A pioneer of women’s whitewater rafting in the 1990s, Sue Norman returned to racing for the first time in 20 years in 2019 for a masters event in Argentina. She came away from that event impressed by the number of young female paddlers and inspired to help youth excel in this small sport.
“When I raced, there were five women’s teams,” said Norman, who recently moved to South Lake Tahoe from Truckee. “Now almost half the teams are women and there is a new junior division.”
At the same time that she was getting re-energized in the sport, the U.S. Rafting Association was starting to fall apart, so Norman volunteered to be its president. She decided to build the association back up with a base in California rather than Colorado, and started coaching a team of teenage girls all from the Truckee/Tahoe area. That team, the California Poppies, will compete this month in the national championships in El Dorado County.
TEAM SPIRIT: (Left to right) USA U19 Women getting out of the water after the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremonies. Courtesy photo; USA U19 Women Registering for the World Rafting Championships in Banja Luka. Photo by Aaron Tippett; U19 Women Raft Racing Team Registering for the IRF World Championships in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo courtesy IR
Norman has been volunteering as the U19 women’s coach for several years, and in 2019 she took the Poppies to the World Rafting Championships in Bosnia/Herzegovina. The Poppies include five teens from Truckee and Olympic Valley: Chloe Tippett, Tatum Akers, Hannah Hammond, Laurel Anderson, Sienna Elste (who was unable to make the Bosnia trip), and Kennedy Kruse of Lincoln. Kruse competed with the rest in Bosnia but has since departed the team since graduating from high school. They competed against the better-funded and larger Czech Republic team, which Norman called “a whitewater dynasty … where whitewater paddling is like soccer here.”
Out of only two U19 women’s teams, the Poppies placed second overall.
“They didn’t win but they did quite well and showed that they knew what they were doing,” said Norman.
Valerie Burman, Tippett’s mom and a former rafting guide, said that Bosnia proved that the girls made a good team.
“When four people are working together and the water moves so fast and no one is actually guiding, it’s incredibly difficult,” she said. “The challenge for youth is in instantaneous group reaction time and whitewater reading skills and paddling technique.”
Because the U.S. lacks the local and regional whitewater rafting leagues that European and South American countries have, as well as national funding, it’s difficult for kids to enter the sport. Most children who get into whitewater rafting come from rafting families.
“There are a lot of good reasons why rafting is really niche and raft racing is hard to sustain in the U.S.,” Norman said. “It’s an inherently difficult sport to engage youth in. For kids, they have to do it with their families, they have to have family support to get into raft racing.”
To lure more kids into the sport, this summer Norman put on free whitewater rafting clinics in Coloma on the South Fork of the American River at the Nugget, the closest thing in California to a full-length slalom course. She had about 20 kids show up for each of the three clinics, with two more to be held before nationals. The Nugget is the site of the USRA National Rafting Championships Sept. 16 to 18.
Norman hopes the clinics will generate interest among teens in joining a team.
“If I could get one or two other teams formed and start training together, they will push each other so they are ready for the next international competition,” she said.
While many other sports are typically highly competitive among younger-aged athletes, rafting team contests intensify after the age of 23, Norman explained, stating, “That’s when the real competition begins.”
Norman has high hopes for the Poppies. The team has been training together for more than two years at local gyms and on Donner Lake, the Truckee River, and the South Fork of the American River.
“What they all have in common is that they just love the river,” said Norman. “They have a connection to the river and river culture that is very profound that is built through families and communities. They are athletes so they are attracted to the competitive aspect.”
SILVER STARS: Members of the USA U19 Women are presented with silver medals in Head2Head, left. USA U19 Women’s athletes Hannah Hammond, Laurel Anderson, and Chloe Tippett display the Overall Silver Trophy at the World Rafting Championship closing ceremonies in Foca, right. Photos by Aaron Tippett
Because whitewater rafting is such a small sport, there is a tight-knit rafting community. Tippett trained this summer at the Nugget with an Argentinean masters athlete and the Brazilian head coach who were in Bosnia. They traveled to Coloma to give the girls pointers after watching them race at Worlds.
“I love working together and how nice everyone is and everyone helps each other,” said Tippett, who is a junior at North Tahoe High School. “Even teams that are competing against each other will give each other tips and cheer each other on.”
The global relationships that are formed through rafting are what make the sport so special, Norman said.
“Outside of competition, rafting is about making connections with people from other countries that share your passion for the river,” she said. “[The Poppies] are very strong athletes and paddlers, but more importantly they are going to be strong representatives in the world.”
If the girls stick with whitewater rafting, Burman — who met her husband and much of her social circle while guiding in the ’90s — expects them to form enduring bonds.
“A lot of these teams end up being lifelong teams,” she said. “There has never been a youth team from the U.S. before. It tends to be a really tight-knit group. It’s not unusual for everyone to be from the same area.”