RAFT RACE LIKE A GIRL ~ a conversation with veteran racer Julie Sutton

The Red Ladies Raft Racing Team is the current United States national women’s team, beating out their rivals by a hair at the 2015 National Championships, held at last years Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival in Cañon City, CO. DBP Admin Aaron Erdrich caught up with team founder Julie Sutton to get her views on rafting and racing, the history and future of the sport, and the emerging role of female athletes. 
ON HER WHITEWATER ROOTS: “I actually really thought that there was no way, or it would be very difficult, to enter this kind of outdoor sport. I was a female from Nebraska with little whitewater experience. But I knew I loved it. What gave me the courage to apply to become a guide was the woman who came to be my boss at the rec center I worked at as a lifeguard in college. Knowing it’s often as much who you know as what you know, I figured she was my in. If a girl from Iowa could do it, so could I, I thought.”
“I’m also the type of person, who has three brothers, that doesn’t let anybody tell me I can’t do something. If it’s even implied that I’m not able, then it’s my mission to prove them wrong. Growing up very involved in many sports, my brothers and the neighbor boys would tell me that ‘I had to’ or ‘wasn’t able to’ do certain things because I was a girl. You know, it was typical sibling banter, but I was definitely outnumbered, and there was a sure bet that I would do it or at least try.”

“Because I was often out to prove myself, it took me sometime to figure out what it was that I loved the most. Water. I get water.  And obviously, I am a competitive person as you could probably infer. So that’s the whitewater start.”
GETTING INTO RACING AND THE START OF RED LADIES: “My friend Farrah Fine raced in the Animal Race on the Gauley River (West Virginia) before I was a guide there. She came back the following summer and told me she had found something I would love and that we should try it. I did. This was back in like 2003.” 
“Yes, I loved it. I spent some time trying to find other interested girls. Luckily, I worked for a company with a very strong female representation. ART (Arkansas River Tours) is usually 50-50, men to women guides. So, I could usually convince or pull together a team of women if I wanted to race. As you know though, getting all of us off work at the same time is challenging and even with 50-50, it’s hard to pull together a team of people that want to essentially paddle till they puke for the sake of a win. I guess I often didn’t understand that there were men’s teams and women’s teams separately and that was something to do. I know that statement doesn’t make sense after what I said… but understand, I was an athlete my entire high school/college life- teams at the time weren’t mixed when they competed so I first went for all girls teams because that’s what I knew. Then when there was or seemed to be a shortage of interested women to race, in all of my “brilliance” and because I just started dating a guy who also liked racing, I thought- let’s make a mixed team to compete!  He flat out refused to race with me. I think he told me, ‘I’m not gonna race with girls!!!’”

“The Red Ladies started because I had being doing this racing thing long enough with other groups of women that I either worked with or were friends with that enjoyed challenging themselves beyond guiding, and also had a competitive racing spirit. I really was first interested in joining the women’s Vail team (the US team) because they were already organized and winning and it would be easier to join something. There usually wasn’t a space open, or they were too far away, or I wasn’t assertive enough to get to know the paddlers, or they didn’t want me- I don’t know. But, it soon became clear that I was not joining their team….and I still needed to solve the problem of having a strong desire to compete on a different level than I had been doing. There were races to be raced and we (my teams before Red Ladies) lost, a lot!”
“I sought out Cristin Zimmer, who used to race with Team USA, for advice and help because I wanted to get better. Over a conversation, in which we both discussed trying to make our own teams that would compete at 2011 Nationals so that there would be more women’s teams competing, we concluded that if we couldn’t get together separate teams, we’d join forces. January rolls around and we decide to join forces. That’s how the Red Ladies were born. Our first team was made up of women I had raced with before, women she knew (I think she put an ad in a newspaper to get people to come to a practice), and yeah…sometimes I would literally turn to someone once I found out they were either a river guide, kayaker, or any other kind of athlete and simply ask, “so you interested in racing rafts?”  
ON BEING A COMPETITIVE FEMALE ATHLETE: “There were guys that would make fun of us girls for “trying” to race. I’d make all women’s teams, we’d lose to the guys -not always but often enough to make it a struggle. Biology plays a role. Sometimes guys really are stronger. Here we were trying to compete in an unfair field and yet, it’s not like we lost by a lot. But to be made fun of or taunted because you are female and ‘not skilled enough’ to win and neither are the girls…… I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying  to say here….I guess sexism is alive and well in the rafting world and I experienced it first hand. Having a team was not a way to fight back or to make my way or pave a path or create a source of empowerment for women, but it became that.  I simply like racing. It was made clear to me that men and women shouldn’t race together. It was made clear to me that women would always lose, especially me without the help of my “more skilled” male counterparts. And while my experiences with certain men do not reflect what all men thought, it was enough to cause me to slow down my pursuits UNTIL I found a way in and until I had a bigger “yes” burning inside for what I loved.” (BTW at world competition, I’ve since discovered, there ARE men’s and women’s combined teams)
ON FINDING TEAMMATES: “This is a funny one. I went to school, partially for coaching. I’m always scouting for potential racers for my team or to make a new team. I don’t have lots of criteria. Sometimes, I’m looking for anyone willing to participate to fill a team regardless of skill level. I have great confidence in my ability to teach and coach someone to be the best they can be at a physical skill. But the first step is the interest. I don’t have a lot of patience with someone who has to be coerced into racing- it takes a lot of energy to do that.  Mostly, I look for interest in racing. That said, winning is a goal but not the most important thing. Before that wonderful feeling of winning comes the satisfaction one gets from training for excellence.”
I think some people are discouraged when they aren’t “chosen”.  A lot of times, people just need to understand a) there’s only a  certain amount of seats in one boat open,b) you can always start your own team, c) heck I don’t know everyone nor can I read their minds so you kinda need to be assertive. It’s a hard thing to do, to start a team, to be the leader, and I think people fear that the most. So, like I did for so long, they look for a way to join something- to try it out to see if they like it.  And if they end up liking it and continue to pursue racing, sometimes – for whatever reason- at some point, we find ourselves at a crux point of how to proceed.  Sometimes, opinions will clash and that can be discouraging especially if common ground is not found. A key is to establish a foundation based on individual values combined into a team plan and to check in regularly to find out if everyone is still on board.   But, even then, without a coach, things can become challenging.  Personally, I value training and the process of giving my all to make myself the best I can be, so I like to surround myself with people who support that (especially after my personal experiences).”
“Truth is, we are looking for a tribe of as many like minded people as we can find. Because the sport isn’t really structured on a national level in the US, it makes putting together and keeping together a team really difficult. Often times, teams don’t have coaches and contracts are not *really* binding. It’s not like when we were in high school and coach says be there or you don’t play. It’s not like we are on the professional level and your pay is reflective of your real commitment to the organization as a contributing athlete or that your place on the team could he jeopardized if you don’t do the work. It’s challenging to say the least. I’m a person that has spent countless hours committing to sports that I voluntarily gave my time, energy and dollars to without any compensation except the intrinsic value and personal gratification of participating, training to win, pushing myself to increase my performance to its optimal level, and sharing that with people who feel the same way and act on it. So, that’s what I look and hope for– whether I’m training for marathons, triathlons, swimming, crossfitting, cross country skiing or racing rafts. I’m not always racing for competition sake…but racing IS competitive or it would be called something else. So, if it’s competition, I want to be competitive and ultimately win.”

ON THE STATE AND FUTURE OF RAFT RACING: “At the moment, a goal of racers worldwide is to grow the sport. Ideally, and eventually, it’d be awesome to have it in the Olympics, but participation and exposure needs to increase. There’s a couple of theories on how to do that. On a more international level, the predominant theory is to make the sport more accessible to people of all skill levels and less X-game-ish if you will: using more manageable class 3 whitewater to attract more folks who may not have the skills quite yet for higher class water, and also to focus on events and have events at places where it’s easier for supporters/fans to watch events. The other theory, and this one is also predominant in the US, is the theory that to attract more attention and backing to the sport, it should be more closely related to whitewater’s reputation of a spectacular show and be extreme. Make a big show, get some amazing whitewater media and increase interest that way.  In the US, over the last few years, the racers I know (both men and women) are fairly adept at not just running whitewater, but running extreme whitewater whether it be in a boat or in a kayak or duckie.”
“But on the International level, the teams that are winning worlds aren’t necessarily the ones running the biggest baddest whitewater, especially on the women’s side. I’m more involved on the women’s side, so I tend to get to know these women more than the men.  Often times teams are made up of women who aren’t even guides at all.  So, when you take the idea of “racing” from the US perspective of bigger badder- more extreme and X-gamish; that a team be made up of not only fast and strong but also skilled at running class V whitewater, with an emphasis on class V skill to a world level- we end up not really finishing at the top because we aren’t training in a way that is winning at the world level.”
“Again, this is my opinion (except to say that the two theories on increasing exposure, sponsorship backing, and interest are world wide and not just in US- but the US seems to lean towards finding and attracting participants who have not just the background and interest but also the courage to run bigger water).  At the moment, a lot of the women that I have raced with are Class V guides, kayakers, and boating enthusiasts who have enjoyed testing their limits as much as anyone else – just like you experiencing whitewater’s extremes – in whatever craft that meets your fancy.  Before racing, for me, that’s how I tested my skills- to run bigger, faster, more extreme.  (But I never did waterfalls) It’s also all I knew when it came to experiencing whitewater on a different level. These are also, generally, the women who end up finding out about the sport and having interest in competing (here in the US).  My theory is that extreme things not only gets you noticed but also these people (men or women) tend to be very assertive and also tend to be more open to experiencing and trying out a variety of new things, including racing.”
ON WINNING: “I think that there is a misconception in the US on what a successful, worlds winning team is like or has to be. Often times this misconception, this opinion of what racing should be, can deter folks from getting involved.  Right now, racing on an international level is about racing in its truest form, the fastest team wins and not necessarily the most skilled in Class V whitewater.  So, I suppose, when teams or individuals get involved, it’s worthy to ask what kind of competitor one wants to be.  And more often than not, the ability or courage to run waterfalls or technical, big water seems to, in the US at least, on some level be an indicator as to who gets involved.  It comes down to the effort an individual and team put forth for that one end goal.  Often times, we are out running and racing predominantly class IV and V downriver races and less attention is paid to the technicalities of the other 3 events.  We just aren’t organized in the US in a way that attracts someone without this background and interest.”
ON INVOLVING MORE WOMEN IN RAFT RACING: “As more women continue to be exposed and welcomed into racing, they are finding that the winners aren’t just the most skilled whitewater navigators or the most courageous to drop a line or run at some super big water level.  For these women, rafting, river life, guiding isn’t really a career path or a place of emphasis where they seek out the extreme to push their limits. Rather, racing becomes an extension of their life with emphasis on more practical ways to earn a living or rather a step along the way, or an added activity to keep their passion for water time closer to their lives, so they can enjoy it at their pace, whether that pace be class 2 or running waterfalls with a teammate. A lot of women are spending time going to school, becoming yogis, mothers, working as artists, becoming firefighters, becoming leaders in their gym or mentors for others, and finding time to train as a side endeavor but not the main focus of their lives.”
ON THE RED LADIES: “This year’s 2015 National team was the team I was most proud of. The women involved were among the most passionate, dedicated, committed, heartfelt group of women I’ve had the privilege to call my teammates. They were skilled, they were hard working. They had no idea what was coming, and they took on a team that had 4 of my teammates from Worlds 2013 (where we won the United State’s only medal, and the only medal any US team men or women had won in years) as well as our yoga instructor from 2013…and this year’s Red Ladies just kept going and performed well beyond their meager 2 week-4 months of being involved in racing. I have nothing but awe for what they were able to accomplish with so little experience in comparison, or the benefit of having an out of the boat coach. They only had me helping to teach them as much as I could in a very short amount of time. We hadn’t even all sat in the boat for a slalom practice or had any experience w/ racing slalom and we won that event.  Slalom is the most technically difficult and takes quite a bit of training to do well. Nothing but gratitude and love for these women! I also learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you gotta have faith in your passion and then spread your wings and fly. You know you always hear that, but some of us- like me, need to experience it to believe it.  Thinking about what these women were up against was daunting to say the least. But they proved to me and I proved to myself that sometimes we are enough, just the way we are- while there’s always much to learn, we also know more than we think we do and we must be confident in that.”

ON INCREASING EXPOSURE AND PARTICIPATION IN RAFT RACING: “My gut says, 1) acknowledge and share about racing for what it is as it is. Social Media is huge! Support your team, support the US team, support a team you like, support the sport… share photos, share videos, talk about it. The teams (at least on the women’s side) are really starting to post about their workouts on Facebook.”
“This year there are TWO national races. It’s worthy to note that there ARE MORE races in the US that aren’t organized the way International racing is. As a river culture, we tend to acknowledge and share and make a big deal out of the smaller races. Maybe, because that’s what our society appreciates more as opposed to the time, energy, skill and camaraderie it takes for a group of 4 or 6 women/men to train.  Running a downriver r4 or r6 is very different than running a downriver race with one person guiding and the rest being your powerhouse or even in an r2 format.  I’m not saying that these races aren’t equally exciting and don’t take skill.  My emphasis is that to be able to to do it as an r4 or r6 where essentially everyone has a hand in the “guiding” of the object down the river the fastest, whether it’s for downriver, slalom, head to head, or sprint it takes on a whole different level of rafting and training. As a race team, you are training yourselves for 4 different  kinds of races.  It’s more like training for a decathlon.”
“ A tremendous amount of time and energy is spent to prepare to 2) GET INVOLVED with the national races. IF this kind of racing sounds interesting. Make a team! Train! Nothing is more frustrating to me, than seeing  a team of “off the couch” paddlers who are actually really good but lose the big races that take you to worlds because they didn’t actually train- some.  GIVE the crowds at the national events something to cheer over…an actual competition with more teams that could actually win it. (Each event gets scored and the four events are totaled to determine the winner so a team does NOT have to win all events to be the overall winner. But right now with ONLY two or three teams for men or women competing to be the national team- more often than not, you have to win the majority of events). Don’t be that person or team that talks about how and why you’re better or faster or stronger than the US team- go out and prove it.  Use the smaller-local events as  training, practice and advertisement for the BIG races. There is international competition throughout the world that you don’t have to be a national winner to go to, as well, including an r2 competition that has taken place in China.”
“Next, 3) ask questions!  Ask about racing, ask how to get involved, ask how to get better. If I’ve learned ONE thing from being a river guide in the last 17 years, it’s that you NEVER EVER stop learning. Humility is an important step into becoming a better anything. You are receiving just my opinion. And others have different ideas on how to go about increasing exposure and participation.”  
ON EQUAL SUPPORT FOR THE RAFTING TEAMS: “As a female, I ask one other thing. It has become noticeable to me, not just in the river world, but in all sports that it is HARDER for women to receive the financial assistance needed to support training and competition endeavors even though they are producing good results whether it be doing well at competitions, increasing participation among athletes, getting the word out about racing, providing valuable marketing media and material all the while RACING at the same level as the men.  It’s not like there is men’s class V and women’s class V.  Gore rapid, for example, is a class V rapid, period.  In 2013, our head to head winning National’s time was the same as the men’s h2h winning time, we also were the only team – men or women- that has medaled at Worlds in several years.  The women have a large fan base. So, why aren’t we receiving the same notoriety and support?  Why, when we go to a sponsor are we turned away, but the men are accepted? Is it because the men know someone? Is it because the men produce better results? This is not to complain, it’s a real phenomenon in ALL SPORTS. I’m not going to stop racing because I can’t get me or a team I’m on sponsored. That said, it would definitely benefit the sport and the future of the sport if we could get some folks to back all of the US Team.  Why does the US Team go to Worlds with different sponsors instead of being a unified team?  Is it the men have more intrinsic value?  What is it? It’s not that the men don’t deserve anything, it’s that the women also do and we aren’t receiving it and it’s not for lack of effort in terms of training, marketing, or competition on our own and as part of the US Team.”  
“I just recently read an article in Canoe&Kayak titled, ‘Where are the women in this magazine?’  I read the article, by a ‘lifelong woman,’ and it stated that the ‘all male editorial staff’ didn’t know where to look to find women in whitewater.  It would seem to me that whitewater isn’t some elusive imaginary place. Let’s open our eyes to who is surrounding us.  The thing is, I choose to believe men aren’t doing this intentionally- omitting women- and, I also believe that we must make a conscious effort to include what is not like ourselves. I believe that the magazines tend to post, write about, photograph what they find interesting, cool to look at- etc, and what is most like themselves. It makes sense then, that if men are in editorial positions, then that’s what is favored material.  However, by doing this, these same people are missing out on half the population, not to mention a large marketing source. What’s cool is that several women’s magazines have popped up to celebrate the accomplishments of women; what’s not cool is that sponsorships and dollars tend to still be lopsided in favor of men.”
“This isn’t about making money or needing to be recognized for the sake of ego.  For women, this is about needing financial backing to continue to be able to do what we love- the personal money runs dry after a while.  It’s about being a mentor to other women: younger, same age and older.   We need to start recognizing, supporting and bringing attention to what these amazing women are doing…and not just the ones that are running big waterfalls.  As women, we sometimes tend to not speak up, it’s time to start being assertive and for that not to be frowned upon.  Even Canoe&Kayak doesn’t only post about the men doing ‘extreme’ things. A lot of times, I think, women tend to try something when they see someone they know doing it also; it becomes real and do-able.  It would seem to me that this concept would be the same for men. So, my only conclusion is that representing women is equally important. If a magazine, website, or program is meant for all, it should regularly contain material for all of its audience- not just the occasional bone thrown to half of the viewership.”
“I’m not a super outgoing person and am self-conscious, quiet and shy- I was the kid that never rose her hand in school-who murmured when she spoke, who always looked at the ground.  And, what trumps those fears and that way of being is my hope to be an inspiration and for girls and women to look at something they thought they couldn’t do and see it as a possibility- whether it’s by me or any other woman that is doing something fabulous and not quite the norm. I grew up with posters of Mary Lou Retton and the other women Olympic gymnasts on my wall.  I thought I was going to be a gymnast.  I have no idea who the men’s team was at the time.  Makes sense though, I’m not male, I’m female.  That’s who I idolized. If she could be this incredible athlete, so, could I- I was about 12 years old- and I was going to be the next Mary Lou Retton, Olympic Gold Medalist!”
“GET BEHIND THE US team, ALL of the US team, that includes the women that are killing it out there. Like I said, this is not just a phenomena of the river world, this is an epidemic of mass proportions.  Women are human beings that are putting in the work, and not to be cliche, we deserve to be supported and valued as the strong athletes and role models that we are.”
“I tend to write more about rafts than kayakers, only because that is my specialty and what I’m drawn to.  Please note that I appreciate the efforts of all kayakers, canoers, c-1ers, and SUPers, and there seems to be more of an audience for those rad solo boaters and the groups they make and it’s through no small efforts of women forming groups to support each other.  Here we are as rafters, doing the same thing-
If you are a sponsor and wish to help a group of women succeed through sponsorship, please look into any one of these amazing teams:  
Sweets of the East
Red Lady Raft Racing
Colorado Women’s Raft Team
Stout Creek Women’s Raft Team
Animas Amazons
Gore Range Girls
Sponsors are also needed for the United States Rafting Association that would go to both the US men’s and Women’s National Winning Teams. 
Finally, seek out one of the many cool things that women are doing, largely funded by themselves, to increase exposure, hone skills, and create a camaraderie among women in the rafting world such as Whitewater River Chicks. Right now, Whitewater River Chicks are seeking sponsors for their annual Flip n’ Swim.  There are also several women’s kayak groups easily found on Facebook.  

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