Rick Jones described the frustrating ordeal his daughter Savannah encountered as she placed second at an international canoe competition this summer in France, and I just had to share the tale.
Savannah, a junior at Gig Harbor High, has long been involved with the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team. She and teammate Makenzie Sousley, a senior at GHHS, have competed in the national championships in Oklahoma, where their team won the national title. They also placed fourth in the world this year at the Junior Under 18 World Championships for 500-meter two-person canoe competitions in Welland, Canada.
“I am excited that there are so many opportunities for young ladies in our sport right now,” said Alan Anderson, the founder and coach of the racing team. “Savannah and Makenzie are the best in the U.S. and are excellent examples of what you can accomplish if you are willing to work hard.
“Gig Harbor has a number of young ladies who look up to them, and they carry that leadership responsibility with enthusiasm and grace,” Anderson said. “Perhaps we will see women in canoe added to the Olympic program in 2020, and perhaps one or two of those ladies will be from the Gig Harbor area.”
Savannah Jones said a coach from the national team told her it would be good for her to go to a canoe camp in France.
“I was a little nervous,” she said. “I had never been abroad and, of course, never alone. My excitement wavered when trying to make my connection to Paris in New York’s JFK airport, because I had never been in an airport where I had to go out of security and back in to get to my gate, in one hour. My paddle, on the other hand, spent quite a few more hours in New York — I learned after I arrived in Paris.”
Paddles are specifically designed for individual canoeists by weight, length, curvature, etc. They are one of a kind.
Gig Harbor coach Jonathan Sousley said the design is a personal choice. Some shapes help at different phases during a stroke. A certain design may grip the water more effectively but not be as conducive to smooth steering. Paddles cost anywhere from $200 to $700.
“A woman who spoke English kindly tracked down my paddle bag,” Savannah Jones said. “It was on its way to Paris.”
But Jones couldn’t wait at the airport, because other girls who were going to the canoe camp were waiting to make the three-hour trip to Boulogne sur Mer, where they would stay.
“So, I climbed into a van without my paddle,” she said.
In the van were two French coaches, one Vietnamese coach, a Vietnamese canoeist and a Czech canoeist. The Vietnamese coach told Jones to call her “Mai” and her athlete “Nun.”
Girls who competed were from India, Czech Republic, Slovakia, USA, Canada, Russia, Latvia, Georgia, Vietnam and Dubai.
“Training was a lot harder than I expected,” Jones said. “I did it, but we usually don’t train that hard before a race. We had one week of training before the Woman Canoe Cup. The boat I got was a Zedtech, a brand I never saw in the USA or Canada. Most people choose the type of boat they like and rarely go in one that isn’t theirs or similar. When athletes can’t bring a boat, it’s up to luck.”
Jones said she became friends with three girls from Slovakia — the only ones her age. Most were in their 20s.
“We explored the city, bought scarves, went to the beach and even got to visit Paris a few hours,” she said. “Because one of the girls only knew Slovakian, and I don’t know Slovakian, everything was translated and laughed at twice. They helped celebrate my paddle’s arrival the night before race day.”
A few days before she was scheduled to race, Jones was teamed with “Nun” from Vietnam.
“(Two-person canoe) takes a lot of teamwork and communication, two things very hard to achieve when we have only four words in common: ‘yes, no, good, OK,’ ” Jones said. “It was challenging — two languages, very different paddling styles and race plans. It’s amazing we did so well.”
The pair placed second in the 200-meter race behind the Canadian boat that finished as the runner-up in the under-23 world championships, Jones said.
Athletes fund themselves for equipment, paddles and travel expenses, including participating on the Junior National Team, Sousley said. They train six days a week, on average, regardless of weather and, depending on the time of the season, up to 11 sessions per week. Each session includes body building in the gym.
Canoeing is balance intensive, Sousley said. Paddlers stroke on one side only.
“(Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team) is fortunate to have a left- and right-sided paddler of (Jones and Sousley’s) caliber on the same team,” he said. “They both paddle with full-carbon fiber paddles. They kneel on a foam block to protect the knee cap, and to allow them to reach far forward before placing the paddle in the water to begin the stroke, which is extremely technical; exact execution allows boats to gain maximum speed.
“Being cardiovascularly fit allows them to exert maximum strength and power on the paddle, and when combined with precise technique, the boat performs as designed,” he added. “Both ladies performed fantastically at Junior Worlds this year and are excited to travel this month to Puerto Rico, where they will represent the USA at the Pan American Championships.”
As Jones came home, her trip to the airport was delayed. She did not make the required 2 1/2 hours early for her flight. To add to her woes, she had a vocal-chord attack.
“I have these sometimes when I work out,” she said. “My vocal chords get confused and start closing when they are supposed to be open. When trying to explain my situation to a uniformed lady, I couldn’t talk until I got my breath back. She told me I’m too late, and I have to buy a new ticket.
“I called my parents at 3:30 a.m. PDT time, got the OK, some moral support and a new ticket home only a few hours later. I had to do another sprint in New York, but I got home safely and exhausted.”
Jones said she came home a better paddler and person.
“I was so stretched, I thought I would snap,” she said. “Looking back, I’m so glad I went. Now a lot less will faze me.”
I know a lot of adults who’d have unravelled if they were faced with what she went through.
What a credit to our community.Hugh McMillan is a longtime freelance writer for The Peninsula Gateway. He can be reached at 253-884-3319 or by email at hmcmnp1000 @centurytel.net.