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Getting Back in the Saddle

Race Day, 2010. Photo: Katie Cahn Paddler: Katie Dean


Some people progress in kayaking with a killer head game. They have an ability to focus on the task that lies ahead, put the “what if” scenarios to the side, line up and charge. I used to be one of those people, so much that I was sometimes a danger to myself. My head game was much stronger than my technical skills, but it worked out – I got beat down, I got lucky, and I got better. Somewhere along the learning curve, the dynamic shifted: my technical skills overpowered my head game. My technical skills didn’t shoot through the roof. I had simply lost my mental edge.

Almost exactly two years ago, I crashed at Gorilla and separated my AC joint in my shoulder. The most frustrating part about my crash was that it was completely avoidable. It shouldn’t have happened and I knew better. I hesitated to make decision, and I crashed. Hesitating is dangerous, simple as that.

For the next year, I focused on school and rehabbed my shoulder. Once my shoulder was better, I realized I needed to rehab my head game as well. I didn’t trust myself anymore. I hated where I was mentally. It was antagonizing, uncomfortable and frustrating to suddenly doubt myself. The head game can’t be forced. Not for me anyways… it has to be developed, which is something I never realized prior. I always just had it, and all of a sudden it was gone.

So this is what I did: I decided not to force it. I worked at a camp last summer as a kayak instructor, which allowed me to paddle a lot of class II/III. I was fortunate enough to have Mark Taylor as a co-worker, and he showed me a lot of downriver play moves, which were really fun to learn. The following Fall, I had a great time paddling the regular dam releases: Green, Tallulah, and Russell Fork. I started to feel comfortable again, both mentally and physically. The bottom line was that I was having fun on the river with my friends. I didn’t really care what I was and was not running. I was excited and grateful to be healthy, and have time on the weekends to be on the water.

Over the past year, I started to get back to where I used to be mentally, physically and technically. I got some days on the Green, Overflow, the Headwaters of the Chattooga, and the Raven Fork, which all tested me in different ways. I was pleased I could bounce down Overflow without getting out of my boat. I was starting to feel “at home” again in my boat, and yet sometimes surprised with myself when I felt calm and chill above big rapids like Marginal Monster. Every time I went to the Green, I walked around Gorilla. I felt disappointed in myself, but I could feel in every fiber of my being that I just wasn’t ready. Every time I even thought about running it, my heart would begin to race, and I felt ill/upset. I told myself to be patient, spend some more time in my boat, and when I’m ready, I’ll know. At this point, it wasn’t my technical skills holding me back – it was my mental game.

I mentally got to the point where I could visualize Gorilla without ill feelings, spent an ample amount of time on the water in various boats, and two of my best home girls were both talking about running the rapid for their first time. I wanted to do it with them. Last weekend everything came together. Erin Savage and I had plans to run the Green. Caroline Moon had some plans with another group, but we all ended up at Gorilla at the same time. We got above Gorilla; Erin looked at me and said, “What do you think?” I was in my Green boat, and had not paddled it down the Green in two years. I responded, “I might give myself some more seat time in this boat.” Erin collected Toby and me in the eddy, and with a look of determination stated: “I want to run it.”

We ran the last rapid above Gorilla, and Caroline was already there, scouting it with her crew. Erin and I pulled over and walked down to greet Caroline and friends. The three of us sat at the notch (the crux of the rapid) at eye level and discussed. We watched our paddling buddy, Eric, come through. He had to go into battle mode a little bit to keep from running the pad backwards, which was incredibly impressive. He had a stellar line off the pad and through the speed trap. We watched our friend George come through next. He had a clean line all the way through.

At this point, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but Erin and Caroline were pumped. Erin was so determined and focused; I knew that if she decided to give it a go, she would be successful. There wasn’t a glimpse of doubt in her body language. She walked up to the top to get in her boat. As I watched her, I admired her courage and determination. She was doing it. Erin had been talking about accomplishing this goal for a really long time. She had been working on her skills to get to this point, and she was ready to see it through. She came through the top move and eddied out. At this point, she was committed. She came through the rest of the rapid with complete control and style. She flipped at the very bottom hole, and rolled up with a complete look of shock on her face. It was so exciting to witness. Everyone was hootin’ and hollarin’ for her. There isn’t any footage of it, but I will always remember the look on her face. She did it, and she did it well.

Caroline was pumped. She immediately picked up her boat and confidently walked to the top. She came through with very calculated and strong strokes. Her line through the notch was as smooth as it gets, and she eddied out on the backside. Off the pad she flew. A quick flip and roll at the speed trap, and she was done! She was ecstatic and more hootin’ and hollarin’ ensued. At this point, I was so pumped for my girlfriends. I lack the verbal etiquette to convey my true emotions, but proud and impressed sums it up pretty well. Two personal first descents occurred in a matter of minutes, both successful.

I felt a little conflicted about being in my long boat. I felt confident and in control, but I couldn’t make up my mind on how to prevent myself from swinging wide between the notch and the pad. My mind felt calm and relaxed – I felt ready. I knew if I went home that day, having walked around the rapid, I would feel defeated by fear instead of accepting and proud of my patience to wait. I watched two long boats come through, both swung wide. They both walked back up to run it again. One of them swung wide again, the other corrected his mistake from his first run. I discussed my options and strategy with Toby. I sat for a few moments, looking at the notch, and I could feel myself analyzing the move with a stone cold face of focus, which is how I used to be pre-injury. I stood there and visualized my line. I walked up to my boat, got in, and paddled into the eddy at the top. I took a few deep breaths, and felt reasonably calm. I was 100% confident that I was going to execute my plan. When I took my first stroke to leave the eddy, I was committed, and it felt glorious! I came through and had a great line.

There is a fine line for self-efficacy. I don’t feel like I ran Gorilla because I felt peer-pressured to keep up with my friends. Their enthusiasm and positive energy definitely gave me a push in the right direction. That day on the river was so special for all three of us, each having accomplished a major goal. We are all three fired up and ready to charge!

Sometimes getting back in the saddle is the hardest part. Losing your head game is a humbling experience, and getting it back isn’t necessarily easy.

Proudly sporting the Gorilla Grin!


I started kayaking in Wisconsin of all places, because this is where I am from. I then moved to San Diego and took on kayak surfing along with heading to the Kern River when water was available. I then made the move to Asheville, NC and have been hooked on this sport since my Wisconsin days. With whatever it is that you do, do it because you love it, not because society tells you should or for other outside factors. Don't simply exist, live!

One thought to “Getting Back in the Saddle”

  1. Thank you for this inspiring post. I’ve been caught up in my own head game for about 2 years now. I used to consider myself a pretty bad ass little boater – paddling with mostly men, I was eager to prove I could keep up with the guys – tackling river after river and stepping up my skills each time. I’d had my share of beat downs and some scary swims, but my confidence was at its peak. After my first Green narrows (green light version) and upper Gauley runs I felt like I was on a little high and it was hard to wipe the grin off my face. And then I started to play the “what if game,” kept missing my rolls and earned bootie beers where in rapids I had styled in the past. I started feeling physically ill getting in my boat at the put in for rivers that I previously considered to be my playgrounds. I’m working on getting out of my head and back into the present moment in my boat, but wow it’s hard to do! It’s always refreshing and comforting to hear that other boaters, especially women that I look up to, go through the same things. Props to you ‘getting back in the saddle.’ Reading this article put a huge smile on my face. I feel inspired and will hopefully get back in my own saddle in the near future.

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