A year ago, Kellen Doyle had never paddled a canoe through whitewater. This week, he’s one of two Mainers — recent Bangor High grad Hannah Rubin is the other — competing on the U.S. Junior National Wildwater Canoe Team at the world championships in North Carolina.
In fact, until this spring, Doyle hadn’t even been in a canoe on a river.
And his path to the world championships began in a swimming pool at the University of Maine in Orono.
“In the pool we practiced rolling [wildwater boats], flipping them and getting them back upright,” Doyle explained. “That was where I first started the paddling lessons.”
His coach, Orono High School teacher Jeff Owen, explained that wildwater boats — sleek, lightweight canoes with a covered deck — are very difficult to maneuver and keep upright. The pool sessions were necessary before allowing paddlers onto moving water.
“These boats are so tippy that it takes an hour just to learn to get into one and take a few strokes without tipping it over,” said Owen, who also coaches Rubin. “The leap [Doyle] has made this year is just phenomenal.”
Doyle will be a sophomore at Orono High this fall.
Rubin has a little more experience on whitewater. She began training with Owen about three years ago. She said actual wildwater paddling has been another adjustment after racing in open canoes. And she said the lessons in the pool paid dividends, but didn’t mean everyone had their skills mastered.
“We definitely tipped over a lot when we first got in the water on an actual river in the spring,” Rubin said. “The current’s pushing you and the boat’s so tippy, but it doesn’t tip the way you’d expect, the way an open canoe would. It tips both ways, because the bottom is round.”
Rubin said two girls were selected to represent the U.S. on the Junior National team, and only she and one other competitor were in her class. Still, she had to successfully make her way down the challenging course on the Nantahala River in order to secure a spot in the world championships.
At the world championships, which are also being staged on the Nantahala, both Doyle and Rubin have been exposed to paddlers with much more experience, Owen said.
“The competition here is ridiculously stiff,” Owen said after Tuesday’s races in North Carolina. “This is very strongly a European sport and the United States fields a team … [but] U.S. boats are near the bottom of the results list.”
Rubin said her interest in the sport began to develop because of where she grew up.
“I live really close to the Kenduskeag, so I’d always see the paddlers go by and it looked like so much fun that I wanted to join in,” Rubin said. “Then I got the opportunity and I loved it, so I kept going and did all the paddling I could.”
Owen runs an outdoor club for Orono High students through which Doyle was introduced to paddling. He said the sport was a natural fit for him.
“I’m a swimmer during the winter, so anything with water is always nice, but I just like the fast nature of the sport, and the competitiveness,” Doyle said. “I like sports where I can kind of race my own race. And it goes hand-in-hand with swimming.”
Owen said Doyle has made remarkable progress in a short period of time.
“[He has] a pretty neat combination of characteristics,” Owen said. “He’s very athletic. He has incredible balance. And by being such a talented swimmer, he understands how objects move through water and when he tips over, he’s not afraid of being underwater. He can take that extra few heartbeats to get composed and try to roll back up. And he’s just really smart. He’s been able to learn very quickly.”
Rubin is also smart — she has been accepted to Dartmouth College and will attend the school in Fall 2016 after taking a “gap year” off.
“I just want a year of fun and paddling,” Rubin said. “I’m going to go on an Outward Bound course, and I’m going to spend a few months in New Zealand.”
And while in New Zealand, you can bet she’ll be spending a lot of time on the water.
“I’m going to be working in an outdoor center, so there will be paddling nearby,” she said.