Thursday, July 9, 2015

Canoe and Kayak Female Paddler Of The Year: Nouria Newman. But Why Was Jessica Fox Not Included?

Okay, it’s that time of year when Canoe and Kayak asks the public to pick who’s the best female and male paddler. But honestly, this vote is like comparing apples to oranges or in this case rodeo to extreme racers to slalom racers to ambassadors—extremely different categories that are incomparable. Regardless Canoe and Kayak wants us to, so let’s do this!

Who will I vote for? Simple. Nouria Newman. Why? Simple answer again. She is the most diverse and accomplished female paddler this world has ever seen.

Okay let’s start with possibly her most famous extreme achievement: Site Zed. Her line through this famous and terrifying rapid should be a Visa commercial—the inspirational kind you see before the Olympics. So few women have ever done something this extreme in any sport with such incredible talent, grace, and perfect technique. Whitewater kayaking rarely gets the spotlight, but regardless of the lack of hype around this moment, history was made on the day Nouria ran Site Zed.

Let me take you to the Stikine, a river that should give even the best paddlers in the world nightmares. You enter a canyon so remote and so desolate. If some one dies in there, their buddies will have to hike the body out if they can find it—no one is coming for you. And I’m not trying to be dramatic, it’s the truth. And then enter Site Zed. Halfway into the trip you come across a rapid that very few paddlers, all male, have ever paddled. This is not a waterfall anyone can huck their meat off and hope for the best. It's a rapid that can only be paddle by the absolute best technical paddlers in the world. And Nouria not only paddled it—she styled it. Case closed—she’s the best female kayaker in the world.

Oh but wait there’s more: Nouria is also a member of the French National Women’s Slalom Team. The dedication, the intense mental and physical training it takes to make the French Women’s Slalom Team is possibly one of the single hardest things for a female kayaker to achieve in the grand sport of kayaking. The French slalom women are the absolute best of the best. Absolutely no one can doubt their technical perfection on the river. If you find yourself on a podium surrounded by French women you have achieved greatness in the sport, and Nouria is a member of this elite group. Again, case closed—Nouria’s the best kayaker in the world.

Oh—I can’t believe it—there is still more. Nouria has won two Slalom World Championship medals. Now we can say Nouria is the most accomplished paddler in the world—male or female. I believe the only two men that have as diverse of a resume are Mike Dawson and Vavra Hradilek. And yes, any video (click here for an awesome one) of these boys makes my heart flutter at how incredibly amazing and hot these two are, but sorry boys Nouria’s cuter and I’m pretty sure at least one of you has not run Site Zed and the other has no World Championship medals;)

Wait again, there is still more—Nouria placed 8th in the North Fork Payette race, yes the race that takes a boater through Jacob’s Ladder and Golf Course—rapids that make most boaters look for the nearest bathroom after they scout them because they literally scare the poop out of you. She beat famous paddlers like Nick Troutman and Rush Sturges. Let me repeat myself—she beat Rush Sturges one of the most accomplished boaters in the world for the past decade. Again, case closed—she's the best.

However, before I close out this post, I would like to call out a serious misstep in this list. The fact that Jessica Fox was not included means that whoever created this list should pack up and go home.

It kills me, but I wasn’t there when Jessica Fox became the first person—male or female—to win both C-1 and K-1 at a single World Championships, but don’t fret. Kara Weld, my hero and role model in the sport when I was growing was there and can tell the story.

Last September, I got to witness Jessica Fox make slalom history by winning the 2014 World Championships in both C-1 and K-1 in Deep Creek, MD, USA. This was not only remarkable in her skills and fitness in both disciplines, but in her ability to handle the tremendous amount of pressure as the last K-1 run of the day. Adding to the intensity, 25 years earlier, her mother and father had both won gold medals in the last World Championships held in the US on the nearby Savage River.   
All eyes were on Jessica and she stomped out a flawless run to take the win. I'll never forget watching her finesse and determination as she seemed to be building momentum for the win gate after gate. I knew she was going to nail it, without a single doubt. You could just sense it. I've stood by the side of a slalom course a huge portion of my life. I've seen a lot of spectacular runs and a lot of ruined dreams. I'll never forget that day, that run and what the air felt like while witnessing excellence to that extreme.

In my opinion, Jessica Fox's performance at the 2014 World Championships was arguably one of the greatest achievements in the sport of kayaking. She should have been included on this list. Please click here and here (scroll down past Formula 1 Driver) to see some quick clips of Jessica. I love her quote, “You can get carried away with the thought of winning. Sometimes you want it so much you can be blinded.”  

But even if she was included on this list would I have voted for her over Nouria? I asked Kara Weld the same question and here is her response:

Given that, Nouria would still get my vote this year. She is pushing the boundaries of women in the sport more so than any other female paddler. Running Site Zed and her performance in the NFC to me are unparalleled.

For me, it would have been a really hard decision between Nouria and Jessica. Comparing Nouria’s Site Zed and NFC to Jessica’s K-1 and C-1 victories is like comparing a NASCAR driver to a Formula 1 driver. With that said, Nouria gets my vote because of her vast spectrum of accomplishments in both extreme and slalom kayaking. But hopefully we get to see both Nouria and Jessica racing at the 2016 Olympic Games and let the clock decide.

It’s interesting to note that the World Paddle Awards, an organization that also recognizes the greatest male and female athletes in paddlesports, nominated both Nouria and Jessica (only overlap in Canoe and Kayak’s and World Paddle Award’s lists was Nouria). But Nouria didn’t even make the finale and Jessica, although a finalist, didn’t win. Please click here to see the World Paddle Awards winners.

Both the World Paddle and Canoe and Kayak Awards are great because they honor many talented athletes in this great sport, but no one person, no one organization is the authority on who’s the best. In my cheesy opinion it’s only the rivers that truly know and no one is getting them to reveal their secrets. 

Please join me in honoring the women nominated by Canoe and Kayak by voting here.

Additional Video Clips:
Nouria Newman’s Site Zed run can be viewed here. And just to add a quick note. Videos always make the river look smaller. This rapid is huge and scarier than meeting a great white shark up close. I can’t find video coverage of her silver Slalom World Championship run, but here is an interview of her after. For another great video of why Nouria kayaks please click here.

PS: I haven't seen Jessica Fox since she was three and I've never met Nouria before. Please just give these ladies a huge hug and high five for me and thank them for being such an inspiration.  

ADDED 7/15/15

I'm honored that Nouria responded to this post. She sums up beautifully what greatness truly means: 
Sweet blog post about the Canoe & Kayak Magazine Awards, thanks for the support Sarah Leith Bahn.
Reading this blog post made me realise it's been a great year paddling but it's also been one of the hardest year of my life. I can deal with the hard times at school, bad slalom races, shoulder surgery, rehab, not making the's okay. But loosing friends on the river hurts way more than anything else. 
If I had to vote a female paddler of the year I would pick Louise Jull. Because it's not all about racing fast, running big drops or any other personal success but also about what you're able to give, how you interact and inspire people. Anyone who knew Lulu know how big of an inspiration she was, still is and will always be. 
I might never go to the Olympics and I might never win a race again but I will follow my dreams, make sure I live life to the fullest and spend as much time as possible with the people I love. I will live rad like Lulu and this is way better than any award.Miss you Lulu, thanks for being such a good friend and inspiration. Lulu