A Pioneer in Paddling
BY Shannon Connolly
June 10 2008 12:00 AM ET
When you compete, are the competitions always separated by gender? Or do you ever compete men vs. women? They generally are separated by gender, but you know, Nikki and I always try to see how we end up on the times with the men as well. And we generally finish in the top 10 out of the men as well, so even though we are separated from them, we do compete against them inside our own heads.
With a lot of water sports, like surfing for example, sponsorship is really huge. Is paddling a sport that depends a lot on sponsorship? There is a lot of sponsorship, but it’s definitely not as much as surfing. You’ve really got to show your dedication to the sport; you’ve got to get results, you’ve got to be a very good public speaker, you’ve got to be very good at selling boats on the river. It’s definitely not as easy as surfing, but there’s definitely sponsorship out there to be had, totally.
A lot of athletes struggle with coming out professionally because of sponsorship. Is that an issue you encountered? When I first came out I was quite worried about it and whether it would affect my sponsorship and how the industry would take it. But I guess that’s one of the cool things about the river -- it’s an outdoor environment, and it has quite a strong gay following in the outdoors. I was pleasantly surprised by all of my sponsors. They didn’t seem to care that I was gay. It has definitely brought more confidence to myself personally and to my kayaking. I can totally be who I am without subconsciously worrying about wearing their label wrong because I am gay.
And you came out pretty much halfway through the career that you’ve had so far? Yeah. I look back on it now and there were a few months there where I was quite fearful that I was going to lose my sponsorship all those sort of things, but in the long run I have to give it to my team managers. They were all like, “It doesn’t matter. We’re proud to have you as one of our athletes.”
What prompted you to come out? I guess I just had to deal with basically what was going on inside of my head, as people are when they are coming out. And now I’ve ultimately found the most amount of happiness I’ve had in a long time. If I didn’t do it four years ago, I’d still be wondering what the hell was going on inside my own mind.
Well, if it weren’t for getting into paddling and really choosing this as a career path, what do you think you would be doing today? Was there ever another direction you were heading in? Yeah, I mean, I was studying horticulture at university. It’s hard to say because I think I’m a very lucky person that I’ve found something that ultimately brings happiness to my soul and have created myself a career with it through dedication and passion for white-water kayaking. So, it’s hard to imagine not being where I am right now. I do have other passions, though. I enjoy cooking and sometimes dream about owning my own café somewhere. That sort of thing, you know. As I’m getting older, I’m realizing that I’m probably going to need something else coming up, and I guess that’s a bit scary because [kayaking] is ultimately what makes me happy, so to then let go of it all is the next step for me, and that’s a bit hard.
When your career as a professional athlete ends, do you see yourself returning to Australia? Or with all the traveling you’ve done, is there another place that has caught your eye? Yeah, I’ve definitely fallen in love with Colorado. I like the Rockies, and there’s a couple of towns there, like Durango and Steamboat ,where there’s just fantastic outdoor playing -- there’s skiing and trail riding and biking. And there is, you know, a rich sort of culture there with music and eating good food and stuff like that. So, I often dream about living in Colorado, but it’s hard -- when you’re not an American citizen you’ve got to find someone to employ you, and then you’ve got to get a visa and residency…
What do you see for yourself professionally over the next couple of years? Eight years in, you’re already so successful, usually ranking number 1 or number 2 in competitions. Where do you go from here? Well, Layne Beachley, who’s a famous Australian surfer, she’s inspiring because she’s written a couple of books about how you keep going after you’ve had such good success. I want to be still heavily involved in my industry. I understand that with competing, I won’t be winning forever. But I still want to be paddling forever. I’d like to immerse myself in a paddling community in Colorado and help junior kayakers get into kayaking and motivate people and, you know, then open my restaurant or whatever. That’s the dream.
Is there anything you think would surprise people about you? Oh, that’s a hard one. Well, spiritually, I think, for me, I’ve been getting a deeper and deeper connection to the wilderness. And when you get remote and you’re sitting on a rock or standing on a rock after paddling all day, you start to understand that, yes, there is an energy out there that we don’t quite understand but we really need to be part of. And how deprived one feels when the wilderness is not a part of one’s life -- whether it’s a garden or a courtyard or whether it’s heading to the beach and walking your dog, we definitely shouldn’t separate ourselves from our environment, I think.
Because you’ve had this connection now with the environment, do you see yourself being involved, or are you involved, with environmental activism? I’m definitely heavily involved with the campaign in Australia right now to stop liquid gas mining and oil mining in that region. That’s a pretty big passion of mine right now, to get more Australians and international people aware of those issues that are happening in my country.