ACA: Who are your paddling role models?

Sarah: For a start, my dad. He started me in paddling, taught me and encourages me in everything. Second, paddlers whom I have known all of my life. Their experience has taught them to be smooth and to paddle their ability. I don’t want to be the paddler who hurt herself paddling above her limits, making stupid choices and can no longer paddle at age 40.

Wayne Dickert (WAYNER!) with NOC is one of the most all-around amazing paddlers I have ever met. Outside of paddling, he is also one of the best people I have had the privilege of knowing. He has taught me a lot about racing and paddling and leads by example. Thank you so much.:)

Others include; Michelle Kvanli, Jennifer Singletary, Carolyn Peterson, Vann and Laura Evans, Sage Donnelly, Mark Poindexter, Dennis Huntley, Paul Mason, all of my official paddling family (paddling mamas, paddling papas, brothers, sisters, cabana boys, uncles, aunts..etc!), Shannon McGuigan, and so many more paddlers in the Carolina Canoe Club, racers, and people who I paddle with on rivers. I get inspired by everything I see.

I am particularly impressed by Team River Runner. These people volunteer to help disabled veterans get into boats and learn to paddle. I have been on several TRR trips, and talked to the veterans myself.

ACA: What are your competitive goals?

Sarah: I want to always remember why I am out there. For fun. Competition is great, but if I’m not out there to do something I enjoy, just why am I out there? If I’m not having fun, paddling becomes something I either fail or succeed in.

I am extremely privileged to be paddling, racing and doing what I do. Some of the truest words directed at me all summer were :“How many girls your age get to go out and paddle and race C1 and be here at Junior Olympics? You’ve already won” .

In the upcoming year, I hope to compete in all of the races I did this year and in some of the races I just watched last year including Glacier Breaker, US Open, Junior Team Trials, Nationals, Junior Olympics, and Open Boat Nationals. I have a really good time racing my plastic boats in small races hosted by NOC. This year I am on the US slalom cadet team. I would like to be on that team again next year, and also the US Jr. Team for slalom.

I want to keep meeting new people, going new places and progressing to be able to do more difficult courses with better boat control. Eventually I would like to compete internationally and be sponsored. With work, I believe I can make it.

ACA: How do you connect with paddling friends now?

Sarah: Facebook makes planning trips a lot easier. I meet a lot of paddlers first through Facebook. I meet a lot of people by going on trips and through other paddling friendships. Then, there is the typical; drive to the river and find a trip way of meeting new people. When I travel to an event such as GAF, or drive to the Russell Fork for releases in October I will see any number of people I know. When possible, paddlers usually try to camp together or stay at each other’s houses, so that means lots of interaction! I am always meeting new people and building new connections in the sport. A great aspect of paddling, I think.

ACA: Tell us about the boats you paddle.

Sarah: My first solo boat was a Mad River Flashback. A wet boat for most people weighing over 80 pounds, this boat was perfect because it was light, pretty edgeless, and forgiving. I didn’t paddle it much then, but I miss it now. It surfs like a dream.
Dagger Impulse: Though technically my mother’s boat, I somehow ended up in it a lot because I felt safe in it. As I should have. The impulse is a bit of a bathtub, heavy, stable, and once again, not very edgy.
Dagger Cascade: This was my first C1. I got this boat in the summer of 2003. First thing I did in it was the lower Pigeon and flipped coming out of eddies (what!? I lean downstream??). I love this boat. It’s the old familiar for me.
Pirouette S: What!? A kayak!? Do not be alarmed. This boat was given to me by a friend, and is absolutely one of the best kayaks in my opinion. Fast and maneuverable; this boat is a blast to paddle.
Extrabat: 22 pounds, edgy as the devil, purple and very, very, fast. This boat is my race boat for slalom. It is also the most challenging boat I paddle and unlike any others I have. The design is over 20 years old, but nonetheless, still for racing.
Dagger Ocoee: This boat is my favorite. It fits me like a glove, is purple, and enables me to have very good boat control. I love the edges in this boat, the speed (compared to many solo canoes), the rocker and surfing in it! There are no other solo canoes I would rather have.
Dagger Atom: This is probably my favorite C1. With less volume than the cascade and more pronounced edges, this boat is closer to the Extrabat, but with less edge. This is also the boat I get the most offers on. I often have people offer to buy the boat.
Mad River ME: This is my dad’s boat but it is also the one I use for tandem (racing and river running). It was originally designed for canoe slalom, has a lot of rocker, is fast, maneuverable and a very satisfactory boat to make perform in tandem. I also occasionally paddle this boat solo.
I feel I must pay tribute to my heritage. I grew up in the Blue Hole Starburst. This is the boat I paddle tandem with my dad and was my second home for a long time

ACA: In your own words, what would you call your paddling generation?

Sarah: There haven’t been a lot of other kids my age in paddling who I have grown up with or who did the whole “go paddling every weekend 3 and a half seasons” thing. This meant that I spent most of my time with adult paddlers, listening to how the sport has changed since they started to now. More and more, I see others my age, mostly introduced to paddling through their parents.

This generation I believe will not be largely different from their parents. I also meet people in their late teens and early 20s who get into paddling because of a boyfriend or girlfriend. These people do not know of the preceeding generations of paddlers or boats like Mirages or Dancers, or first descents in Grumman canoes by people wearing shorts and nothing else or of a time in paddling when waivers were unknown and gauges were sparse and required a few phone calls to locals to get a reading.

Many new paddlers enter the sport and see it as what it is today. The newest, hottest boat will be sold to them, pretty colored gear, carbon paddle: The works. But they will also question why paddling is the way it is, and wonder why things aren’t a certain way. People who have grown up in paddling perhaps don’t even blink at things these new paddlers are curious about. These new paddlers may rise to being cruise chairs or presidents of clubs and introduce new ideas. But whether boats are longer, shorter, bigger, more edgy or whether there are more canoes or more kayaks, it is still paddling. Water, rocks, gradient.

It might turn out that this generation has a bit more history in artificial courses, or maybe steep creeking. Paddling is always changing and reforming around the center of the sport. New gear can make more things possible! But it is still my belief that every paddler who says they love paddling will fight to keep it pure and simple: Paddling.

River: Russell Fork, Little River of the Smokies, Greenbriar section of the Little Pigeon, Clear Creek
Paddle: Mitchell Carbon Shaft wooden blade and grip
River Food - Pop tarts, pepperoni, apples, cheese, chocolate
Paddling Event - Carolina Canoe Club’s Week of Rivers
Thing to do: Run over small boats. Watch people’s faces as a large tandem boat speeds into an eddy toward them and spins about 4 feet away.
Other Activities: Canoe expeditions, sea kayaking, running, singing, reading, sailing, traveling, backpacking, hiking, camping, horseback riding
Favorite Club - Carolina Canoe Club!

Thanks Sarah - all the best to you!

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