Today begins the Junior and U23 World Championships in Wausau, Wisconsin! My fellow Olympic Team member Casey Eichfeld and I have chosen this race for our pre-Olympic event because races this high-caliber do not come across the ocean to North America too often. Both of us have enjoyed staying with the junior team this week and getting to know the younger athletes a little better.
I have had some great conversations while I've been here with coaches, athletes, and supporters. One of these was with Joe Jacobi, CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, our national governing body, and 1992 Olympic gold medalist. We talked about my progression over the past year and my future as an athlete, team member, and ambassador. I cleared the coffee cup from our table with wheels turning in my head. What role do I play in the women's slalom program today? How will my role change in the coming weeks, months, years?
My immediate answer was "leader," but that's rather superficial. Hours after leaving my conversation with Joe, I thought back to when I was 15, the same age as most of the girls racing on our junior team this week. What were my challenges then? What would I have liked to see in an older athlete?
April, 2007: As one of the youngest racers at the National Team trials, I did not expect to place in the top three. But then I did, earning a trip to the World Cups and World Championships. We had a young team that year, the oldest woman aged 23. I had a great time, learned a lot, but was trailblazing in uncharted territory without a tremendous amount of guidance. Of course my coaches helped me on the water, but I rarely learned anything from the older athletes about how to grow as a team member in ways beyond paddling technique. I did not miss that which I did not have, but in hindsight a more mentoring atmosphere would have been useful.
Most of my information about developing as a well-rounded athlete came from two sources: a former team member and a calendar. Two excellent athletes exited the team after the 2004 season, the very year I started racing. One, Sarah, lived close to my training site in Maryland. She gave me a great deal of insight about how to make the most of team trips and work on my mental game. The second, Rebecca, was featured in April 2007 on a USOC calendar my family received in the mail. Rebecca is quoted as saying, "it would great to see the sport get popular, and we need more girls!" I highlighted that last part, I was going to be one of those girls.
July 2012: I chose to come to Wisconsin to race at home, yet this race has also presented me with the opportunity to build a bridge between senior level and junior level athletes. We still need more girls, and getting to know and influence the next generation of athletes helps secure the future of the women's program. Am I the best athlete that I could be? Not yet, but in the meantime I can shed some light on team training, resting, eating well, working with media, representing the US, and the international racing process all in real-time. I hope that in some way I have influenced the younger athletes positively, because here in Wausau I feel that I am in the right place at the right time.