They call her ‘Alabama.’ She’s not the average 20-something-year old professional athlete you’ll find at a lot of extreme sport competitions, like the ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships. Having already completed undergraduate school, three previous world championships in New Zealand and Spain, and three years as a parachute rigger for the United States Army, this southern gal is a hero on and off the water. In the squirt boat division, she makes for a particularly threatening athlete, that is, until she breaks into a smile and tells you “howdy” in that sweet southern drawl.
“I’ve had that nickname since I started video boating on the New and Gauley Rivers,” Tracy Click tells me over lunch at River’s End at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. “That was back when the West Virginia rafting scene was ‘tore up from the floor up.’”
We chat about her experience kayaking in the ‘90s when the sport was still developing, about her persistence to learn in the face of almost-certain carnage. She’s worked nearly everywhere, from video boating on the New and Gauley to safety boating on the Upper Yough and rivers in the West. She’s dabbled in raft guiding too, although she much prefers to paddle her own boat. Squirt boating and slalom racing, now her specialties, were not always what she had in mind for herself.
“I wanted to be a playboater,” she says, “but I was getting frustrated because I couldn’t complete the tricks, couldn’t get the ends down. A guy I knew was selling his squirt boat. Since I was the only one who could fit in it, I started learning that and found I could do everything I couldn’t do in a regular play boat.”
Her success as a squirt boater led her to representing the U.S.A. in the freestyle championships in New Zealand and Spain. Her travels opened her eyes to a world beyond her Alabama upbringing and introduced her to a new love.
“Coffee. Good, European coffee,” she says. “Coffee we Americans drink is sissy-fied. I’ve got a coffee company (Mountain Perks) sponsoring me that’s how much I love it. If you look on the bottom of my boat, I have a “powered by espresso” sticker there instead of a “powered by Gatorade” or Red Bull or whatever. Energy drinks are ridiculous anyway; you might as well pound a bag of sugar.”
She excuses herself from the table to wish her fellow teammate, Haley Mills, good luck before her heat. We walk down to the beach and watch the competitors put in.
“That’s one of the things being in the army taught me,” she says. “It taught me how to be a good teammate, how to represent the United States, and what that means.”
When I watched her compete in the semi-finals the following day, I began to understand just what she meant. Her down-to-earth personality is fearless yet relatable, authentic, inspiring; fans of hers yell “Go Alabama” from the stands, waving American flags and ringing cowbells. She’s quite a talker, too, and when she’s called to begin her first ride I look over to the eddy to see her beached on some rocks, skirt popped off, chatting casually with an old friend. Although she trains hard and doesn’t take competition lightly, she’s also out there for the fun of it, which, in the end, is more inspiring than any world championship title.
“Time and time again, I realize that the river has a cycle just like life,” she tells me after her heat. “As long as you’re on that continuum, making decisions, you’re going somewhere and doing something that betters you.”
Although her run did not progress her to the finals on Sunday, September 8th, her mystery move was one to remember. Tracy is currently an online student at Montreat College and resides in Mount Holly, N.C. She hopes to get a masters degree in leadership development before pursuing a Ph.D.