EP #21: Sage Donnelly on cultivating a strong competition and Class V mindset

What does it take to get to become World Champion, and run some of the most challenging rapids in the world?

In this episode of The Discomfort Zone Podcast, Freestyle World Champion and top extreme paddler, Sage Donnelly shares the strategies she uses in competition, and when taking on big whitewater, to calm her mind, stay focused and find her flow.

Not only is she a successful multi-disciplined paddler, she is committed to helping others, like her, with Type 1 diabetes, celiac and hypothyroidism not let their diseases define what they can accomplish. 

About Sage Donnelly

Sage  Donnelly lived in a van traveling around the country for most of her life. She started competing in whitewater kayaking at the age of 7 and has competed in slalom, freestyle and extreme racing. 

She’s a 7X USA team member, has placed top 10 in the world in k1 and c1 slalom, was Junior Women World Freestyle Champion, and is the current reigning Womens Freestyle World Champion.  

Sage has run some of the most challenging rapids in the world, and was the first woman to run The Untouchables, a very difficult Class V rapid on Fantasy Falls in CA. She’s won the North Fork Championship and the Green Race, among her many river running accomplishments.

Sage also has a passion for photography and runs her own photography business, Sage Donnelly Imagery. And she’s done all of this while managing her type one diabetes, celiac, and hypothyroid disease.

How to connect with Sage:

IG: @sagekayak

FB: https://www.facebook.com/SageDonnelly

https://www.sagedonnellyimagery.com/

Anna
My guest today is Sage Donnelly. She’s lived in a van traveling around the country for most of her life. She started competing in whitewater kayaking at the age of seven and has competed in slalom, freestyle, and extreme racing. She’s a seven time USA team member, has placed top 10 in the world in K1 and C1 slalom, was junior women’s world freestyle champion, and is the current reigning women’s freestyle world champion.

Sage has run some of the most challenging rapids in the world, holds the women’s flow record for Big Falls on South Fork Payette and Selway Falls on the Selway River. And she’s won the North Fork Championship and the Green Race among her many river running accomplishments. Sage also has a passion for photography and runs her own photography business, Sage Donnelly Imagery. And she’s done all of this while managing her type one diabetes, celiac and hypothyroid disease. Sage, thank you so much for being here.

Sage Donnelly
Thank you so much for having me on, Anna. So excited.

Anna
I know I’m excited to talk to you about the discomfort zone or your discomfort zone. So when I say discomfort zone, what comes up for you?

Sage Donnelly
I would say my discomfort zone to me what pops into my head is a combination of like fear pushing your body to its limit and pushing your mental state to its limit.

Anna
And what’s your strategy for doing that? Because you do it a lot. I mean, you’ve done a lot. You know, you’re running some of the biggest rapids, you’re really pushing the sport and in all areas, really, you’ve pushed the sport of kayaking in all areas. So how, what are some strategies if you’d share with us on how you do that?

Sage Donnelly
I think honestly from a really young age, I kind of learned to love like my discomfort zone honestly, like when I was I think eight or nine or something like that, my, my like the year before. So my family and I also, I rock climb, I ski, I mountain bike, all that fun stuff. And I’ve grown up doing all of that with my mom and dad. And every year we would go to the Yosemite and one year my dad climbed up Snake Dyke on Half Dome. So it’s like you rock climb up one side and you actually go down the cables on the other side. And then I was like, he was showing me photos. I was like, that looks so cool. I wanna do that next year. He’s like, well, it’s like a long hike up there. Like you need to start training for it. And so I think, honestly, I think that was one of the points where I started really going into my discomfort zone. I like ran every day, I hiked a lot, I rock climbed a lot. And then next year I like went and did it and it was awesome. And so yeah, I think I really just kind of was put in, I put it in that environment or like had the opportunity to put myself in that environment from a young age just with how many sports my parents did. And then kind of just got a little bit addicted to it.

Anna
Yeah, it sounds like you had some coaching from your dad as a young girl of, okay, you have this goal. So that’s awesome. And here’s what you’ve got to do to reach that goal.

Sage Donnelly
Absolutely. Yeah, I definitely get the question a lot of like, oh, you know, you’ve been competing from such a young age, like your parents must have pushed you. You know, what was that like? And it was never really my parents pushing me. It was my parents putting me in positions where there was these opportunities and then me going, I want to do that. And then my parents being like, okay, well, here’s how you put the work in. Like, let’s do it.

Anna
Yeah, yeah, that’s cool. My, um, I actually did a pod, an interview with my dad for this podcast and he was talking about, uh, teaching me how to cycle. And he was saying the same thing. Like if he said, if, if his kids had a desire, showed a desire to do something, then he would definitely support. Um, and he, he tried to not let us find reasons or excuses not to succeed. And I thought that was really cool. Like it’s cool. I’m grateful to have grown up with that for sure.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, me too. Me too. I think it definitely set me up well for life, I like to think. I hope he agrees.

Anna
Yeah, yeah. And I’ve seen over the years of being in the industry, the opposite is also true. I’ve seen kids who have been pushed or it appeared from the outside. So I’m only looking in from the outside that seemed like their parents were really pushing them on the competitive level and to perform. And a lot of those kids, I don’t see them paddling anymore. And I wonder was the pressure too much, you know?

Sage Donnelly
Oh yeah. Yeah, definitely. I’ve definitely seen a few of those as well. It’s too bad, but I like to think they’re at least all doing things they love now, so that’s good.

Anna
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Right? We all find our own path. That’s a great point. Why do you choose to put yourself in your discomfort zone over and over again?

Sage Donnelly
I think it goes back to I, you know, from a young age, I just started pushing myself and I think the feeling of accomplishing a goal was just so awesome to me that I just kept wanting to do it and wanting to do it and wanting to do it. And the goals kept getting bigger and bigger and you know, like wanting to rock climb something turned into I want to run my first class four and running my first class four turned into like or running, even my first class three turned in like, okay, well, we’re going to go do the Grand Canyon. How much of this do you want to put kayak? And then that turned into, I want to learn how to boof and, and then all that turned into, I want to make the U S team for freestyle and solemn. And that turned into, Oh, I can do canoe and kayak solemn. Like let’s, let’s go. Um, so yeah, I think, I think it just kind of came naturally to me. And I also.

I, you know, my parents raised me to have a good work ethic. And so I think the combination of wanting to achieve goals and that awesome like feeling of reaching them. And then also I love like working on stuff. I love putting in the work. You know, I, even when I’m not specifically training for a goal, I’m still like in the gym every day just because I love to work hard and I really enjoy kind of all the aspects of it.

Anna
Yeah, what you’re saying, I think is really important. What I hear you saying is that you enjoy the journey, that you do accomplish these amazing things like you’re world champion and you’ve run some huge rapids and won races and you love the day to day and you love what you do. And even what I hear you say is regardless of the sport, you love the work.

And it sounds like you’re highly motivated. But that’s important to accomplishing big goals is you can’t only just think about the end goal. You have to actually enjoy and want to do the hard moves in easy water, so to speak. Small consistent actions over time. That’s what create bigger results.

Sage Donnelly
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Yeah. Yeah. It’s actually funny. I, um, I just went on to, so Natalie Anderson and Leif, they, um, they started this awesome kind of race virtual race team. And their goal is just to, to help people kind of learn how to set goals, like reasonable goals and reach them and improve and hold each other accountable for training and all that fun stuff. And I think it’s really awesome. Um, but I went on and did a little like Q and a forum and some of the questions were like,

Man, like, I don’t, I’m so unmotivated for all this. How do you get motivated? It’s like, man, I don’t know. I guess I just, I just want to do it. Like every day if I, you know, if I go like two, three days without going to the gym or going kayaking or something, I turn into a psychopath. I’m just like, can’t sleep. I’m like twitching. I’m like, I just want to go do this stuff.

Okay, a little bit of an exaggeration, but I had to paint a picture.

Anna
Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. That’s awesome. I mean, it’s awesome that you have that. Not that you turn into a psychopath. No, I know. I know. Yeah, I get it. What have you learned about yourself from stepping into your discomfort zone over and over?

Sage Donnelly
Interesting.

I think I actually, I think I surprise myself every time I step into my discomfort zone because I kind of, I think I forget exactly like how hard I can push. Like I think like Middle Kings, for example, I did Middle Kings in 2023 right before I went to Freestyle Worlds. And man, that trip, everyone’s like, oh, Middle Kings is amazing. Like the Whitewater is super hard, but everything’s a dream. We got on the hike in that’s already like upwards of 16 miles. On the hike in that was already hard enough with the weighted kayak and all that fun stuff. We had like 80 miles per hour, like wind gusts that were trying to blow us off the mountain. And then the storm switched even more and we got a ton of rain. And so the levels were like so much higher than we wanted. And we were already way committed at that point.

And I think that’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve done because it turned into like, oh, we’re going to hike and you’re going to be tired, but then we’re going to kayak a lot too. Oh, we’re pretty much just walking everything. And, you know, it’s pretty, it’s exhausting, like lifting up a weighted kayak over and over a loaded kayak. And we had like a time limit. We had a set time we had to get out. So we were just pulling like, dawn till dusk, like leading ourselves down. And I think like that mission definitely like showed, showed me like, just how far I can actually push. And I’ve actually, you know, I think it, it really opened my eyes a lot because I definitely, I’ve always kind of struggled, especially with racing and training around racing, like that final like dig deep and push. I think I’ve always struggled a little, a little bit with that and I found ever since that trip, I think I’ve learned that, oh, it’s not that bad. You really can push through it. So yeah, I think I’ve learned that I am stronger than I actually think I am.

Anna
Mm. Yeah, and it sounds like that was a like a really monumental moment for you. And yeah, that’s cool that that you carry what you learned there into other other areas. When I was because I was commentating on the live stream for freestyle worlds for the women, and it was really exciting. And, you know, to me, it occurred for me like you really did pull it out, you know, like in the fine, in your finals rides. So like that last, cause you were just saying sometimes you have a hard time pushing through, but on at worlds you’re, you really like pushed through and like is shown like shined. I don’t know. I’m losing my words, but you’re really shining.

Sage
You know, honestly, we’re Yeah, yeah worlds was was actually a pretty unique experience for me. I think for so many years, I’ve just been so such a like, big person in the freestyle world and in the solemn world. And it was like, it kind of turned into I don’t know if that I think this was absolutely something I just put on myself, but I definitely even going into my first freestyle worlds in 2015, like I was a wreck leading up to it. Cause I was like, everyone expects me to win. I have to win like blah, blah, blah. And you know, I managed to fight that feeling off in 2015, but then I feel like it kind of took over my life. Um, as the years went on and then 2020 hit COVID hit, and I took a break from competition. Um, and then I was like, okay, you know, took my break, I’ll be fine now and went back to like green race and was like, oh, I’m not fine. And then 2021, honestly, you know, I won North Fork Championships. I won green race, but won Russell Fork, but they didn’t really feel like wins to me, if that makes sense, because I still felt awful when I was competing. I didn’t, I didn’t paddle to my like anywhere near my top ability. Like I, was kind of, I didn’t come into those awards expecting to win because I was like, my runs were awful. Like I didn’t paddle well. And so, so I don’t know. Yeah. They kinda, they still didn’t really feel like wins cause I was like, I’m still not enjoying competing. I’m still not having fun. I’m still putting a ton of pressure on myself. Like it’s not, the lead up isn’t fun right now. The competition isn’t fun right now. I need to figure this out.

And it was really, really cool to go back to Freestyle Worlds this year because I went into it with absolutely no expectations. I kind of set a goal of like, it would be awesome if I could make finals. And I honestly, I think that’s why one was because I was in the Eddie relaxed, just like, I made my goal, I’m in finals. This is fantastic. Like, I’m just gonna go kayaking now versus.

You could kind of see it on everyone else’s face. Like they were nervous, they were stressed. So yeah, Freestyle Worlds is a really cool breakthrough for me because it was a fun competition. It wasn’t like, oh my God, I have to win. I have to put my best ride down. I have to do this, have to do that. So.

Anna
Yeah, yeah. What do you think made the difference for you? Like what what took the pressure off?

Sage
Honestly, I’ve really been developing more of my life outside of competition. Like you mentioned, I have like my photography business. So this summer, like primarily I was shooting wedding photos, which was awesome, but it also took a lot of training time away, especially specifically for freestyle. I’m in Idaho and you know, there, there wasn’t really much time to go up to where their waves are in Idaho and train. And so I pretty much, I went out to Columbus right after I got back from Middle Kings, I think that was like three weeks before Worlds. And I was just like, okay, I’m here, you know, water levels aren’t ideal. I haven’t trained all year, like, whatever, we’re just gonna see what we can do. And I think having that mindset of like, I’m gonna work hard while I’m here, I’m gonna, you know, learn this wave as well as I can. But I’m but it’s okay, because it’s like, I haven’t been training and just accepting that it’s like, you know what? I haven’t been training. Like I don’t expect myself to win. And I’m not putting that pressure on myself to win because it’s an unrealistic goal. And yeah, it just allowed me to fully relax and just kayak, which was really cool.

Anna
Yeah, that’s great that it’s great that you got to that point. And it sounds like your work ethic came, you know, the fact that you love to paddle and work on stuff really came into play. I can really relate because I, um, I was, I won bronze at the 2001 world freestyle championships. And after that, I put so much pressure on myself. I could, and I never got to the point where you are, um, which I think is awesome.

Instead, I found teaching because I would compete and I just would put, after that I was like, well, I should be in the top three all the time. I had this super unrealistic, literally that’s what I was telling myself at every competition after that. It was a little crazy when I think about it. Because there are some folks, some amazing competitors who can pull that out and then comparing myself. I never got to the point where I loved competing, I loved everything around it, the community, the training, the features, you know, the traveling. I loved loved everything around it. But I never got to the point where I loved competition, or to a point where I even with all of my mindset, you know, because I’ve delved in a lot to meditation, yoga, all the things. And I remember going back to competition in 2013 competing in US team trials, I was I said it was just for fun, but I couldn’t do it just for fun. So I never, after that I was like, you know what? I’m okay without competing. I can enjoy paddling and just be happy for folks who love to compete. But yeah, it is, I think type A personality or maybe perfectionism, whatever it is, yeah, that pressure can be challenging. So I’m…

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, yeah, it’s hard. Yeah, I’m sorry. Sorry you never learned to love it, but yeah, it’s… I think I’m finally getting there, maybe.

Anna
Yeah. It’s okay.

Yeah, yeah, no, I think that’s awesome, right? And it shows a lot of mental agility to be able to get there for sure. Yeah.

Sage Donnelly
Now I just have to figure out Creek racing.

Anna
Well, yeah, except you’ve, you’ve, do you need to, you mean figure out the mental side because I mean, athletically and performance wise, you are there, right? And that’s, yeah, that’s the thing is putting the two together, which I talk about a lot in my coaching, right? Not for, not necessarily for racers. Yeah. But in general. So what are you working on? Do you want to share with us how you’re working on that?

Sage
Yes.

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s so hard.

Yeah, so I think my my main thing I’m still trying to work on right now is kind of just what I spoke about with freestyle worlds where it’s like I’m trying to take away the I have to do well because I have the skills to because I think the second I kind of switch over into that mindset, I like I don’t paddle well. I’m rushed. I’m missing strokes. I’m using backstrokes. I’m like,
I’m just all over the place and it’s not pretty. And one of my things is I’m like, what the heck? I feel like I’m a very pretty, very technical paddler. Why is this not translating? Like I can go out and paddle the green and be super smooth. And then the second it’s race time, I’m just like all over the place. So really just trying to find a balance of, you know, obviously I want to set it a goal for this race, but I also don’t want to put pressure on myself. So at the moment, I’m not, I’m actually trying to take away the goals for races, like at freestyle world. So it’s like, it would be great if I can make finals, but like realistically, I’m just going to go and paddle as best I can and we’ll see what happens. Um, and then like, I’m, I’m living in white salmon right now and little white races, obviously coming up and rather than just doing race lap after race lap and being like, I have to train this, I have to train this, I have to win, I have to do well. I’m also training for slalom team trials right now as well, just to add onto that. But I’ve kind of, I’m kind of just trying to paddle. I’m trying to feel out the river and just feel good on it. And, you know, obviously eventually I want to get to the point where doing lots and lots of race laps doesn’t put me in this mentality, this crappy mentality of like, oh, I’ve been training hard. So I have to like win and I have to paddle perfectly and blah, blah, blah. So yeah, I’m almost trying to set myself up for failure a little bit it sounds like because I’m like, okay, let’s not train. Like I’m gonna train physically. So like I’m in shape to do the race, but I’m not going to just pound out race lap after race lap, because I find that’s where I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I, you know, get really frustrated and I start to not like kayaking. So right now the goal is just do competitions while still maintaining your love for kayaking and then add on in the years to come.

Anna
Yeah, that’s awesome. I look forward to seeing how your strategy plays out. We’ll be cheering for you.

Sage
We’ll see, there’s a lot of fast ladies here. So I’m not expecting anything insane, but I, you know, it’d be awesome to podium. If it happens, it happens. If I can put the race lap together sweet. And if not, then I leave the day after to go to slalom team trials. So we’re fine.

Anna
Yeah, that’s exciting. That’s awesome that you’re doing multi -discipline. I mean, and that’s challenging, you know, and fun.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, it got a little exhausting for a while, but I’m stoked to be back in it.

Anna
Yeah. Uh, you mentioned you’re, you were feeling out the river and I just, I want to talk about that a little bit because I, um, I, when I’m coaching clients on the river, I often have them like perform ferries with their eyes closed, which at first they’re like, are you crazy? And I was like, just try it because it’s to me, it’s very relaxing. But you know, at first it’s, it’s, it’s, you get nervous because your eyes are closed. We’re so used to looking at the water. And what I tell folks is that really great paddlers, they’re not just intellectualizing river reading. Like, yes, they’re reading the water, but they’re also feeling what the boat, like what the boat is doing, and they’re feeling how the water is affecting their boat. And kind of putting the two together, because sometimes if we’re only intellectualizing with our eyes,

We see stuff that isn’t there, like we’ll make stuff up, like, oh, that boil looks so scary. But if you actually feel your boat, it’s not actually doing anything or you have enough momentum or whatever. So can you talk about feeling the river and what that means to you?

Sage
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I honestly, I feel like at this point I’ve put so many hours into the water that yeah, it is kind of, a lot of it is second nature. Like I don’t, you know, I don’t go down a rapid I’ve never seen before. I don’t really go down and like look, I’m like, oh, oh my God, there’s all this stuff. What do I do? It’s kind of just like, okay, here we go. Like I’m just gonna, and it all definitely feels a little second nature.

I definitely feel it a lot, but I think like, you know, as far as like how I got there, my dad and I like, just like you were saying, we would go and we would just catch like every Eddie and try to use as few strokes as possible. I don’t think we ever did the eyes closed thing, but I definitely like when I’m feeling really stiff on my boat now, I will float down whatever like class two, whatever rapid is around and I’ll just like, close my eyes and let my hips move with the water and totally feel just like that looseness with my boat. But yeah, I think it’s just something that slowly, you slowly develop the more and more you kayak. But the way I think I kind of developed it was catching every eddy, surfing every wave, learning.

And as you do that, I think you naturally kind of learn how your boat is gonna react. But it’s all, I think a lot of it is subconsciously you learn what your boat is gonna do and how the water is gonna affect it. And another thing I love to do is like hit waves in every different way possible to see how they’ll move you. And then next thing you know, you’re like, oh my God, I have to get to the other side of the river and you just use a curler and then you’re over there and it’s awesome.

Anna
Right. Yeah, that’s awesome. Yeah, that’s great. So what you’re doing all of this, pushing your body physically and pushing your mind mentally. And as we mentioned in the beginning, you’re also doing this while managing your diabetes, your hypothyroidism, your celiac. So is that uncomfortable? Is that part of your discomfort zone managing that? Or is that?

Yeah, just something you do.

Sage
It definitely can be. Specifically for like anything with a hike in, that is absolutely like my main concern is my diabetes because hike ins, you’re just burning so many calories that you just have to eat the whole time. You obviously can’t eat the whole time because you’re hiking. So that’s definitely hard for me to manage and.

Yeah, it’s super uncomfortable and it’s a pain in the butt. But also like, you know, I was diagnosed with type one diabetes when I was three and then, you know, having the parents that I have, they’re like, okay, this may suck a little bit, but like, this is just your life now and you’re going to manage it and you’re not going to let it stop you. And so I think I was really fortunate to have them kind of guide me towards that mindset. And then, you know, I kind of just held on to that as I grew up. People are like, oh, like, you know, and actually that’s kind of my goal for this year is to start talking more about how you can do the sports you love whilst while having diabetes. Because it’s it’s hard, you know, it’s it’s a lot of pre planning. It’s a lot of trial and error and it’s a lot of frustration. But

You know, I think it’s the same thing with like working towards a goal. It’s just, it’s part of the process at this point in my life. And, you know, there’s might be some days where my blood sugar gets low during like all of my workouts and I get super frustrated and I want to quit. But I think my love for what I do just kind of overpowers all of that, like too much for, for it to stop me.

Anna
Hmm. Yeah. Do you have any tips, any specific tips you want to share right now for any folks listening who might have type one diabetes and.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, Costco, get a Costco membership, get their like huge packs of juice boxes. They’re going to be your new best friend. And really just, you know, everybody’s different. And, you know, experiment with what works best for you in terms of like, what food works for you experiment with different types of food balancing carbs versus protein before like, you go kayaking or before you go workout. Definitely make sure like trial and error with also like low blood sugar snacks. You know, I love juice boxes and like, you know, fruit gummies. But you know, a lot of people I know are like, oh, you know, dates are the best thing ever. I can’t do that. I am not that healthy. So yeah, just like experiment with that. And it’s a lot of trial and error and it can be very tiring, but you know, once you find your system, it’s really, really worth it to go through all that. And it’s really worth it to push through that because giving up on what you love is just, it’s not worth it. It’ll just kinda, if you let the disease take over your life, it really does. And it makes you sad and it makes you depressed and it’s not fun. I’ve seen, I have a lot of friends who have kind of just quit all of the sports that they used to do before they were diagnosed. And, you know, it’s, they kind of almost look like a shell of a human at this point. So you got to just, you got to just push through it and figure out the system and, and it’s worth it. And if anyone also, anyone listening to this podcast has any questions about like specific, um, tricks and stuff that I do feel free to hit me up on like Instagram or, or anything like that.

Anna
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ll put your Instagram in the show notes and yeah, so folks can find you. So if you’re, when you’re, okay, let me start over. So you’re, yeah.

Sage
Actually, sorry, real quick. I realized I completely didn’t talk about one part of my discomfort zone, which is, and competing, the competition mindset. I actually, I’ll just give you the brief rundown and then you can see if you wanna ask it in a question or whatever. But when COVID hit, I was like, I’m done with competing. I’m just gonna go creek and run big things. And that’s kinda how I developed, I think a really good mindset for actually paddling to my best ability because you know, I like it started with Selway Falls, like Ben Stokesbury took me out and we did a tributary to the Selway River and it pops in right above Selway Falls and I looked at it, I was like, man, I see a line like I want to do that. And then I was suddenly able to like unlock this like awesome, you know, headspace where I could just actually paddle how I knew I could paddle. And then I kept doing that like for big falls and untouchables and other stuff I’ve run. And so that mindset, I think I really brought that into freestyle worlds as well, where it was just like, I’m not here to throw a competition ride. I’m just here to paddle and have fun. And yeah, so I don’t know if you want to like phrase that as a question or what, but I think that would, that’s something that is important to touch on.

Anna
Yeah, well, I think just said, I think we can work it in. I think my editor is really great. We could just work in just what you said. Unless you want it. Do you want to say more?

Sage
Awesome. Yeah, I’ll just go into a little bit of more detail. Yeah, so basically, like, I managed to tap into this headspace of just being able to like, kind of turn my brain off and just paddle and enjoy it and just be in the moment. And, you know, I, it started with Selway Falls, I think I tapped into it a good amount.

But then it really, I think I discovered it when I ran Big Falls. I ran Big Falls at, I think 1380 or 1380 CFS. And which is, which is pretty, fairly high for what people generally run it at. And I, I remember we had paddled the, it was just like a tributary. We had done like a little overnighter and paddled past big falls and we were walking around it and I stopped to look for a second. I was like, man, I see a line. Like that would be, that would be really cool if I could paddle it. And so I came out and I remember talking to my dad cause big falls is this huge rapid on a class three, four section on the South Fork Payette River on the canyon. And so my dad and my mom kayak it all the time. And I went up to my dad. I was like, so dad, I want to run big falls. Um,

Will you come in and do safety for me? Cause my dad is a swift water rescue instructor and just overall guru of safety. Um, and he was like, no, you’re joking. Like you’re not serious. I was like, no, I’m serious. Like, will you come in and set safety for me? And, um, so it was cool. We like had a huge safety crew. We had two live baits set up ropes everywhere. Kayakers at the bottom, um, definitely set it up for success, but also, um,

I remember like that’s pretty much the only rapid I’ve been above where I’m like, wow, if I mess this up, like I could, I could die. Like, you know, obviously it’s pretty unlikely I’ve taken all these steps to avoid it, but the bottom hole is kind of well known for sucking people so deep that it like bursts their eardrums. So I remember I was like, okay, you know, that’s obviously a huge risk you know, do I think I can do it? Is it worth it? Like had this huge like mental conversation above it. And then I was like, you know what, I know exactly how I want to do it. I know exactly where I want to go. I trust my skills. Like I want to do it. So I remember getting to the top. I was like, okay, like the what if cannot be. It’s not an option. Like you cannot mess this up. So I

I just like sat there and like meditated for a moment and like cleared my brain. I was like, I’m not going to think of the what if like, what if I don’t get this booth? What if I don’t do that? And I’m only going to think about like, I am going to do this. So I like cleared my head, like splash my face a few times and I peeled out and I went and like, I honestly barely remember the run. It was awesome. It was super fun, but I like got so deep into the zone that I like didn’t really remember it. Sorry. That’s my insulin pump yelling at me. Um,

And after that, I was like, wow, this head space is pretty cool. And I tried it again when I ran Untouchables. I was like, okay, you know, obviously the consequences, everyone flushes out of the Untouchables, you know, one way or another. And I was like, okay, do I want to do it? Like, yes, I do. Like, okay, clear my head and go. And, you know, I laced down another really pretty line exactly how I wanted to do it. So I actually have started trying to bring that mindset into competing where it’s like, you know what, who cares if you mess up? Like there’s no what if you mess up, like just go kayak. And so yeah, that’s been cool.

Anna
Hmm. Yeah, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that. That’s really, really great. When you’re, when you say you’re meditating to clear your mind, is there a specific technique? Cause it really sounds like it puts you in the flow state. Is there like a specific something you’re thinking about or repeating to yourself or I’m just curious.

Sage Donnelly
Not really. I actually, I just sit there and I close my eyes and I take like, for me, I’ve gotten it down to I pretty much take three deep breaths and I just imagine like everything leaving my brain. And then I like do the splash of water so I don’t start thinking about things again. And then as soon as I splash, I just go and don’t give myself an opportunity for any thoughts to come in.

Anna
That’s really powerful. Thanks for sharing that. Like what a cool routine and ritual I should say. And rituals are so important. And sometimes I, when I talk to folks about it, I don’t know if they really, I think some people do believe in them, but I’m like so many top athletes, everyone has a ritual that they’re doing to prep themselves. So yeah, and anyone can do it. Anyone can do it. You’re paddling class two and you’re getting ready to go and you’re nervous. Like find your ritual, whether it’s like you say, I loved your visualization of you visualize everything leaving your mind. Like that’s super cool. That really works for you. And someone else could find something different. I like to put my hand in the water and like thank the water, you know, the water spirits. And then I also like to ask myself,

Sage Donnelly
Aw, that’s so cute.

Anna
I also like to ask myself, do you trust yourself? Like, do you trust yourself to make this? And if I say yes, then I go.

Sage Donnelly
Absolutely. Yeah. That’s usually the pre -meditation for me. I’m like, do I trust myself to do this crazy thing? I don’t know.

But yeah, and I also, I like doing a lot of visualization beforehand. I think especially on Untouchables, the night before we were sleeping next to the river and I just remember over and over as I was falling asleep, I was just imagining myself doing it and yeah, it helps.

Anna
Yeah, it helps a ton. I remember when I ran Itunda on the White Nile, like this is years and years ago, I actually think I was the first woman to run it successfully. Like actually, you know, this is back in 2004, maybe, I don’t know, it was a long time ago, but I spent, and we didn’t have GoPros and all the cool stuff, you know, to, so…

But I do, I visualize all week. I could see the line. Other people were like, it’s so hard. You know, I would watch folks run it and I was like, no, I see it. I can do it. And it is nice to have that feeling. Like what you were saying, I see a line. Like that is the coolest. Um, and I think what’s important or at least it’s important for me is if I see the line, because when we were standing, when I was standing on a, by a Tendo, um, and we watched our friend run it and I was like, I see the line and they were like, well, don’t go by what he does like he’s, you know, he makes it look easy and it’s really scary. And, and I’ve been in that place where people around me are, and I get it. Cause it’s their fear. They’re like projecting and that’s okay that they have their fear. The key is to not let that affect you or me. Right. And, um, I think just, I think that’s a good thing to, to talk about because just because someone else doesn’t see the line, if you see the line and you’re confident and you have the steps and you’re being thoughtful, that’s awesome, right? Just because someone else thinks it’s scary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run it.

Sage
Yeah.

Yeah. And I think also something really important to note that I’ve kind of seen, you know, in like my students, just like class two, three paddlers, especially when they’re stepping up, I think it’s really easy for them to like, and us to focus on like the big bad scary thing in the rapid. And it’s definitely important to note that and be like, okay, I note that this is a consequence. However, I’m not going to fixate on it.

Um, and then, and then kind of like push that aside and really fixate on, okay, where is the line I actually want to go.

Anna
Yep, yeah, totally. Exactly. Look where you want to go.

Sage
Exactly.

Anna
Sage, do you have any questions for me?

Sage Donnelly
Oh man, I wasn’t prepped for this. Not at the moment, but give me a little bit of time to digest that and I’m sure I’ll think of some.

Anna
Okay, sounds good. Okay, I have some rapid fire questions for you. Are you ready? Okay.

Oh, one other question actually, before we get into rapid fire. Because I think this is so if you have ever and I don’t know if you have experienced like doubters or haters or anything like that throughout your career. If you have how do you approach that?

Sage
Man, you know, honestly, that’s something I’m still really working on. And I don’t know if I found the perfect way to do it, but I have absolutely experienced that, especially through like my teenage years. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of hate, and I completely internalized it. So I know the way I don’t want to deal with it anymore, but I internalized it and it made me, you know, I was competing a ton. I was competing a lot in solemn and it made me absolutely hate the environment. And so I’ve done a lot of healing with that, but it kind of also manifested in a little bit of freestyle and a little bit of creaking. Just there’s, there’s a lot of judgment. And I think it’s such a small community in kayaking. And I think that’s a huge, amazing part of kayaking, but it also can make it really hard in certain situations. And so, you know, I, I’m trying to teach myself that what other people’s opinion of me, specifically when they know nothing about me, doesn’t matter. It’s the people that are close to me, it’s my friends and my family, it’s their opinion that matters. And it’s my own opinion of myself that matters. But at the same time, it’s really hard to remember that at times. And so I’m just trying to slowly work more and more towards not caring about…random people’s opinion of me. Or even I’ve had some people that I thought I’ve been really close with that have suddenly had very negative opinions on me. So just trying to remember that, you know, people also go through their own stuff. Their issues definitely can project onto their opinion of you and just try to remember that at the end of the day, it’s what’s your really close family and friends think and it’s your opinion of yourself that matters. Yeah, so just like let it let it shed off you.

Anna
Yeah, yeah, thanks for sharing that. Okay, now we’re into rapid fire. What is a morning ritual that sets you up for success?

Sage Donnelly
Honestly, I am I golly I have tried to be a morning person, but I’m not a huge morning person. So I generally am one of those kinds of people I roll out of bed and I don’t think too much about anything. I just go to whatever I was planning. Like if it’s going to run a little wide, I’m like get roll out of bed, grab some food. I’m going to go and have fun.

Anna
Okay.

Sage Donnelly
So I think my morning ritual or actually, you know what? I’m gonna answer this as if I was competing. So if my competition was in the afternoon, I try to set my morning ritual the exact same way for as long as possible beforehand. So like the week leading up to it or two weeks leading up to it, I try to have like the same breakfast, wake up at the same time, stretch or whatever I find. I don’t have an exact set of things I do. I try to… get to that place of, you know, wherever I am and I try to just set whatever routine is feeling good and I play with it a little bit and once I’m like, okay, this feels great. I just kind of stick with that as I go. But yeah, whether it’s stretching or just like listening to music, I actually really love watching Netflix. So a lot of times I’ll actually just like wake up, eat breakfast and hang out and watch some Netflix and just relax. And then I go do like my usual warm up and

Just kind of whatever routine, just do that. Whatever routine feels good to you, I just kind of do that every single day.

Anna
Nice. What’s a non -negotiable self -care practice?

Sage
off, I am a horrible over trainer and even when I do take time off, I slip into the, I have so much stuff to do. Oh my God, I got to go, got to go, got to do stuff. Stress case thing. So I found it’s especially I’ve discovered this recently. Actually, I found it’s very important not only to take time off of activities, but also take time off of just doing stuff. Like I don’t like taking off days to be like errand days, because then I get to the end of the day, I’m like, I’m exhausted. I don’t feel like I took any time off. Which obviously that’s not an option every time, but at least every once in a while, especially when you start to feel run down, I think it’s, I at least am like, okay, I need a day where I don’t do anything. I lay in the sun and I relax.

Anna
Totally.

Anna
What’s a favorite motivational book or talk?

Sage
Ummm…

You know, I’m not actually sure. I think, yeah, I haven’t really dove into that side of things very much. In the past, people have recommended a lot of like mental toughness books to me and I found those are a little bit too narrow -minded and you have to be hardcore and macho for me, at least the ones I’ve read so far.

Anna
That’s okay.

Sage
So yeah, I haven’t found the book recommendation yet, but I’ll keep looking. I’ll let you know.

Anna
Okay. Okay, sounds good. What do people get wrong about you?

Sage
You know, I think I’ve actually had a lot of close friends where they’re like, oh, when we first met you, we thought you were going to be, pardon my French, a bitch. I was like, where did you get that? I think, I think a lot of people see me in like a competition zone and they’re like, oh, she looks super mean and intimidating or whatever. And I’m actually kind of just a soft cupcake most of the time. So if you come up and just say hi to me.

I don’t think I’ll be mean ever.

Anna
Throughout the course of your life, have you felt like the underdog or the favorite to win?

Sage
Oof. In the past, I’ve definitely felt like I was favored to win and then all of a sudden I put so much pressure on myself because of that, then it turned to I didn’t win for so long, but now I feel like the underdog. So, yeah, it’s a weird arc.

Anna
Hmm. Got it. Yeah. Hard moves in easy water or flooding.

Sage Donnelly
Hard moves in easy water.

Anna
What’s one word that describes your comfort zone?

Sage Donnelly
Warmth.

Anna
I thought you might say Netflix. Warmth and Netflix.

Sage Donnelly
No, I want just warmth. I don’t even need Netflix. If I have a patch of sun or a blanket, I am fine. I’m a very cold person. So.

Anna
Nice.

Okay, got it. Okay, freedom through discipline or I do what I want.

Sage Donnelly
Hmm, um a combination

Anna
Yeah, you know what, I did a podcast interview with Michael Johnson, who’s an amazing yoga teacher. And he said, he said they exist because when you have freedom through discipline, you get to do what you want. Which I like that.

Sage Donnelly
Right, yeah. Yeah, I was gonna say, like, freedom through discipline, but I also, like, I do what I want with discipline.

Anna
Right, yeah, I get it. Okay, in one word, what do you hope your legacy will be?

Sage Donnelly
I really hope I inspire people and I also, I hope that I leave this earth with making people feel happy and better about themselves. I’ve had a lot of people kind of put me down in, whether it was on purpose or not, throughout my life. And I never wanna make someone feel the way that I felt in the past. So I wanna…

Honestly, I want to put out the same energy that Sarah did. Sarah Ruhland, obviously, you know her. I don’t know if the listeners will know her, but she was basically just like a light in the kayaking community and in everyone’s lives that she touched. And I kinda wanna embody that as well as much as I can.

Anna
Yeah, that’s sweet and a sweet tribute. Awesome. Is there anything else that you want to say to our listeners?

Sage Donnelly
Not not massively honestly like if anyone has any questions about anything I’ve rambled about or any diabetes related questions or even if you know your Nephew or your sister your kid like just got diagnosed or with any other honestly any other? Crappy diagnosis like I’m I obviously can’t understand it completely if I don’t have it so if you have celiac hypothyroid or type 1 diabetes obviously I’ll be able to lend a hand a little bit more, but honestly, if anyone ever needs a sounding board for like, I just got this horrible, like crazy life changing thing happened to me. Like I’m more than happy to listen and sympathize. So yeah, I have an open door policy. I’m really bad at looking at my message requests or my spam on Instagram. So I’m sorry if it takes a little bit for me to get back to you, but I’m trying to get better.

Anna
Okay, awesome. And thanks for that. That’s generous. And I’ll put that, your Instagram handle again in the show notes. So I really appreciate you taking the time, Sage. It’s always super fun to hang out with you. And so yeah, thanks for sharing your, thanks for sharing yourself and your wisdom with us.

Sage Donnelly
Thanks. And actually I have thought of a question. Every, well, okay. So from an outside perspective, obviously, you know, I don’t think we haven’t really gotten to hang out and paddle as much as I’d like to, but you always seem just so happy and like at peace. What is your like, what’s your top recommendation for achieving that? Or is it all just an amazing front?

Anna
Yeah, if Andrew, no, no, if Andrew were listening in right now, he’d be like, what?

Sage Donnelly
I know that’s that Stephen would feel the same way.

Anna

Yeah. I, you know, that’s interesting because I definitely have so much, um, you know, I, so I have done a lot of personal development studies, yoga, Ayurveda, meditation. I’ve done something called Landmark Forum, which is personal and professional development. And so I have, um, I have,

given myself the opportunity to study and practice a lot of tools, mindset tools that take me from feeling disempowered to feeling empowered. And that’s why I coach mental agility. Like that’s what for me, mental agility is the ability to move quickly and easily from feeling disempowered to feeling empowered. Now, sometimes like, again, if Andrew were here, he’d be like, yeah, sometimes it takes you a long time to get there, you know?

Um, which is true for all of us. And I think that, but because I have those tools and a way to reframe, I have many ways to reframe things that are happening and reminding myself that the only thing I can control is myself. Um, you know, I think that’s important, but just in the last couple of days, I’ve had some really frustrating interactions with some of the volunteer work that I do. And I’ve noticed like this morning in my yoga practice, I was like, you are letting.

Like you are so mad right now and I could, and it’s taking up mind space. So sometimes it literally takes me hours or half a day. And I was lying there saying, you’ve got to, so instead of being like blaming others or they’re so this or that it’s like, what, okay. You know, what would you say to them if you are not trying to dominate them or trying to be, you know, so mad or frustrated. So I have lots of questions like that.

And I try to take it on myself, like what can I do? It’s not about, you know, changing other people or changing the situation, but how can I show up in this moment to be as happy as possible, you know, to enjoy the moment, to be present. So.

Sage Donnelly
That’s awesome. Yeah, that’s really cool. I have one other question too. How do you, I don’t know, you always, again, you also from an outsider, outside perspective, you always seem very like organized. Like how, what’s your top recommendation for staying like organized while running your own business?

Anna
Yeah, calendar. Everything goes in the calendar. And I look at my calendar every night before the next day and in the morning and alarms like my phone, like setting reminders for sure. And then lots of Google docs sometimes, but the calendar is the, yeah, the calendar is my mom. I grew up, my mom was, is, still is, and was organized growing up.

She always had a cat like a paper calendar, cause I grew up in the nineties, like our eighties, nineties anyways, and she would write. And so I kind of like grew up with that, seeing that she had everything written on the calendar. So I think that’s super helpful.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely one thing I think I’m struggling with the most is I I’m very disciplined when it comes to working out and training, but the other side of things where it’s like posting on social media, like remembering to get video and photos and all that stuff. Like I I’ve really been struggling with that in my athlete side of things and and my business side of things. The business side of things is easier because it’s just like, oh, I have pretty photos. I can post them, but.

Yeah, definitely. I’ve been feeling a little unorganized.

Anna
Yeah, I hear you. And I have someone, Josie, big shout out to Josie, who does my social media. And it took me a while, a long time to get to a point where I could hire someone. And it’s a game changer. And I’m so grateful. And the content thing though is funny because yeah, I used to be on trips and be like, oh, I should have taken this photo. GoPros are amazing for that – getting content and footage. And then I, with the iPhone being waterproof, like I just have it for teaching and stuff, even running the green, I have it in my life jacket pocket with a case, but then it’s easy to whip out. But the GoPro is a game changer.

Sage Donnelly
That’s awesome. Right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, my big block right now is I’ve been so much better at GoPro -ing and now I’m like, ugh, I don’t want to edit it.

Anna
I know, I know. I have to make myself do it immediately or it just, it doesn’t get done. Yeah. Yeah. Great questions. Thanks Sage. Yeah. Appreciate you. Thanks again for being here.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, yeah, totally.

Sage
Thank you.

Sage Donnelly
Yeah, thank you so much. I’m glad it finally happened. It’s been a chaotic couple months, so thanks for bearing with me.