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I recently fulfilled a long-time dream of mine: competing for Team USA at the 2019 ICF Freestyle World Championships in both the float and squirt boat classes.

While I competed in both classes in Argentina as well, 2019 was the first time I made the team on my own merit. (I was the first alternate in float boat for 2017). Though I podiumed in Squirt in 2017, I was disappointed by my float boat performance. My biggest goal for Spain was to come away feeling strong, capable, and confident.

As excited as I was to be in Sort, I found the feature insanely challenging- physically and mentally. Most days, I came away from paddling feeling like a complete beginner- and I questioned almost every day if I even deserved to be there. It was a three-week roller coaster! While I walked away from Worlds knowing I have a lot of room to improve, ultimately, I also achieved most of my personal goals.

With this blog post, I wanted to share a few things that helped keep me sane and motivated.

1. Have patience- if you don’t reach your goal right away, keep trying!
Setting a goal like making the US freestyle team is a tricky one (I went to my first US team trials in 2009(!)). There are limited spots, and sometimes, your success also relies on the performance of others. Set smaller goals to help reach your primary goal- create a goal ride to work towards, identify a score you would like to hit, or tricks you think you will need to be competitive. Focus on things you can control and use to improve- thereby improving your chances of making the team, rather than things you can’t- like someone else’s performance. If it doesn’t happen immediately, try not to be discouraged- and keep working on it!

2. Don’t compare yourself to others.
It can be difficult to feel like you are improving; especially when you view your growth in relation to the perceived progress of others. Everyone has good days, everyone has bad days, and there will almost always be someone better than you at something. Spain was hard for me because I struggled to move around and set up in the feature and I really struggled to throw tricks. I felt worse when looking at others around me, rather than comparing myself to the boater I was a year ago. The reality was I had made LOADS of progress in the two years leading up to worlds, and just because I couldn’t showcase it properly at that moment didn’t mean my skills gains didn’t exist. It wasn’t fair to compare myself to others who potentially had way more experience or trained differently. I had to keep it in perspective and ask myself, could I have done or achieved the tricks I did a year ago?

3. Basics, basics, basics.
I think that I write at least one blog post every year with some variation on this theme, but it remains important. Don’t be blinded by the glitz and glamour of superhero skills and big scoring or big-name moves. Take the time to focus on building the basic skills you will need to help adapt your flashy skills to multiple features. Last year, a friend of mine took me to a small hole and was shocked to see that I didn’t know how to blast properly. He said, “How is that you can McNasty, but have no basic skills?!” While embarrassing, his comment forced me to identify not only what my weaknesses were but why I had them. The first thing I ever learned to do in a hole was a loop. I so rarely had access to the style of features my friend did that I never spent time playing in them. As a result, I have a very rudimentary knowledge of how to side surf, find the hole’s weak spot or blast. I often struggle to set up and work myself to the top of a feature- and Sort was no exception. When you watch the top paddlers at Worlds- Dane, Tom Dolle- it looks like they have so much more time to throw their tricks than what my 45 seconds feel like. This is because I spend the majority of my 45-second ride struggling to set up and get to the spot I want to initiate my tricks. They, however, have years of ninja experience surfing and moving around features of all shapes and sizes, and can set up without having to think about it.

They don’t get more points just because their superhero skills are better, but because their ninja skills are better- making it look like they are doing nothing at all. It turns out, a lot of people can loop in a hole that is perfect for looping, but adapting to make a trick work in a small, shallow feature is something else entirely. I spent the last two years trying to go back to basics and give myself the foundational skills I needed before I could understand how to access the harder, glamorous tricks on my goal sheet.

While I didn’t throw every move I wanted to at Worlds, and I definitely windowshaded a few times, I was much more comfortable sitting in the feature, moving around, and trying to set up. I still have a lot of work on the basics to do, but you can be sure I’m going to try to find as many different little features to play on as possible.

4. Be honest with yourself.
When I think about my goals, I have to remember that despite having some pre-existing skills and practice, I’ve only been focusing on holeboating for the past three years- and not even exclusively at that! I have a long way to go, and a lot of time to still get better if I chose to make it my focus. I had to sit back and ask myself, “Did I give this my all?” “If this was my biggest focus, did I put everything into it I could have?” Realistically- yes, I could have gone to the gym more and done more off water work to improve my explosive power. I could have done 45-second sprints to maximize my aerobic potential. I could have spent way more time watching video feedback to fast-track my paddling. But, I also work multiple jobs to support myself chasing this crazy dream, I physically need time to recover between training sessions, and I love whitewater for so many more reasons than competitive hole boating alone.

I’m proud of what I accomplished, but I will absolutely write down my takeaways from my time in Spain to keep myself motivated for the future. Instead of viewing all the other talented paddlers around me as my competition, I need to consider them as resources to help teach me and push me to improve. Remember- every day you paddle- even if it’s not your best day ever-builds experience and makes you better!