How a 15-Year-Old From California is Fast Becoming One of the Best Kayakers in the World

The making of a future Olympian.

By Michael McCutcheon September 17, 2015

Mapping your route down a churning river strong enough to flip you at any moment isn’t easy.

Sage Donnelly is the kind of teenager that you might see doing it in a Team USA bib someday. She’s risen to become one of the top female kayakers in the nation, despite being diagnosed with diabetes at a young age and only being 15 years old. Canoe and Kayak named her the top female paddler of 2014. In early September, Donnelly became the Junior Women’s Freestyle World Champion and has her eyes set on the 2016 Junior Slalom World Championships and the 2020 Summer Olympics.

It began on a stretch of water in California near her parent’s home. She was two years old the first time she sat in a boat. Two years later, she was paddling on her own. At five, she was running rapids. Now, she’s one of relatively few paddlers that does it all: slalom racing, creek boating and freestyle. Her journey, and the lessons she’s learned navigating waters far more powerful than any teenager in a boat, is one that will be familiar to almost any athlete or entrepreneur.

Sage Donnelly

Paddle shot (age 14) — US Jr. Slalom Team Trials, Nantahala River, NC

Being 15 years old, does your level of success at this sport ever surprise you?

The success I’ve had kayaking definitely surprises me sometimes. Winning the female paddler award was insane to me, I still can’t believe that I won. All of the women I was up against have been my role models. They still inspire me and are just incredible ladies. So, I am definitely still in shock of what I’ve accomplished. I just love to kayak and I really enjoy competing. As long as I’m having fun, I guess I’ll still keep being shocked.

What’s your training like?

I love kayaking, so I want to do it all the time, whenever I can. I boat most of the days out of the year, especially the last few years. Around seven or eight years old, I stopped skiing so I could kayak all winter. My training definitely got harder but it was amazing to get to do what I love more often.

I travel a lot and haven’t been home much this year, but when I’m home I like to train on the Carson River, which is really close to my house. There is a lot of flat water there so I do a ton of training on that. The Reno Whitewater Park is close by as well, which is amazing. Then, about two hours away from my house in California, there are a bunch of rivers–mainly, the American river helps me train a lot. I do a ton of creek boating too. I have endless access, which I really enjoy.

What are you looking at as you prepare to run a river?

Well, when I look at a river I’m always excited, of course. I see fun, and I see a lot of different paths of where I could go. Some people just see a rock. I see a rock, but I also see different things I could do like go around it a certain way or do a specific move, and a bunch of different stuff like that. There are different obstacles and different paths to take, and I think that’s really cool.

Sage Donnelly

Homestake Creek Race GoPro Mountain Games, Colorado, 2014

What’s your process like before big championships?

I try to combine a bunch of different warm-up techniques from freestyle, slalom, and creeking. I usually start with a set warm-up, then I’ll listen to music, and envision what I’m about to do. I also try to keep a positive attitude and have fun, of course.

I generally have a harder time with the mental aspect of my sport when it comes time for competitions. I’m currently working on combining the tricks that I know with the new tricks that I’ve been working on, and getting them all into one ride during practice. Of course, the mental part of that is being able to overcome that feeling of  “Oh, am I going to be able to get everything in one ride? This is a big competition.”

What’s the biggest obstacle you face in kayaking?

I would say the biggest obstacle in kayaking are the mental challenges, but if you’re asking about on the river, there are a lot of different consequences, obviously. A log in a river, getting pinned up against a strainer, that would be bad. You could get stuck in a what we call a sit, where basically there’s two rocks or something, and there’s a big enough entrance to go in, and obviously water’s flowing through it, but you can’t come out the other side–those are bad. There is a lot that can go wrong, but all in all, kayaking is generally a safe sport, as long as you don’t get in super over your head, and have built a good base.

I’m not really thinking about the consequences when I face one of these challenges. I’m thinking about what strokes I need to take and where, and then what the move is after. I try to think several steps ahead, like “Okay. I’m going to do this stroke here. Then, after I land from that, I need to go left or right or whatever.”

How do you deal with one of these big obstacles in your path?

Usually, say I’m at the top of a rapid, and I’m reading it off the book. I’ve never seen it before. I’m looking at the water. I’m going to look at where it’s going. Is the water moving towards any rocks, any funny holes, anything like that? I’m going to see if there’s anything like a big hole or a wave or any hazards or consequences. Then, I look for opportunities for movement or any crux moves. That actually all happens very quickly. Once you’ve taken in all that information, you can then go “Oh, okay. The consequence is over here. The crux move is here. I’m going to go this way.”

Sage Donnelly

Upside (age 13) — End of Space Godzilla, GoPro Games, Vail, CO

What are the larger lessons from river running?

I’ve learned that mental strength definitely helps a lot when it comes to overcoming obstacles, fear, and of course training. When I work out, thinking “no, I can’t do this”, then being able to push through it and coming out stronger from it has really helped. It’s a really good sport actually to help you in life.

When was the last time you were afraid on the river?

Well I get a little scared every time I get in the water, especially in creek boating. It’s a process. My dad and I, on a slalom course or on a creek race, whenever I’m scared about a move or something, we always break it down into 3 sections or more, depending on how long it is. We talk about the top, the middle, and the end, and what can happen, and the different hazards and the consequences of everything. Then, after we’ve gone through that, usually I’m able to work through it and go do it and channel that negative energy into positive energy and just do it!

Is there a big difference between men and women in the sport?

I think, in the past, there definitely has been a big difference between men and women kayakers. But I think more and more women are getting more excited and fired up to try to beat the men. It’s definitely getting tighter. There’s still quite a big difference, but I think there are a lot of women that are trying for it.

What’s your path look like going forward?

Next year, I’m hoping to do at least make finals for Junior Slalom Worlds. The Junior Worlds will be in Poland and I’m hoping to make finals. I also have some creek races that I want to do. I want to try out for the gates race on the north fork of the Payette River. Then, I’m going to do the GoPro Mountain Games, and after Junior Worlds, I’m going to do the European Junior Cup. Of course I have to do well in those, those are slalom races.

As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to try to keep going. I definitely have some goals that I want to achieve. I work super hard, so hopefully I can reach my goals.

Sage Donnelly

Playing around in Columbus, GA

Donnelly has that mix of passion, dedication and do-what-it-takes-ness that most successful people will recognize in themselves. If Sage does put on a Team USA bib someday, it will be a testament to the years of work and dedication she poured into a sport while no one was really watching, all to win a moment when everyone would be. That’s the hustle.

Michael McCutcheonMichael McCutcheon is a freelance writer and former editor at Mic news. A Seattle native, he’s passionate about any sport that REI sells equipment for. You can find him at home in Brooklyn, NY or on the Twitter.

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