San Juan development camp overflowing with inspiring stories

Athletes looking for inspiration to put in the extra training need look no further than the young group who attended the International Canoe Federation’s Expand and Extend women’s canoe development program in San Juan at the end of 2017.

The camp was run in conjunction with the 2017 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships in Argentina, and attracted coaches and trainees from an incredibly diverse background, and it seems almost everyone had a story to tell.

 From world class slalom athlete, Sofia Reinoso, to Sandra de Ugarte, the sister of the beloved, professional and internationally renowned Team Jackson kayaker, Juanito de Ugarte. 

In November 2014 her brother tragically died on the Nilahue waterfall in Chile, a tame looking waterfall drop that flushed him into an undercut.  As an extreme kayaker and friend to everyone, Juanito was famous for his happiness on the river and infecting others with his cheerfulness.

Following Juanito’s heart-rending death, Sandra’s father, who had taught Juanito to paddle, struggled to come to terms with his son’s death, blaming himself for encouraging his extreme kayaking.  Sandra was also grieving, and saddened further by her father’s anguish, convinced her father to take her paddling on a lake to help their mourning. 

It worked and for a short time on the water her father was able to smile.  With kayaking hanging in the balance, the de Ugarte family could have walked away from the sport never to come back.  Instead, Sandra realised that learning to kayak, and her father teaching her was exactly the therapy they both needed. 

Remembering just how happy Juanito was on the water, she felt closer to her brother when she was paddling, and decided to commit to becoming a proficient kayaker.  An international group of friends, along with the family, established the Juanito de Ugarte Memorial Scholarship in honour of Juanito’s paddling accomplishments and his enthusiasm for teaching and giving back to his local paddling community. 

Sandra competed in the Slalom World Championships in Pau in 2015 and is now a coach on the Expand and Extend programme.  Her niece, Yanua, is also one of the trainees.  16-year-old Yanua is already showing great potential, winning a place in the memorial scholarship in her own right.  She really likes the fun and vibrancy of freestyle.

The challenges facing female kayakers in South America could not be better encapsulated in two paddlers attending the camp.  

Nineteen-year-old Mariana from Venezuela has already had to be more determined and brave than many will ever have to be.  With Venezuela facing hyperinflation and prices doubling every two months, the Bolivar has become next to worthless.  Her father’s previously very lucrative rafting business has collapsed with total profits for an entire season rafting amounting to $200, but fifty dollars was spent on two bottles of glue to repair the rafts. 

Her devotion to her country, city and family is moving.  Due to inflation her family has lost everything, crime and drugs are spiralling as people are starving and she was mugged only a week before attending the camp.  Daylight robberies are now a regular occurrence, often in front of families and children as desperation grips the people. 

Mariana is a talented paddler that not surprisingly started off rafting.  She used to raft with a group of female paddlers, but from as young as fourteen her friends started getting pregnant.  Her best friends already has two young children. 

Having lost her crew yet determined to continue to paddle, she took up kayaking.  She often lied to her dad who didn’t want her kayaking some of the runs on her own, so she would say she was rafting, then sneak out with her kayaking gear.  Aged 17, she was selected for the Pan American Championships in Rio de Janeiro. 

She trained so hard she made herself sick.  For her, paddling is everything, from escapism on the water, to the promise of a better future.  She is now studying, working to pay bills and training whenever she can, with no respite or time for much else. 

She remains dedicated to paddling for her country, and has just got a beautifully sentimental small tattoo of the mountains of her city to keep her country in her heart whilst she is away training.

Maritza Paz Gajardo, known as ‘Pachi’, hitch-hiked alone for three days from the south of Chile to the north of Argentina to attend the white water development camp; an indication of her bravery and passion. 

Pachi prefers training more than competition because you learn more, welcome criticism and encourage each other.  But she is also a real performer under pressure. With a strong team of close friends, with little to no training, and no coach, they recently returned from the World Rafting Championships narrowly losing to Japan but securing second place.

Training is often in lieu of work as a raft guide, but despite the further loss of income, she is dedicated to providing free rafting and kayaking to the children in her home town.  Pachi emits such passion she gets flummoxed when asked which she prefers; rafting, creeking, slalom or freestyle?  After what appears to be real soul searching and analysis of the pros of each, she smiles a massive smile and says “I just love being on the water”.

Unfortunately, despite ICF initiatives and the ‘Expand and Extend Woman Canoe’ programme, many of the female trainees in the camp face a lack of suitable kayaks, a venue for training, or a coach. Limited resources often go to the male competitors. 

Some national federations appear to be happy to support female paddlers only when it is free.  For others with more supportive national federations there is still a lack of other female paddlers. 

Ana Lucia, a ‘San Juanina’, says she loves the white water camp because she gets to paddle with lots of other girls, whereas there are very few girls in her club.  Sofia Reinoso and Sandra de Ugarte run additional female focus workshops; getting to know each other, creating a network, project management, building confidence, possibilities for females in sport, realising their potential. 

These sessions complemented the education programme at the core of the white water development camps.  All paddlers help design and run a slalom event the day before the finals of the Freestyle World Championships 2017, one hundred meters upstream of their camp. 

To a woman, the dedication and passion of every trainee on the camp, not just as competitors but even more so as coaches, make the Expand and Extend Woman Canoe programme exciting and a real privilege to work with.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) partners with continental associations, national federations and non-governmental organisations operating at a local level to deliver a project addressing women’s development through canoeing activity. 

The ICF has been running the ‘Expand and Extend Women Canoe’ (EEWC) programme for a number of years, complimenting other programmes such as Talent Identification Programme (TIP); with the goal of promoting gender equality in our sport.  As an indicator women participation at Worlds Canoe Slalom championships has grown from 27% to 34% between 2009 and 2013. 

The hope is that the ‘Expand and Extend’ programme can continue and increase this trend, providing future female competition paddlers and coaches to provide role models at the global level encouraging more women into kayaking. 

By Tony Hellier, ICF Freestyle Communications

Canoe Slalom
Canoe Freestyle
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