Making waves: Local whitewater rafters to represent nation in Bosnia
As their raft plows through a section of rapids, drenching members of a competitive whitewater team, one paddler yells out in a foreign language to the others.
In unison, the four teammates turn their raft’s direction, deftly guiding it through a gate and on toward the finish line.
While the shouts from the team in celebration of completing the course are unfamiliar to many gathered at the finish line, the language — that of the river, of water, and current — is understood by all.
“You don’t speak the same language and now all of a sudden you do,” said head coach Sue Norman of the California Poppies, a local U19 women’s whitewater rafting team.
Norman, a former member of the US Women’s Whitewater Rafting Team, has paddled her way to numerous podiums in international competition. Now at age 64, she’s looking to pass that experience to a group of young women who will be representing the area and the nation in late May at the World Rafting Championships in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And while competition will be on the minds of many at the championships, Norman said it’s the bonds and memories formed at such international events that stand out after decades in the sport.
“The reason to be there is to make friendships with the girls that we will be competing against,” said Norman. “Hopefully, lifelong connections and who knows where that will go. That was the experience I had, having this whole community of people that share this life that means so much to me. When I talk about that with these girls, I see their eyes light up.”
Norman grew up slalom kayaking, and raced on the US team for six years. In the 1980s, she joined a rafting team and competed internationally for roughly a decade. Five years ago, Norman moved to Truckee and began running a watershed education program on the Truckee River. She soon linked up with like-minded people and families from the area, and that’s when the idea to form a competitive whitewater team began flowing through her mind.
“Truckee’s always had a vibrant rafting community,” said Norman. “I got to know a bunch of kids here because I ran a watershed education program on the Truckee River for a couple summers. Seeing how dedicated these kids were, and how much they loved the river, I decided to put it out there and asked if these kids wanted to try competitive rafting.”
POPPIES HIT THE WATER
The team of six girls that emerged would become the California Poppies, a group of five members from around the Truckee-Tahoe area and another from Rocklin.
The team had its first competition in 2019, a national selection event in Colorado, and finished as runner-ups in their division. From there, the outbreak of COVID-19 would sideline the group as event after event was canceled.
Still, a love for the river kept bringing the core group of six girls back to Norman for lessons on the South Fork of the American River in hopes that restrictions would be lifted, allowing for competitions to resume.
“These girls have been training continuously with me and each year we hope there’s an event and each year with COVID they kept getting canceled, but the girls’ interest stayed with it,” said Norman. “They’ve grown up, gotten stronger, better, more solid, and now they finally have an event to go to.”
The group of six formed a tight-knit bond with one another, said North Tahoe sophomore Chloe Tippett, continuously driving one another to improve on the water.
“All of the girls on the team are close, and so we always push each other to be better,” said Tippett, 15. “It’s a really tight group.”
Tippett has been on the river her entire life. Her father, Aaron Tippett, has been a longtime river guide, and will make the trip with the group to Bosnia to help judge in some of the events.
Chloe Tippett has long excelled in kayaking, an individual sport, but surprised her family when she expressed interest in competitive whitewater rafting.
“Chloe’s been a really solid whitewater kayaker and when this came about she was like, ‘I wanna try this,’” said Aaron Tippett. “It’s just really neat to see a person who is very independent in her kayaking move to a team sport.”
Joining Tippett on the team is a trio of girls from Truckee High School. Laurel Anderson, a junior, began rafting as a toddler and is a founding member and co-vice president of the U.S. Rafting Association Youth Board.
“I would like to compete internationally because it would be an incredible opportunity to compete at a higher level in a sport I love and meet others around the world in the sport,” said Anderson on heading to the World Rafting Championships.
Truckee junior Hannah Hammond grew up rafting, while also standing out on the snow as a cross-country skier. She is the other U.S. Rafting Association Youth Board co-vice president.
Sophomore Sienne Elste is the other member of the team from Truckee. She will miss the competition in Bosnia due to a family rafting trip in the Grand Canyon.
Tatum Akers, a sophomore from Forest Charter, is also on the team. She has been rafting since age 4, while also excelling on the slopes as an alpine skier. She has been the top Far West U16 skier the past two years. Akers also is a founding member of the U.S. Rafting Association Youth Board and serves as the board’s social media director.
“I love being a strong female in challenging sports and I look forward to being able to represent California and the United States on a female whitewater raft team,” said Tatum on competing in Bosnia.
The final member of the team is Western Sierra Collegiate Academy senior Kennedy Kruse. She grew up paddling with her father and brother and has since spent time attending guide school, helping teach children about paddling, river safety, navigation, and ecology.
“I love learning about whitewater sports and I’m dedicated to doing my best, because whitewater is my passion,” said Kruse, 18.
While many of the group’s individual backgrounds differ, it’s ultimately a love for the river that unites them as a team, something their coach said immediately stood out.
“The thing that every girl on this team has in common is that they’re all second-generation paddlers that grew up on the river,” said Norman. “I grew up the same way that the girls on my team have. We grew up on the river with our families. Their collective love of the river is really powerful. It’s obvious to see. Their lifelong love of the river and passion for paddling is what really makes this team so strong.
EYES ON RUSSIA
With war between Ukraine and Russia taking place, Norman said the International Rafting Federation is keeping a close eye on the World Rafting Championships and the safety of those competing.
Norman said the hope is the competition can bring countries together, something that happened during the first World Rafting Championships. That event, which Norman took part in, took place in 1989 in Siberia and was organized by a group of rafters from Russia and California.
“I’ve really been thinking about that contrast,” said Norman. “My experience going into this (in 1989) was an amazing time as far as world peace and all this openness because the Iron Curtain had just come down. There was this very strong partnership between these Russian and Californian rafters that really spread into this larger thing. Now, these girls, their first competition is happening when it looks like the Iron Curtain is going back up. We feel sad for not only the rafters in Ukraine, but also the rafters in Russia.”
The International Rafting Federation said it stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in a March 7 news release, and has suspended Russian and Belarusian sports federations from competitions. Russian teams may apply to compete as neutral, meaning no Russian flags, colors, or anthems.
Norman said plans are in place by the International Rafting Federation to help support the Ukrainian people while athletes are in Bosnia.
“There’s a lot of intention with this event to be very public about the Rafting Federation’s support for Ukraine,” she said.
The California Poppies will arrive for the World Rafting Championships on May 25. The competition features 65 teams, representing 22 countries, and is broken down into youth, junior, open, and master divisions.
The championships include three categories of racing. A short sprint through a section of rapids, a several miles-long downriver race, and the slalom event, which, according to Norman, will likely decide which team ends up on the podium.
The team will spend some time in the capital city of Sarajevo and will also have an opportunity to take in some sights in Croatia. The main attraction, however, will be the rivers, said members of the California Poppies.
“Most of our tourism is going to be on the river,” said Norman. “In that way you really see the country in a different way than most tourists.”
The event will conclude June 1.
Moving forward, Norman said she’s been asked to host the U.S. National Rafting Championships on the South Fork of the American River in September. The event will serve as the team trials for next World Championships.
Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com
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PLACER COUNTY – Motorists should expect delays on Highway 28 in Tahoe City and Kings Beach this week for pavement repairs to the highway.