"I know I can go faster. This is a true personal challenge, and I push for it each and every day. But more than anything, at the top of my mind is the knowledge that there are others out there training right now. Therefore, I show up and do my best."
Sarah Ruhlen | Sportscene - Ashley Nee, 25 years old, began paddling slalom at the age of 10 with Valley Mill Camp. Ashley is a repeat member of the United States Junior and Senior slalom teams. Located in Bethesda, MD, Ashley lives with her dog Nepa, cat Farley, and her fiancé Ashley McEwan. Recently, Ashley attempted to paddle from her house near the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, over 100 miles in 24 hours. She only made it 67 miles in 23 hours, but by doing this she raised funds for her summer of racing, demonstrating her tremendous energy, drive, and commitment.
She enjoys street art, longboarding, and her dog. Ashley secured the Olympic berth in 2007 for the Beijing Olympics. Two months later while training in Beijing she had a potentially career ending shoulder injury. She continued to train with her injured shoulder for 5 months then missed the Olympic team. Since then she has made a laborious and successful comeback to slalom. A technical tiebreak left Ashley at home watching the London Olympics, but she is working harder than ever to reach her goal of competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A member of the Bethesda Center of Excellence, she trains with Silvan Poberaj.
What is your favorite slalom course?
I would have to say London. I felt like the course was really well designed. It was deep enough, and had fun features. It was packed and challenging.
What equipment do you use?
I use a Sandiline skirt and lifejacket. My boat is a Vajda Galaxy and I use a Raab paddle. Unfortunately, I use nothing that is American made and have no gear sponsors.
Where do you train?
I train in Maryland on the Potomac River and at the Dickerson Whitewater Course.
What has been your favorite experience in slalom (race, camp, etc)?
I have so many. Recently – the 5th World Cup at Bratislava. It was a great experience for me because I made semis, and then I just went out and paddled. For the first time, I was able to deal with the World Cup pressure, and I was able to kayak the way I wanted. I ended up finishing 12th, and was so happy with my run, even though I touched the last gate! It had been a big goal of mine to make a top 20 finish.
Describe a normal day (training, work, food, sleeping)
I usually wake up early, I love getting up at 7:00 AM and would do it all the time if I could. Then I take my dog out, eat breakfast, and then head to my first session. While I eat I do video reviews of my previous workouts. Three times a week I have morning gym sessions, but I spend all the other sessions of the week on the water. Before this semester, I would go to class, but now I’ve decided to focus on paddling and am taking a break from school. Now I come home, rest, and eat. Depending on the day, I either have one or two more sessions, then DINNER! I normally go to bed about 11:00 or 12:00PM. Where do you live now, and how does this help for training? I live in Bethesda, Maryland, which is a great area for paddling. There is a huge history of slalom racing here, and an extensive paddling community. By living here, not only do I have access to the Dickerson course and the Potomac River, I would have to say that I have the best community of paddlers.
What events have been most influential in your paddling career?
The biggest one would be Cardiff (London) last year. I really wanted to make the top 20, which would have given me the single point I needed to break the tie I was in and make the Olympic team. Neither Caroline Queen nor I reached the top 20, so reverting to the tie breaking protocol the woman who qualified the berth would get the spot. It didn’t matter that I won Olympic trials, I was the loser. After that experience I really wondered if I was even going to race the rest of the World Cup events. I had already gotten everything in order to go to the Olympics. Going into the race in Cardiff, we all had to live as if we were going to the Olympics so that everything would be ready if we did make it. Finally, after changing all my plans, I arrived in Pau, France. In light of the recent events, I didn’t really want to paddle. The course was hard, but the day was sunny, and I decided to race following some words from my coach. (Coach) Silvan told me to act like it was another day paddling the upper Youghiogheny, a super fun river run back near my home. I went out and paddled aggressively and even though I missed a gate, for the first time I had splits comparable to the top women. This was a big breakthrough for me, and I genuinely enjoyed the race. The moment I didn’t make the Olympic team, I chose to train for Rio de Janeiro. There are no days off for me.
What was your life like growing up? Where you outdoorsy?
I’ve always loved sports; I played basketball, soccer, and tennis. But really I spent most of my time growing up at Valley Mill Camp, which really developed my love for the outdoors. I love camping and trying to start campfires in the rain with one match.
How did your parents encourage your goals, especially in slalom? Was slalom a personal pursuit or one chosen for you?
My parents are amazing, and there’s no way I would be here without them. I remember how my parents were always taking me to paddling practices, which were 45 minutes away. My dad would drive there, wait while I had practice, and then drive me home. Growing up, there was one time when I had a soccer game on a Saturday morning, but which happened to be during the Penn Cup race series. I was planning to just skip the game, but my Dad told me that wasn’t an option. He told me that I had signed up for the team, and I wasn’t going to let them down. He drove me to the soccer game and afterward the four hours round trip to my race. My parents aren’t paddlers so it definitely wasn’t chosen for me but I have always had their support. I have also had the support of PowerBar and Lasik for Gold for many years. They help me to keep up my nutrition, and improved my vision.
You began paddling at the age of 10 at the Valley Mill Camp. What made you decide to compete in slalom and work to compete on a national and international level?
I was introduced to slalom very early on. On the first day that I got into a kayak, I just did a wet exit. I actually started in an open canoe, thinking kayaking wasn’t for me. My friend tried to convince me to get in a kayak, and I told him there was no way I was trying it. He then dragged me over to the instructor and told him to teach us how to kayak. I got in the kayak for a few minutes and did a wet exit. The next day I started training with my coach, and things pretty much just took off from that time. I had my first national race in 2003 at the Nantahala. That same year I made the Cadet team and decided to compete in Junior Team Trials the next year. I made the Junior team and got to go to Europe, which is when I really caught the bug for racing. I made the Junior team all four years, and the fourth year I actually won the National team trials and made the Senior Team at age 17.
You’ve had a couple of setbacks and roadblocks that you have worked hard to overcome and push past. In 2008, you dislocated your shoulder shortly after securing a place for the U.S. in the Beijing Olympics. How did that happen?
Looking back, it was almost bound to happen. It was my first year on the senior team in 2007, and I had just competed in the World Cups and World Championships. My summer consisted of going to Europe to China to Brazil and back to China, where I was participating in the Olympic test event on the course in Beijing. I was 17 years old, and very tired. Having taken almost no downtime, I found myself above the biggest drop on the course. I messed up going into the rapid, and floated through. I ended up having to brace, and in a move that wouldn’t think about twice, even today, I braced in front of my boat in a good position. Next thing I knew, I had dislocated my shoulder. I then had to float through the rest of the course, which was still pretty big. This was the fifth day of a ten day trip. I was fortunate because the joint popped back into place. I didn’t get any medical treatment until I returned to the United States, so I spent the last five days of the trip holding my arm. The spot ultimately went to Heather Corrie, who had previously raced for Great Britain.
What was your motivation in your return to slalom and what kind of discipline did it take?
I came in 4th at Olympic trials in 2008. I was tired, burnt out, and had been in pain for a long time. I just stopped paddling. I finally had shoulder surgery in 2009, and was told that it would take four months of physical therapy for me to return to kayaking. I kept going back for a year until I made sure everything was perfect. I didn’t even paddle for a year and a half. One day I was talking with Ashley (my fiancé), and she said to me “You know you love kayaking” to which my response was “No I don’t, and I don’t need that in my life anymore.” Well, she convinced me that wasn’t true. The next thing I knew I was moving back to Washington, DC in an epic snow storm. Ashley said that she knew there was something missing in my life, and helped me find it again.
At the world cup in Cardiff in 2012 you placed 36th. In an interview with a reporter you said that “Getting in the starting gate for the second world cup [a couple days later] was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” What made you decide to pull up to that gate and begin the next four years of your life? Does that take a certain mental steel? It was hard. So hard. One of the coolest parts about having trained so relentlessly for such a long time, is that when you get to the starting gate, there is nothing else. You do your thing, and it’s just you and the course –you are alone. Then you start and there is this release, and it pulls in all the time you’ve spent working towards this moment. It’s one of the reasons I can still enjoy racing.
What is your personal reason for paddling and for competing? (how do you connect)
For one, I really love being outside and on the water. I came back from my shoulder injury and my time off, and I knew that I wasn’t as fast as I had been before. This motivated me to return to my previous level. I know I can go faster. This is a true personal challenge, and I push for it each and every day.
How do you give back to the paddling communities?
It is a big goal of mine to give back. I am an instructor for Liquid Adventures Kayak School. I serve on the board of the Potomac Whitewater Racing Center, my local club, and help make decisions for our future. I also volunteer for the Potomac Paddlers Corps, which is a group of kayakers assisting the National Park System, which has set aside land along the Potomac as a Heritage Trail, in keeping visitors from getting into trouble on and around the river. I love to get others around me paddling, and honestly, I really try to get everyone I meet into a boat. It’s important to me to support women in paddling. A couple of years ago I hosted a training camp for junior women, and I loved it! We had a great turnout, and it was really neat to get all the women together. In recent years slalom in the U.S. has been in a bit of a lull, so I just try to get the message out about slalom. Right now we have a great, young, team which is really inspiring to me.
As an instructor, what is the most gratifying thing for you? Would you encourage others to instruct both as a means of giving back and for improving oneself?
I would recommend that people instruct to give back, instruct as a way to stay a part of the community, but instruct mainly to be inspired by people learning. Go out and teach somebody. I remember the feeling of learning to surf my first wave; the idea of giving someone that feeling is my motivation. After all, someone helped you learn how to paddle. I think it’s best thing in the world to be able to give that again.
In your opinion, what would the US have to do to be more competitive on a national and international scale?
Based on my experience, what American slalom really needs is support. Around the world, many athletes receive funding that allows them to focus on their sport. Currently, our team only receives funding for our coaches and rental cars in Europe. It is tough to attract sponsors because slalom isn’t highly publicized and the U.S. Olympic team have so many talented athletes. They say necessity is the mother of invention. That is why I started my fundraising campaign, FUNDaNEE. Having a community that would harbor growth; and knowing you have the support of a large group of people would be powerful motivators and incentives for others to get into the sport. The 95 people that contributed meant more to me than just the money. All of a sudden, I felt like there were 95 additional people helping to paddle my boat, not just me.
Click here for Part II of the interview.