This is the second part in a six-part WTOP series, Beltway to Brazil, featuring local athletes headed to the Olympics.
DICKERSON, Md. — Most Olympic tales begin with the love between an athlete and their sport. For Ashley Nee and kayaking, this is a different kind of story.
“I started paddling at summer camp when I was 10 years old,” Nee said. “My friend dragged me over to the kayaking side [of the lake] and forced me to try kayaking. I didn’t want to, I had no interest … and the next day I started training with my coach that I trained with for seven years.”
So began Nee’s journey with Potomac Whitewater Racing. That day on the lake led to her eight-year stint as a K1 kayaker on the U.S. National team, and now her first Olympic berth in three tries. A shoulder injury robbed her of her chance to compete right before the 2008 Olympics, a circumstance so demoralizing she actually left the sport. Nee’s wife talked her into a comeback, but Nee fell just short of qualifying in 2012 when her friend and fellow Darnestown, Maryland native Caroline Queen made the games.
Nee’s third try turned out to be the charm. This year, she actually got the better of a local U.S. National teammate by taking first place in the U.S. Olympic Canoe/Kayak Team Trials.
“She’s pushed me this whole time,” Nee said of teammate and rival Donna Mann, who came to Potomac with a Top 10 world ranking.
“[Ashley] was more persistent than most of her other competitors … she never gave up, she kept pushing through even if the success wasn’t visible early,” said coach Silvan Poberaj of his 26-year-old pupil.
Notice a trend here? The Potomac River makes the D.C. area one of the best locations in the country for competitive water sports. Team USA’s website lists more than 20 area athletes in canoeing and kayaking alone, and Nee says the Potomac River is perfect for whitewater and slalom paddlers, from Class 1-5. You can start on flat water and work your way up to rougher waters if you so choose. Few other regions can offer such variance.
Fun facts: U.S. Women’s canoeing/kayaking
USA rank in the event: 16 total medals (5 gold) all-time is the 13th most of any country. Hungary has the most total medals (77) and the Soviet Union has the most gold (29).
Last USA medal: Rebecca Giddens — silver in 2004
Fun fact: Slalom canoeing was not included in the Olympics from 1976-1988 because the host nations didn’t believe the sport’s involvement was worth the expense (kayaking was reportedly the most expensive sport per competitor in the Summer Games).
“The community is so cool … you can be sitting in line to go surf a wave and the guy behind you is a three-time Olympian — and you don’t know because you’re all out there surfing doing the same thing,” said Nee.
Remember that next time you glance down at the canoes and kayaks from the Key Bridge or Rock Creek Parkway.
While the Potomac is clean, that’s not the case with the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio. Tales of the contaminated waters have dogged Brazilian officials leading up to the Games and the concerns remain even now. Nee, however, is happy with the accommodations made for her sport.
“We’re pretty lucky — they built a fake river outside of town that has chlorinated water and it’s always moving so there’s no stagnant pools,” Nee explained. That doesn’t necessarily mean she thinks she’s totally in the clear, though.
“Zika’s been on my mind a little bit,” she admitted, referencing her desire to start a family soon. “I think the USOC has educated us well and I think everybody’s doing everything they can to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Hopefully, this allows Nee and her fellow kayakers to turn their attention to the mission at hand: bringing home a medal. History is on her side — in 2004, USA brought home silver in Nee’s event.
“Rebecca Giddens has been an idol to me my whole life,” Nee said of the last U.S. woman to medal in K1 kayaking.
Now that Nee has come farther than she’s ever been, the reality of the situation has taken hold.
“My first goal was to qualify and now I’m starting to think about actually performing there … hopefully I have a good chance.”
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