By Mariya Abedi
Kayaks lined up across Lagoa Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, ready to make Paralympic history.
It was the debut of canoe sprint in the games, and three American women were part of the moment.
“It’s so exciting to be here,” said Team USA’s Ann Yoshida. “We’re making history. We worked a lot to be here.”
Athletes from 26 countries took part in the six events, competing in a 200-meter stretch across the lagoon. The events were divided into three different classifications: K1, limited trunk function and no leg balance; K2, partial leg and trunk function; and K3, trunk function and partial leg function. They use kayaks that are up to about 17 feet long, with a minimum width of 1.6 feet.
Kelly Allen (K3) and Alana Nichols (K2) took to their kayaks for the finals, competing against Great Britain’s powerhouse team who medaled in five of the events. Allen placed 8th in her race, and Nichols came in 7th place.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Nichols said after the semifinals. “It’s one of those sports that takes years and years to be good at, and I’m just starting my journey.”
The 33-year-old elite athlete only started training two years ago. Nichols is participating in her third Paralympic sport, having won gold medals in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing – the first American woman to win gold in both the summer and winter games. She said training for kayaking has been a new experience.
“My first two sports really complemented each other. I was always in the gym creating a lot of core strength around what I needed to do for basketball that transferred over to skiing,” Nichols said. “This sport, para-kayak, is so different from anything I’ve ever done. It’s absolutely endurance-based so it requires a lot of repetition, hours on the water.”
Nichols was introduced to the sport while in Hawaii, where she fell in love with adaptive surfing.
“I love surfing, but paddling is such a great way for people to get out and get out of their wheelchairs and really experience the outdoors. I will forever kayak,” Nichols said.
Hawaii is also home to teammate Ann Yashida, who lives and trains there. She had advanced to the semifinals but was unable to finish the race after falling in the water.
“The conditions were a little bumpy, so I was just struggling to stay up,” Yoshida said. “There’s a fine line between balance and speed in K1. If you go for speed, your balance may go off a little bit. And I went over the balance.”
Windy conditions made it a tough race for all the athletes, sometimes there was a strong head-wind and other times a tail-wind.
“This Lagoa has so many surprises; just yesterday we had half-foot waves,” explained Nichols.
But despite the outcome, all the athletes were thrilled that para-canoeing was now a part of the Paralympic Games. It was first introduced in 2009 and slowly garnered a following, leading to its own World Championships.
“I think all athletes who are adaptive athletes have to trail blaze at some point to get activities and opportunities out there to be accessible for everyone,” Yoshida said.
Nichols said she hopes para-canoeing continues to grow in the U.S.
“I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a long way to go,” said Nichols. “I think we need to be less of a football nation and be more open-minded to other sports.”