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Travelling in pursuit of kayaking

When Mount Royal University student Jessica Groeneveld landed in Puerto Vallarta on Feb. 15, she wasn’t headed for Mexico’s famous beaches.

Instead, she embarked on a three-and-a-half hour drive over dusty mountain roads to the small desert town of Union de Tula, Jalisco.

Mount Royal University student Jessica Groeneveld has been Canada’s top female kayaker over the past three years. * photo taken by Marissa Teil during training in Penrith, Australia.

There she will train for and compete in the 2013 Canoe Slalom Pan American Championship — but only after taking an additional 45-minute drive along what she calls “crazy, windy roads” to reach the whitewater course.

“A lot of people are not familiar with the slalom side of whitewater kayaking, even though it’s an Olympic sport,” Groeneveld says.

“It’s not very well known because we have to go to pretty remote places to find the right water.”

As Canada’s top female kayaker over the past three years, Groeneveld is used to travelling in pursuit of her sport. Most winters, she spends ten weeks training in Australia or New Zealand.

“In Canada, we can’t be on the water all year long, so we do a lot of physical training during the winter and then we’ll go away and do a technical camp,” she explains.

She then competes in countries ranging from Brazil to Germany to the Czech Republic to Spain.

Travelling the world’s water

“Almost all competition is in Europe, where the sport is much bigger,” she says. “There, the competitions are held on artificial concrete courses, which we don’t have in Canada. Here we only train on natural rivers.”

Although she loves the “crispness” of kayaking on artificial courses, she is happiest training on the Kananaskis River.

“I love the beauty of a natural course, and I’m so lucky that we get to train in Kananaskis. The water is clean, unlike some courses in Europe where you have to take a shot of vodka after you’re done paddling just to kill anything you may have swallowed.”

Groeneveld began kayaking as a child growing up in Innisfail. She won her first gold medal at the Alberta Summer Games in Grande Prairie at the age of 11, and she’s been hooked on kayaking ever since.

It’s a demanding sport. Slalom kayaking shoots racers down a turbulent course, where red and green poles are suspended over the foaming water. Racers weave their way around each pole, paddling either upstream or downstream depending on the pole’s colour. A mere touch of the pole means a two-second penalty.

“The water is continuously fluctuating, so we have to be able to read the water and react,” Groeneveld explains.

“Because I am quite small, I don’t have the power to override the white water, so I have to use it to my advantage, using certain edges and strokes to maintain speed.”

She goes on to list the wide range of skills needed for slalom.

“There’s speed and agility — and balance is huge. You need power and strength, and the ability to be explosive. But that makes it super interesting. I never get bored with training because there’s always something to work on.”

Building endurance at Mount Royal

Groeneveld does all of her physical training at Mount Royal Recreation. A typical day sees Groeneveld arriving early on campus to do weight training. She returns to the gym after her classes for another workout, which varies between aerobic training, weights, core training and time on a rowing machine, which paddlers call erg training.

Add to that the part-time job she has on weekends and it’s not surprising that, despite her love for kayaking, Groeneveld sometimes feels too tired to train. But what keeps her going is the support she receives — from family; from Team Jessica (a group of people in Red Deer who hold fundraisers to fund her paddling); from her corporate sponsors in Red Deer and Innisfail; and from her professors in Mount Royal’s Department of Physical Education and Recreation Studies.

“I’m missing three or four classes to go to the Pan Ams, and my professors have all been working with me to either write my midterms before I go or to do makeup assignments when I’m back,” Groeneveld says.

Although not enrolled in the Physical Education program, Groeneveld has been taking anatomy and physiology courses. Her education goal is to eventually study kinesiology, then return to Mount Royal to take the Advanced Certificate in Athletic Therapy.

But Groeneveld says she’s in no rush to get through her studies — and, after taking four courses this past fall semester, she is eager to get her kayak back in the water and compete in both the one-woman kayak and the one-woman canoe races at the Pan Ams on March 2 and 3.

She’s also got another goal in her sights: the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio.

“I don’t just want to be the best in Canada, I want to be the best in the world,” Groeneveld says. “So now I’m trying to move up my world standing and with that, I hope, will come the Olympics.

“I’ve had so many great experiences, and I think competing at the Olympics would be the experience of a lifetime.”

— Nancy Cope, Feb. 28, 2013