Fear: The Whitewater Grand Prix


I have competed in many events in my life, but none are as ferocious and difficult as the Whitewater Grand Prix.

Take 25 of the best paddlers in the world and challenge them to compete for two weeks against each other in some of the biggest whitewater they have ever faced. I’m honored to be invited, and excited to see what I can do against these athletes. I’m also nervous.

I am 28 years old and have competed at an elite level in whitewater kayaking since I was 15. This means I’ve had a lot of incredible experiences throughout the world from the seat of my kayak, but it also means I have taken many risks. Whether running a 70+ foot waterfall first descent, surfing massive river waves, or running class V in the pitch black, I’m proud of what I have done in my career, and don’t regret a single decision that I made or risk that I took.

But there’s no denying that my brain chemistry is changing, and I’m not quite as ready to “hang it out there.” I find myself asking how this is all going to play out for me. Athletically, I’ve never been stronger, but mentally this fear and respect is turning me into a much more conservative paddler.

My experiences with fear have had many unscripted positive effects. My ability to manage adrenaline has led me to calmly avoid more than a few close calls in my car or navigate high-stress interpersonal interactions. It also helps me calculate risk in the business world without emotion. And the confidence that controlling my fear has given me means that I am very bold in life. I am not afraid to go after what I want, and as a result live a very happy and (by my standards) successful lifestyle.

Dr. Bob Swoap, a sports psychologist who works with elite athletes to help them achieve peak performance, offered me some great insights into how our bodies deal with fear.

The amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—becomes active as soon as fear or danger are perceived, he explained. When it lights up, the fight or flight response is triggered, resulting in adrenaline, a narrowing of focus, and an increased heart rate.

This response can come from big water or from big moments in life, such as needing to give an important presentation, pass a critical exam, or nail a job interview. Physiologically, these are all handled in the brain the exact same way.

“The critical component is the emotional transfer. These fight-or-flight functions can either paralyze us with emotions, or they can be channeled to lift us to performance levels that we didn’t think were possible,” explains Swoap.

Apparently, this emotion transfer is what causes some people to choke in moments of extreme stress and others to excel. If used constructively, the narrowing of focus allows me to look positive and orient myself only towards my goal and not towards hazards, because my boat always follows my vision and body. Adrenaline is a game-face call to action, and I embrace it in any situation—on the river or in real life. It makes me feel alive and present.

Dan Hartley, a strength coach at CrossFit Pisgah in Asheville, N.C., has worked with many elite athletes. One recurring quality that he has observed is a type of hyperfocus that—to the outsider—seems like fearlessness. “Particularly in those athletes who subject themselves to a rigorous training regimen, their goal has embedded itself in every part of their being, and impacts all facets of their lives. In the fervor of competition, their focus upon this goal has narrowed their perception of existence and consequence. They see only the end of the road, and there is no fear of failure.”

One athlete who really embodies this trait is 18-year-old skiing phenom Mikaela Shiffrin. Made famous through her gold medal slalom performance in Sochi, Mikaela is a master of sports psychology and managing fear. Mikaela was known to wink at the camera before everything-on-the-line runs, and recovered calmly from a wild bounce halfway through her Olympics-winning run. Mikaela sees the world as one full of opportunities, rather than obstacles, and she visualizes all possible outcomes so that she is prepared for anything. Shiffrin’s coach says that while she is young, she is mentally the strongest skier on the circuit. Her approach reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Zig Ziglar: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst, and capitalize on what comes.”

It’s easy as an athlete to get caught up in the place, time, conditions, and other factors out of our control. But once we focus on the process rather than the outcome, things will work out in our favor.

As I enter the next phase of my athletic career, my mentality has become more conservative. I will not be the one doing the wildest stunts anymore. I want to be around for the long haul and take part in all of life’s experiences, so that may mean changing my approach a bit. My new fear ideology will be based on one core tenet:

Always trust my gut.

This promise to myself may mean walking rapids that others are running, or passing on a river that I have styled many times simply because I’m not feeling 100%. It will mean not allowing peer pressure to sway me from the correct decision. And it will mean believing in any decision that I make with everything that I have, because life is self-fulfilling. When I do decide to push myself to my limits, I will commit with no doubt in my mind, and that belief will carry me through safely.

A healthy fear has certainly developed in me through my experiences, and the massive rapids of the Grand Prix will be a mental test unlike any other. But as Dr. Swoap says, and I know in my heart, it’s all in the transfer.

Share this post:

Discover more in the Blue Ridge: