A category that has shaped me
In light of the derogatory comments made about C1 Women this week and the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, I have been reflecting on what this category means to me. I believe that the debut of our class in Tokyo is a defining moment in our sport. You will be the first British female to race a C1 at the Olympic Games, and the importance of this is something that I believe in. I wanted to express my admiration and gratitude to you, this category and the people who have dramatically shaped my life. I hold you as a good friend, a respected role model and as one of the pioneers of C1W. With my desire to express what this moment means to me and the knowledge that my words will be received with the kindness that they are intended, I have addressed this letter to you.
You were part of that ‘first wave’ of C1W; a group of women and girls all over the world who had taken up C1 and were racing despite there not being a formal class for you. You competed in the men’s C1 class in the UK and, ultimately, were part of the group of girls who petitioned for a women’s class to be created. I only later found out that in 2009, at only fifteen years old, you were one of the twenty women that paddled an exhibition event at the World Championships in La Seu D’Urgell. This was the first time C1W competed at a World Championship race. Many of you had only started paddling C1 that year, and yet, you put yourselves out there to be vulnerable and race on the World stage. As far as I’m aware there was never an active agenda to break down barriers, that simply came with the territory of women all over the world standing up and doing what they love, despite almost everyone telling them to sit down. Someone has since jokingly admitted to me that they were one of many who laughed from the sidelines that day. I didn’t find this funny. To have competed at that race must have taken exceptional courage. It was undoubtedly this courage that created the C1W class and has inspired a generation of paddlers since. No one was laughing when seventy C1W competed ten years later at the 2019 World Championships on the same course.
I consider myself part of the ‘second wave’ of C1W. Although still unset, the path that you early paddlers created led me to the sport that I now hold so dear. At fifteen, my dad told me about a group of women who had competed at that exhibition event, and, who were going to compete in the first official World Championships later that year. I immediately searched the internet hoping to find any videos of women paddling in C1. Although they were few and far between, every five-second clip that I could find was played on repeat. I sought out the results for the girls competing in the men’s category in the UK, cheering with delight any time one of you had beaten the boys. The saying goes “you can’t be what you can’t see” and I promise you, this is true. Those few photos, videos and results showed me that women could paddle C1. At my club, a friend and I started C1 and, although there were only two of us in the whole of Scotland, knowing that there were others out there was all the inspiration we needed. It is because of you, and those other pioneering women, that I believed it was possible to get in a C1 to begin with.
There is something special about being a C1W specifically. We have this shared bond, an intangible yet ever-present connection between athletes. Despite being from different countries, continents, and backgrounds the common language between us was our shared experience of growing up paddling C1. This sentiment manifests in a knowing smile between C1W, either strangers or friends, wherever you go in the world. A smile whose origins lay in the fact that just seeing another C1W was so exciting. There have also been shared grimaces; a silent nod of recognition as we passed each other at 7am, walking the course for a European Championship semi-final because Slovak television did not want to air us. There is an unspoken understanding that ‘throwaway’ comments such as “C1W are shit” aren’t so throwaway to the ears of us who have heard them for years. Bonds have been formed by shared memories of collective sadness when we received teddy bears instead of World Championship medals because there weren’t enough continents racing the team event.
As the number of girls paddling C1 started to increase and the rarity of encountering another C1W began to fade, those knowing smiles did not. With C1W, more than any other class, there is a shared understanding that this isn’t just for us. We are part of something bigger than ourselves; shaping a path for the girls that will come after us. This moment of reflection has, to me, underscored our duty as a wider sport to accept the coming generations of C1W with the respect that we have fought so hard for. The Tokyo Olympics sets the cement in the path that C1W, young and old, have been paving for years. As I look around and see new faces on ever-growing start lines I know that the future of our sport is bright. For the coming generations that will walk it, they need only to smile and point to the biggest stage on earth to know that they belong.
In an emphatic triumph for our sport, C1W will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. This summer you will be the first-ever C1W to represent Great Britain. This inclusion is not just giving equal opportunities to men and women, this is everyone in our sport telling women and girls that they are recognised, that they have value and that they belong. As a girl who used to replay the approximately four video clips that I could find, to think that young girls will be able to watch C1W compete on TV is unequivocally amazing. I, like you, fought so hard to earn that place in Japan but I cannot possibly hold hard feelings. I know that this moment is far bigger than me and I don’t think there is anyone more deserving than you. After all, you are one of the reasons C1W are there at all.
I have thought a lot about which specific individuals I admire and I have realised that it is the collective C1W class who have inspired and shaped me as a person. It’s your sheer love of paddling and Jazz’s friendship, it’s Jess’s dominance and Julia’s kindness, it’s Kimberley’s racing ability and Núria’s style, it’s Nadine’s cross-bow strength and Viki’s switching, it’s Monica and Klara’s technical skills and Eva and Alja’s hilarity. It’s Tereza’s power and Nina’s warmth. It’s seeing Kateřina breastfeeding her newborn baby on the riverbank minutes after her World Cup semi-final run. It’s jumping in the river, bonding over shared disappointment with Noémie in Liptovsky, it’s surfing a wave with Sophie in Scotland. It’s every young girl I see in C1, determined to overcome fears and excited for the opportunities ahead. It’s every smile of encouragement, every hug shared and every breathtaking move C1W do. It’s only having to look around on a start line to be surrounded by the most amazing role models. It’s this collective group of women whose tenacity and athletic prowess continue to inspire me every day. It’s the pioneers like yourself, it’s the young hopefuls of the future. It’s the privilege I feel to call myself a C1W.
Love in admiration,