Interview: Nikki Kelly

Nikki KellyWhen people talk about female kayakers there is one name that immediately comes to mind. For over a decade Nicola Kelly has been at the top of the sport, not just in one discipline but in everything; from Freestyle to Expeditions, paddling movies to World Rafting Championships.

So how has a young girl from Geraladine became a household name in the Whitewater World, and what are her plans now that she’s added a new dimension to life – Motherhood.

We tracked down Nikki via email and got her thoughts on the common and not so common questions on her career.

CM – Your first introduction to kayaking was through rafting, can you talk us through how you became interested in kayaking?

NK – I distinctively remember how I got introduced to kayaking, it was before I was a raft guide. One summer day I was hanging out at the local swimming hole, an outdoor ed student said “who wants to come kayaking on the Clarence river – a five day raft support kayak trip”. I was game for something new and that was it, I learned to roll on that trip, became somewhat capable, I flowed off that river straight down to Queenstown and onto the Shotover, totally out of my league but had found a new family called river people. Raft guiding took over from there and the kayak didn’t rare its head again until four years later. At twenty I was comfortable in the raft, and needed a new challenge and kayaking become my life, that’s when I was hooked, absolute addiction, all I lived for. I now have the addiction under control!

CM – Throughout the world your name has become synonymous with women’s whitewater kayaking. How do you feel about this and being one of the biggest role-models for female kayakers?

NK – I’m proud of my achievements in the white water and very grateful for the journey it has taken me on. I don’t think of myself as a role model, but I know how powerful it can be – ‘if she can I can’. It’s just a bonus that I’m a chick so woman are inspired and men are ‘shamed’ ha ha. I’ve always done what I have wanted to do, I think people get trapped in the ‘what should I do’ and with pleasing others, or lack of self belief. Kayaking is different for everyone – for myself I just loved to kayak so it was simple, go kayaking. To answer the question I am honored to be a role model for female kayakers, I enjoy any chance to paddle with other ladies, and if they want it, to share any knowledge I have.

CM – How have you managed to create yourself a career out of kayaking? Is it hard work keeping your sponsors happy, and finding the funds for your next trip?

Nikki KellyNK – My career has consisted mostly of sleeping in the dirt and kayaking every day. It wasn’t until I had done the hard yards, nearing the peak of my kayaking , that I made or saved some money. I was very fortunate in the early stages to make partnerships with great sponsors that have developed into great things. Also in my early days I was bought a lot of plane tickets; people were interested in seeing me on the water so I got to globe trot. I remember landing in Los Angelas one year, having just finished a couple months in Chile! I had spent all my money and I had 20 dollars to my name. A phone call later to Eskimo USA, and I was on the plane to Sacramento into the trusting hands of Scott Lindgren. The rest is history.

Keeping sponsors happy can be a full time job, although these days with the internet it is a lot easier. Plenty of photos and updates are worth gold to sponsors. I am a huge slacker, I am surprised every year that I am still sponsored. My team is both supportive and tolerant, I must say thanks to Teva, Kokatat, Werner Paddles, Smith Optics, Shred Ready helmets, and Girls 4 Sport clothing. And also to Bliss-stick for all their years.

CM – During the 7 Rivers Expedition you made your name as the Girl in a boys world. How did it feel being out there all that time running the sh*t with a group of boys from the Southeast USA?

NK – These were the best kayaking days of my life, I’m so appreciative that I had the opportunity to share that experience with the coolest guys ever: South East what a crew.

My goal has always to been to paddle to my fullest ability and those days out in California I was able to achieve that. Definitely still reminiscing. For sure I’m proud that I was out there, I think everyone on that trip is and was. Being a ‘girl in a mans world’; that never crosses my mind. The river doesn’t differentiate between the sexes, neither does the crew; girls, boys, we all have able fit bodies and minds – get amongst it. I didn’t know Kayaking belonged to Men

CM – Locally (NZ/Australia) which paddlers have helped inspire you to push your limits in a kayak?

NK – Everybody who is pushing their limits inspire me, especially a beginner kayaker facing their first grade two rapid.

CM – Where do you see the next few years taking you within the kayaking community?

Nikki KellyNK – I have been inspired by Luuka Jones, the Kiwi lady who recently competed at the Olympics. So that’s me, slalom races this summer, kayaking with a different crowd. It’s a new sport within the sport I know so well. I feel so excited every time I paddle a slalom boat, so much to learn and the boat feels so sleek on the water.

CM – What’s your favourite river in New Zealand and why?

NK – Arahura, Hokitika and Waitaha rivers. They are the golden three for me: helicopter access, West Coast South Island, and all based out of Hokitika, – it’s the ultimate package.

CM – Over the year you will have visited many countries paddling, what destinations stand out as ‘must do’s’ for your average class 3-4 kayaker?

NK – Coloma, California is a good place to start and suss the scene out for brilliant warm California kayaking and road tripping – grade four heaven.

The Futaleufu river in Chile, camp there for a month and never get bored, this is a must on my list, I fell in love with this place.

Murchison here in NZ, brilliant for the grade 2 – 3 kayaker, plenty of different rivers and sections to do with very little time in the car.

CM – If you had to choose your top 3 kayak-towns in the world which would they be?

NK – My favourite kayak towns are Hokitika, Asheville in North Carolina, and Mission Beach Tully river if you’re talking about a rafting town.

CM – Do you have any advice for young (or old) female kayakers who are looking to make the next step forward in their paddling?

NK – If you need to improve your skills for the next level then put a ‘training slant’ onto your kayaking. I.E Get good advice, hopefully from someone with a slalom background, and advance your skills with technique and drill practice. Stop being a slacker and put in the hours. Because kayaking is so much fun we all forget to exercise our mind and body and put down a solid foundation to our kayaking.

To make the next step you need a good crew; they can make or break you. Paddle with people who you enjoy, who treat you normal, don’t treat you like a baby, and who you trust. All of my ‘up the anty’ paddling has been with others that are better than me, who have awesome rescue skills and who install confidence in me just by being around them.

CM – How did you manage paddling while pregnant?

NK – All good till I was about five months, then I found that I couldn’t paddle as dynamic as I am used to because of my huge stomach. I live close to the Kaituna river which isn’t too dangerous so there was no big threat.

CM – How are you balancing a new baby and your kayaking career?

NK – No worries, I was in the USA competing with baby and partner four months after giving birth. All my sponsors except one still support me so nothing much has changed. I appreciate every moment on the water now, and kayaking gives me so much pleasure and in the end more energy for my son.

Kids don’t have to change your life – it’s a myth, they only make it better. I plan on traveling and kayaking as per normal and Sam will benefit from all these wonderful experiences.

CM – A lot of women struggle at times with confidence on the water, and dealing with headspace issues. Has this ever been an issue for you, and if so what strategies did you use to deal with it?

NK – For sure I have had head space issues, if it’s a bad head space then I walk, if I feel confident then I paddle, simple, stick to that and you don’t have to be nervous. You will find that your confidence will grow when you put less pressure on yourself and you will end up paddling more rapids. Men have confidence issues not just woman.

I’ve noticed men like to control women and tell them what they can and cannot paddle. For sure women can become reliant and look for the answers from men. I have done it myself, but you must look within your own mind for the answers first, slow down, watch a couple of people paddle the rapid, ask ‘what’s your plan’ from someone you are comfortable with, walk back to your kayak, breath, put the skirt on, breath again and then break out of the eddy. Or pick up your boat and walk.

Also, if you have put your time in the kayak you will have the confidence in yourself, you only get better each day in the boat, especially multiple days in a row. This can become a complex question answer – interesting conversation piece.

CM – A lot of female paddlers have partners who also kayak, which can make for some interesting dynamics on the river. What thoughts do you have on balancing on the water relationships?

NK – Again, the male can be dominating, and the female can be passive. Ideal if the chick rocks and doesn’t need to be babied or vice versa. Just be aware, if its not enjoyable then kayak with other friends, or hang in different places in the pack that works a treat. Its nice because you get to spend lots of time together, on the other hand your relationship can become more like paddling buddies, so keep it spiced up.

Most importantly have fun, life is too short not too.

CM – Thanks Nikki.

This interview was originally published in Cumec Magazine Issue #6, November 2008

Images courtesy of Nikki Kelly.