US freestyle kayak team member; Founder of Soft Power Health Founder of Inner City Kids Kayak Camps; Medical Doctor. Interview by Peter Tranter
When two worlds converge. A fascinating interview with a remarkable woman
See April 2014 issue: http://joom.ag/6qFX
What kayaks do you own at the moment?
Well, a lot of them – mostly Jackson kayaks but a couple of old Wave sport boats too from when I paddled on their team. I keep a fleet of Jackson kayaks in the basement of my mother’s house for the inner city kids kayaking camp! My favourite boat at the moment is my 2014 Rockstar-S.
Where and what was your first paddle and what got you hooked?
What got me totally hooked on paddling was attending several days of a beginning kayak school at Sundance Expeditions in Oregon. It was so much fun and after experiencing what play was possible in a kayak, I was totally hooked!
What and where was your first competition?
My first competition was on the Skykomish River in Washington State during the summer of 1998.
What was the biggest accomplishment in your kayaking career?
That’s a hard question. I have been really happy to make the US freestyle kayak team twice in my forties, and I was really pleased to be the first woman to paddle a hard shell kayak down the Cotahuasi River in Peru, but I think my biggest contribution in kayaking has been starting the inner city kids kayaking camps, to really try to bring kayaking to kids who would never otherwise get the opportunity to try it.
Any advice for those starting out in freestyle?
Don’t be afraid to make many mistakes and spend a lot of time upside down under water – it’s all part of the learning process. Everyone goes through that and continues to go through it as you try and learn new things. Be patient with yourself. Even those people who look like they are at the top of their game are always working on stuff and trying to improve, learning from what they are doing wrong.
Are you naturally competitive?
I am naturally competitive with myself. I am interested in seeing what I can do, what I am capable of and trying to achieve that. I try to stay away from comparing myself to others – that is never very productive, but I like to push myself.
Competitive kayaking or expedition paddling – which do you prefer?
Hard question, they are so different and you really learn different things in each environment, though the one thing they both share is keeping you very much in the moment of what you are doing. With competitive kayaking, you have the opportunity to work on things and learn things almost all the time and it’s a low stress environment for the most part. Expedition paddling is incredibly exciting and exhilarating and can be pretty stressful depending on where you are and how your team gels. At this point in my life, I don’t need to be super stressed most of the time.
Have you ever been scared and if not – what would it take?
Honestly, I think one of the reasons that I initially liked kayaking was because it scared me a little. Feeling the fear, made everything more exciting. So in my kayaking life, I have been scared a lot! These days, it probably takes less to scare me than 10 years ago but essentially, any situation where there is a life threatening consequence or a risk of bodily harm is going to scare me!
What has been your best ever day on the water?
Another hard question, because there have been so many fantastic days on the water – it’s hard to pick one! Recently, EJ celebrated his 50th birthday party with a huge paddling party of anything but kayaks out in the Nile special wave train. I had not surfed a raft or paddled a sit on top in ages and we had a blast! We surfed all the usual suspects such as Nile Special, Club Wave and Bells and it was awesome!! There was lots of swimming through the waves as well as surfing. My stomach hurt and I was crying from laughing so hard!
What’s the maddest thing you have ever done?
Take a kayak lesson from EJ!
What’s the most courageous thing you have done in life?
Take a kayak lesson from EJ. In the best way possible, EJ pushes you out of your comfort zone and helps you see what’s possible and what you can do.
What’s your ratio of time between Uganda and home in the US?
I spend 4-6 months a year in Uganda, a few months in Switzerland, and a few months in the US, so I am a little peripatetic.
After paddling rivers across the planet – where is your favourite river and why?
Another really hard question because there are so many great rivers and each has their own special characteristics. I love the Nile – big warm friendly water and incredible play. I love the Rogue in Oregon for a gorgeous multi-day wilderness trip. I love the Futaleufu for its great rapids and beauty. And I love the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine, great river running play.
Apart from kayaking and Soft Power Health, do you have time for another main interest in life?
I really love ski touring, tennis, ping-pong, yoga and meditation. And I think I am always in search of a really good chocolate cake! I am really interested in true-life stories of amazing things that people do!
You started Soft Power Health to combat malaria in Uganda and then went on to advising on family planning matters – are there further health issues you now want Soft Power Health to pursue?
Since I started Soft Power Health, a number of health needs for Ugandan people have become apparent. Information about conception and contraception is not well understood by the majority of the population but that is changing which is great to see.
We treat a large number of malnourished patients at the clinic and surveying the local communities revealed that most people don’t understand nutrition and malnutrition well either. Though they have access to a variety of foods, Ugandans generally stick with only one type of food that they like. Learning this was the impetus for starting our latest outreach – the nutrition/malnutrition outreach. So far it’s been very well received and we’ll see if it lowers the number of malnourished patients that we treat at the clinic. Ultimately, in Uganda, education is the scarcest resource and that includes all health education.
In addition, quality, affordable, reliable healthcare is also incredibly rare, so keeping all that in mind, we are just trying to meet a small part of that need in our area through the clinic and outreach programs. I don’t have a grand plan to expand but just to address needs as they arise in the communities and continue to increase the general level of health education in our area.
The Soft Power Health project has taken over from kayaking in your life but does paddling still give you satisfaction and do you still find the time to get on the water?
I think I am always trying to seek the balance between the two – ideally I would like to paddle six days a week and do Soft Power Health about the same. In Uganda, it’s easier to achieve that balance than almost anywhere else because both the paddling and healthcare work are easily accessible – I can walk to the clinic and I can walk to the river from my banda where I live. I continue to get tremendous satisfaction from paddling – maybe more now than ever because I appreciate being healthy and able to do what I can do at this point in my life and have a lot of fun!
Have you managed to engage the village locals with paddling?
Definitely, lots of locals are engaged with paddling – it’s a great job for them to teach kayaking or work as safety kayakers for the rafting companies. Many men become paddlers – it’s harder to get women out on the water, but it is still possible. There are two very good women paddlers, both called Amina, who work for the rafting companies as safety kayakers. They are both very impressive. And it would be great to get more local women paddling! Overall, there is a big interest from the local population.
OK Jessie let’s finish with something short and snappy…
If you could paddle with anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be?
The Jackson family – all of them, Juerg Ruf, Ruth Gordon, Margie and Hayden Glatte, Dave and Paula Saaf, and Andy Khulberg.
Pick two celebrities to be your parents
Allan and Clare Stone – my parents!
Which famous person would you most like to see play you in a film?
I think I’d be incredibly uncomfortable watching anyone play me in a movie! Maybe Kristin Scott Thomas?
Favourite iPod track?
Titanium or that one I can’t remember the name of!
If you won $20 million on the lottery, what would you do with it?
Create a foundation that supported teaching underprivileged kids to kayak through high school so they had a really good foundation not a one off experience, and I would donate to really worthwhile small grass roots NGOs that work on the ground throughout the developing world.
Cats or dogs?
Dogs – I am totally allergic to cats!
Facebook or Twitter? Neither!
I am not on either one and feeling pretty happy about that!
An ideal night out for you is?
Post paddling beer and pizza with good friends and if we’re not to tired – a little dancing is always fun too!
What’s the one luxury item you miss most in Uganda?
A really good pillow!
A fragile ego.
What would I find in your refrigerator right now?
Nothing because I don’t have a fridge!! Though if I had one, you would find chocolate for sure!
If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?
I am a serious non-cook though my boyfriend makes a mean spaghetti Bolognese so that would be on the menu for sure and a great salad – I am really good at preparing that! Good wine, bread, cheese and chocolate cake would be there too!
Any broken bones?
Yes, starting with my left leg when I was 5 and fell out of a tree! The list goes on from there.
If you could be a superhero for one day, what superpower would you choose and why?
I would be Recycle Woman! She is able to take any garbage and make incredible cool stuff like kayaks out of it!
If you could be a wild animal – what would it be?
A black Rhino – impossibly cute, fierce, fearless and seriously endangered. Plus they have a prehensile lip for browsing – they can grab anything!
Fill in the blanks: I am ______?
Enthusiastic and determined to a fault.
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule:)