By Sarah Colson
Throughout her time at Science Hill High School, recent graduate Harriet Rollins traded prom dresses for paddles. She traded walking across the stage on graduation day for a broken rib and a slalom kayak down the Tuckasegee River. But she wasn’t just ditching a three-hour graduation ceremony entirely for fun. She was training for the U.S. National Wildwater K1W (kayak women’s solo) team.
“It just happened to be that the wildwater world championships were here, right in my back yard,” Rollins said.
Rollins qualified for the U.S. National Wildwater K1W team by placing in the top three at the Eastern U.S. Wildwater Team Trials held on the Nantahala River near Bryson City, N.C. the first week of August.
Not settling for the national team, Rollins and a teammate from Maine, Hannah Rubin, also raced in the Wildwater tandem canoe race and got the gold medal.
Rollins was told that if she and a teammate just made it down the river, they would win a gold medal because there were no other women set to compete in that category. Rollins said female wildwater competitors are not has numerous as their male counterparts.
“You might see one woman,” she said. “So Hannah and I were like sure let’s race this thing.”
Rollins said her passion for kayaking started when she was just 11 years old at summer camp. When she was 17, she decided to “up it” and start doing much harder rivers, class 3, 4 and 5’s. Her determination and love for intense sports seems to run in the family.
While she’s never shown much interest in water sports, you may remember a few weeks ago when News & Neighbor covered a story about Harriet’s mom, Susan Rollins, who snagged two new records in the 800 and 1500-meter races in the 2015 National Senior Games in Minnesota.
“She’s always running,” Rollins said of her mother. “I can definitely attribute my intensity to her just because she kind of does crazy stuff. She’s always willing to try things.” The types of things that Harriet Rollins likes to try aren’t exactly easy or danger-free. “It’s a ton of fun,” she said, “kind of terrifying, but fun. Boating in general, there is the danger factor. You have to be very careful, trust your group, set safety, know your lines and be aware of the hazards. With wildwater, it’s not technically so dangerous because you’re on much easier rivers but it’s the boat itself that makes it difficult. They will tip over on you if you let up for a second. If you tip, you have to swim.”
Rollins said even though this area is full of natural resources conducive to river sports, a lot of people don’t really know what wildwater racing is. Wildwater, which originated in Europe, is a high speed boat race in which the only goal is to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. There are two types of races, one is a classic around three miles long and one is a sprint which is about a quarter of a mile long.
“It doesn’t matter where on the river you go,” Rollins explained. “If you swim, that’s OK as long as you get back in the boat yourself and do not have any outside help.”
The boats themselves are as unique as the sport. They have a rounded hull profile, making them fast but unstable and hard to turn.
Rollins also said that it’s the area of East Tennessee makes is extremely easy for her to practice her sport. Her family owns a plot of 80 acres in Johnson city surrounded by another 500 acres that are privately owned. In the middle of their property sits a pond Rollins practices on daily.
“Out of a couple brands of kayaks that are made, most of them are made within a five-hour radius of here,” Rollins said to prove her point. “And most of the professional kayakers in the United States live right here in the Asheville area.
This is a prime location. In this area of the Smokies, maybe Chile and up on the Ottawa in Canada are the places that are really good for kayaking. And Norway but it’s kind of hard to get to Norway.”
This week, Rollins moves to North Carolina to start her college career at Davidson College. The U.S. National Whitewater Training Center is in Charlotte, N.C., only about 20 minutes away. She’ll be training for the 2017 Wildwater World Championships to be held in Murau, Austria. Rollins said she’s not sure what she’ll major in, but she is excited to start her college education in a place that caters to what she loves to do most.
“I’ll be able to train with all the people there for slalom,” she said. “I am a bit nervous about balancing it all, but I’m not part of a sport that I have to commit all of my time to. It’s not like swimming where I have a coach who says you come in at 4:30 a.m. every morning. If I need a break, I can take a break. But I still do want to pursue it between school and paddling.”
Rollins said even if it is a bit overwhelming to balance it all, her love for the culture kayaking creates encourages her to keep on paddling.
“The one thing I just really love about kayaking is it brings all sorts of people together,” Rollins said. “From lawyers and doctors down to people who have never had a real job in their lives and are happy that way and live out of the back of their pick-up truck… every sort of person you could possibly think of and some you never would’ve met, you get to meet them when you’re in a kayak.”