On August 5, 2021

Paddling with the sisters of the single blade

By Merisa Sherman

Like so many of you, I have been watching the Olympics as much as possible over these past two weeks. Not having cable makes it a bit tricky, but I’ve been able to catch a moment here or there while waiting tables as the entire room stops eating. In unison, every table turns to the television over the bar with bated breath, watching this moment in sport demonstrate the greatness of the human possibilities. No matter our age, our gender, our home state — we all stop to watch and appreciate the hard work required of these young athletes to live their dream.

As kids, we used to play in the shallow end and create our own synchronized swimming routines, but none of us ever imagined that we would make the Olympics. You practice flips off the diving board, raising one hand in the air before you start your run. Our schools even hosted “field days” where we could try all the athletics we could possibly want. Sure, we all felt fast wearing red or white or blue, representing our team as best we could. But did we ever truly imagine all the hard work that was required to accomplish these dreams?

We did wind sprints for field hockey and lacrosse, we did circuit training for rowing, we did drills with soccer balls and tennis balls and volleyballs and softball. We lifted weights, we ran, we pretended our ski poles were fencing blades. We practiced our balance beam tricks on an old railroad tie. We played ping pong (and then, eventually, beer pong), rode our bikes through the woods and had swimming races and diving contests. As kids, we did almost all the sports that you could find in the Olympics. It was wonderful to experience all the different ways our bodies can move and then imagine ourselves at the top of our game, standing on the podium with a medal being placed around your neck.

It was all fun and games, all these different sports from which we could choose. Except one. The one I really wanted. The one that I worked so hard for and never wanted to stop doing. Growing up, I would spend every minute I had in my canoe, kneeling on my right knee with my wooden paddle in my hands. The canoe tilted slightly on edge, adjusting the keel line to complement my single stroke. I loved the powerful feel of the blade through the water. To watch my paddle fly backwards as the canoe glided forwards. Nowhere in my life did I feel as strong, as perfect, as if I had found my place in the world. This, the sport called sprint canoe, was my thing.

So I asked my parents if there was a training center I could go to for summer camps, something like KMS where I could train hard and maybe see if I could be good enough to make the U.S. Team and possibly head to the Olympics. I think I was around sixth or seventh grade at the time, and I wanted this so badly. I had dreams where I was in a C-1, lined up against the best in the world, and would make my move on them right after the halfway point. I wanted to train, and I wanted to train hard. I wanted to win — and I believed I could do it.

My heart still hurts when I think about what happened next. After speaking with the local ACA director, I found out that there was no women’s canoeing in the Olympics, that only men were allowed to compete. I was stunned. I was crushed. I felt empty and confused, and a profound sense of loss. Were my dreams so wrong? If women weren’t considered strong enough to canoe, then why did I love it so much? If I loved sprint canoe so much, did that make me less feminine?

This moment sent me on a whirlwind. I was invited to camp, but I refused to go. What was the point, I thought to myself? Why should I torture my body and mind with all that hard work only to be told at the end that I would never be given even the chance to compete at the highest level because I was a girl? All I could see was the majesty of all the young women I paddled with and against, and for the first time I truly questioned the patriarchy. I was angry and hurt; I felt tricked and betrayed. But I couldn’t stop paddling. I went on to coach canoe racing for almost 25 years, making sure boys AND girls took pride in their strokes and appreciated their time on the water.

This week, with tears in my eyes, I will watch along with the world as Nevin Harrison has the opportunity to live out her dream — and mine. As the current World Champion, the 17-year old American will lead the first ever field of women’s canoe sprint in the Olympics. For the first time in history, women will canoe on the same water as the men, and I will be there in spirit. Congratulations, Sisters of the Single Blade. We finally made it.

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