Once I was back in the eddy after my practice ride I heard Jeff, the MC for the event, say “Anna Levesque! Blast from the past!! How long has it been since you’ve been out here competing? It’s good to see you out here.” Those words made me smile and feel grateful. I felt oddly at ease even though the water was higher than usual which meant the hole was flushier. It was my first competition in at least five years and my goal was to enjoy it and do the best that I could.
When the Head Judge gave me the thumbs up I took my time entering the hole and dove the nose of my awesome Dagger Jitsu deep into the green water for my loop. I had three consistent tricks that I could pull out – air loop, clean cartwheel and split wheel. I was relying on tricks that I could do from back when I competed figuring that they would get me into the top 10. And if I got those then I would go for my space godzilla which was less consistent.
My loop came around, but it didn’t feel quite right to me. I decided I better try for it again. The second time I missed it for sure and then I started really getting in my own way. Instead of going for my other consistent tricks I got too focused on the loop. I flushed after my third attempt and couldn’t get back up to the hole. When I got back into the eddy Emily Jackson said: “Nice loop!” “Really?” I said, “Do you think it scored?” She said: “Yeah I don’t see why not. It was really good.” I was surprised because I didn’t think that I had gotten it.
I heard my name and looked up to see my husband who told me to remember to do my cartwheel moves. OK, I had one more ride so I should be able to do that. I needed to get out of my own way!! On my second ride I went in for my loop and definitely missed it and flushed. I paddled as hard as I could back up the eddy and ferried out to the hole and got pushed downstream. Yikes! I started to panic and lost focus. I paddled up one more time and again the higher water deflected me. And that was it. Two 45 second rides done and my competition, done.
Even writing this post over a week later I am cringing knowing that if I had just done one small trick on my second ride I would have advanced to semi-finals. Can’t I just do it all over again!!?? It went by so quickly and that is why freestyle competition is so mentally challenging. Unlike extreme racing where no matter how fast or slow you go, barring getting pinned or experiencing some other scary situation, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. And freestyle can be that way too when you paddle to your potential! It felt disappointing and disheartening to miss the hole like that on my second ride and not score anything!
It can feel really awkward when you don’t ‘do well’ in freestyle because people don’t know what to say to you. In extreme racing you get congratulated for just being out there, but in freestyle not so much and, fair enough, there may not be much to say. I was disappointed and at the same time I felt OK because the whole of my experience was positive.
The payoffs of this experience for me are several. First, I challenged myself to do something that I was nervous about. Competing is scary to me and, as the Dalai Lama says, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Doing this also helps me to stay more relevant to my students when I’m challenging them to push themselves and do things that scare them.
I was motivated to get out and paddle a lot this spring even in the cold weather. Paddling with old and new friends, who I don’t get to see very much except when I paddle freestyle was really fun and good for me physically and mentally. I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to train with some of the best freestyle paddlers in the world and to experience the drive to train for something again. I received a lot of encouragement, tips and compliments on my paddling and that felt really awesome and was a good confidence booster.
My freestyle paddling improved and now my air loops are consistent (when I don’t flush) and I was stoked by how easily my cartwheel moves came back to me. I feel like I’m a better paddler overall from this experience. As you all know, I strongly believe in the power of instruction to transform people’s paddling and their lives and the coaching and training was equivalent to an awesome instruction clinic for me.
Even though I’ve reaped so many benefits from this experience, I do want to share that the night after prelims I had a hard time sleeping. I experienced a strong sinking sensation in my chest and I knew that what I was experiencing was the full weight of failure. It was strange because although I did feel disappointed earlier about my performance in the competition, I wasn’t feeling this bad!
I stayed with it for what seemed like hours. I felt like a total failure for setting a goal (to paddle well), working hard to achieve it and then failing to achieve it. Of course my mind chimed in with stuff like: “What are people thinking? That I’m a failure and can’t reach goals, that I’m a sucky paddler etc…” And then came the heaviest thought “I am a total failure.” I had to get up and walk around and had a hard time being with myself. This is not a normal feeling for me. Then I remembered that I am not my mind and I remembered that I needed to use my brain, not let my brain use me. I remembered that I am not a failure, but that I was experiencing what failure felt like in that moment. And that was OK and I was OK. When I remembered that I am not my thoughts and emotions it got a lot easier knowing that it would all pass and life would go on with more goals to set, work toward and reach.
I also remembered that I am not alone in feeling this way. Yes, I was feeling this way after prelims, and the next day there would be five more women who feel the same way because they won’t make it through to the top five. And then there would be two other women who feel disappointment on Sunday because they won’t make the top three to make the team. This happened in every discipline and it happens at every competition. That’s why it is so important to me that I appreciate the whole experience and not just the winning or the losing. We all experience success and we all experience failure, it’s how we respond to these experiences that determines whether we feel content and happy or disappointed and sad. I choose content and happy!
If you enjoyed this article and you’re looking to improve your freestyle kayaking we’ve got some great freestyle clinics for you! Check them out at this link: https://mindbodypaddle.com/paddling-instruction/freestyle-kayaking/
Photos by Sam Fulbright