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This year I was forced to confront a longtime weakness in my kayaking skill set: Hole boating.

For years, it has been easier to say that I just didn’t like it, that I preferred wave boating, or to make the excuse that there just weren’t any good holes near me.
To be fair, having spent eight summers on the Ottawa – waves were y easier to come by. But, what I was ignoring was the reasons that I didn’t like hole boating.
• I wasn’t very good at it, and I didn’t like feeling like a beginner.
• I was/am a little scared of holes.

The truth is, I have long been intimated by hole boating. I have vivid (semi-recent) memories of being “pitted,” – savagely stuck in a side surf unable to exit the feature when I wanted to with dignity.

Early on in my competitive freestyle career I took part in the then Teva Mountain Games in Vail, Co. in front of hundreds (in my mind) of people. I had no tricks, no idea what I was doing, and was left cold, uncomfortable, and embarrassed. The feeling of feeling stupid stuck with me, and rather than try and get better, I decided I didn’t like hole boating and chose to pursue other venues and styles of kayaking.

This year I made it a personal goal to confront this fear. I was tired of watching everyone else have fun in features I didn’t want to enter. So, I made a deal with myself: I would go and do the “Colorado Tour,” a series of freestyle events at Colorado whitewater parks for the first time since my unfortunate debut. The pinnacle would be to compete at the US Freestyle Team Trials.

While I enjoyed the hole where the BV rodeo took place, the feature for team trials- the first hole in the BV whitewater park- was challenging. It was steep, kind of sticky, and I spent most of my first session getting face-surfed and window-shaded and feeling pretty stupid. Over the course of the week, I started to figure things out, got a few good rides and felt better about my chances to make one of five available spots for the team. The day of team trials arrived, and sadly, I didn’t get the rides I wanted. I finished 7th, as first alternate, one spot out of making the team. I was far more upset than I expected to be, as my only real goal was to get more comfortable in a hole. I told myself that regardless of where I finished, I had achieved something for myself by trying.

When I received a phone call asking if I wanted the last spot on the team a few weeks later I didn’t hesitate. “Are you willing to work for it,” they asked. “YES,” I replied. Mission: Get less scared of holes had officially been re-engaged.

To train for worlds I took every opportunity I could this summer to hole boat. This meant forgoing days when other fun features were in, but more importantly, it meant embracing a mindset of going back to basics and being willing to be a beginner, make mistakes, and feel stupid.

The first thing I had to re-learn was how to slow down, set up, and read/use the feature to my advantage. Every hole, like every wave, is different, yet certain rules apply. For most features, you can surf out to a shoulder then up to the top of the foam pile. I learned that I wasn’t using the backwash of the feature to my advantage. Instead, I was getting stuck in the trough where I was unable to do anything. I needed to embrace the hover-point, and learn to balance on top of the foam to set up my tricks. I also had to re-learn how to use my edges to know when to go full-throttle or back-off.

I surfed features like 7/8 hole on the Ottawa that I have avoided since a swim nine years ago and dropped into Phil’s Hole regularly to embrace getting a little beat-down. I spent more time upside down this summer than I have in years.

This fall, I decided to spend a month in Nottingham, England, at the HPP Whitewater Course to get ready for Worlds. The HPP course is amazing. Consistent features on a man-man course, with good flows almost every day, a great crew of people to be training with who were willing to help, and Inlet Gate.

Inlet Gate is located between two concrete walls, underneath a concrete bridge. It is unlike any other feature I have ever seen. With no shoulders, there is no easy escape route. After a solid pep-talk with myself, I dropped in for my first ride. It was terrible. But hilarious! I shook it off, dropped in again, and then had to confront my biggest weakness hole-boating: Getting Pitted, or not being able to get to the top of the pile. I spent hours (okay, days.) (Okay. Weeks.) getting side surfed, face surfed, and thunder throttled. I would look at Claire and Den on the side or downstream and say “I can’t get out!” They would laugh, and tell me to figure it out. So I did.

Hold a consistent edge, look downstream, lean downstream, plant your paddle blade in the foam and pull. Like magic, I would slowly rise…. Only to slide back down again before I could do anything about. Eventually, I got better and it got easier, though I definitely still get beatdown and struggle.

My goal for Nottingham was to learn a McNasty- a trick where you start backward yet end facing forwards using a loop or barrel roll. You go around, then up and over. If you have tried to spin, but caught your upstream edge, you have likely done this already. It is a beautiful trick that I have long tried to figure out and really wanted to have before heading to Argentina for Worlds. After hundreds of attempts- thank you Den, Claire, and Sam Ward for your endless patience in trying to explain this trick to me over and over and over again- I got one. Then another, then another, until I could start to recognize where I was and what my boat and body should be doing.

When I left England I could (mostly) get to the top of the pile when I wanted to, loop, space godzilla, and had mcnastied both directions- even if I wasn’t super consistent. I flew home feeling accomplished, more relaxed and looking forward to Worlds.

After two weeks off the water my plane touched down in Argentina and I began to panic. What if I couldn’t do any tricks? What if I didn’t deserve to be here? What if I looked stupid? All my same fears of hole boating were back, along with the anxiety that hole boating induced.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the feature in San Juan is awesome. It is friendly yet challenging, and most importantly- fun.

Worlds is a week away- and I can Mcnasty sometimes, Loop most of the time, and surf out to the shoulders and up to the top. I still get pitted, forget where I am, and get stuck in the trough, but now I remember to breathe, relax, look up, and surf my way out.

No matter what happens at Worlds, I have accomplished my personal goal of facing a weakness, confronting my fears, and learning to have more fun kayaking. I’m still scared of some holes… but at least now I won’t be afraid to look stupid trying to surf them- because even if I do look stupid, at least I’m having fun.