Breaking down the doors: Ottilie Robinson-Shaw known to all as… ‘Ottie’.
As Europe’s top junior female, Ottilie Robinson-Shaw is leading the charge to define the future of female freestyle paddling. The Paddler magazine caught her between sessions at Lee Valley for a chat.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
It’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again, that in kayaking, you never know who’ll wash up with you in the eddy. Imagine having a kick about with Ronaldo or sharing a wave with Kelly Slater: not very likely, is it?
Lee Valley Paddlesports Club, which meets every Wednesday evening for a session or two on the Legacy Course, is home to a few up-and-coming freestyle paddlers, like Ben Pamplin in C1 and Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (known to all as ‘Ottie’).
What’s interesting about Ottie and her crew (which also includes Dan and Jen McGaley and Hugh Mandelstam) is that they all hail from the flatlands of Suffolk and the Essex coast – a lovely corner of the world if you like big skies, birds and sailing, but it would be about the worst place in Britain you could live if you wanted to get into whitewater paddling. It just goes to show the importance of the Olympic and Legacy Courses in providing what they set out to offer – a legacy for paddlers of the future, although less so these days, since the top hole no longer works. But that’s another story.
Ottie only started paddling in 2013, at the age of 11 with dad Will, returning to the sport after a 30-year absence. But where Will and others of his generation like me could aspire to no more than a secondhand Dancer and the ability to hand roll, Ottie has already learned most of the tricks in the hole-riding book and can be seen most Wednesdays throwing big air loops, and bringing the McNasty around smoothly and consistently.
Ottie’s journey started in a swimming pool with Tendring CC and later on the river Stour with Sudbury CC, paddling with Dan and Jen McGaley, Hugh Mandelstam and Ben Pamplin, who were already starting to practise some of the freestyle moves on the flat. “I saw what they were doing and thought it looked really cool,” remembers Ottie, as we sit at one of the park benches overlooking the course, between sessions. Progress, clearly, was incredibly fast, first at Tendring then at Sudbury and now here at Lee Valley.
The first competition came in May 2014, where Ottie’s only (non-scoring) move was a single ender. Fast forward just two years to the Europeans at Plattling, a long, uniform wave/stopper in Bavaria, and Ottie had arrived, placing third in the Junior Women, at the age of just 14 – the youngest of any competitor there and fourth in the senior women’s squirt boat final. Six months later, Ottie had the joint highest (with Lowri Davies, Team GB) score for her ride at the 2016 Hurley Classic, throwing down her hole moves to good effect on the wave and stringing together a series of wave McNastys, spins and Space Godzillas, going huge on the air loops in the evening final, held as it always is in the cold darkness of a British November, strobe-lit by the flashlights of cameras on the bridge.
GB Freestyle Team
That Ottie would make the GB Freestyle Team this spring was a foregone conclusion, in a class where competitors still sometimes walk away with zero-scoring rides. It was the ease with which Ottie breezed through selection that makes for interesting reading: a score of 180 (her nearest rival scored 10) at Cardiff, placing her second in the senior women’s rankings was followed by a staggering score of 970 in the sluice gate at Nottingham. That score was enough not only to win Junior Women – but it would have placed her second in Junior men, third in Senior Women and fourth in the Senior Men.
So what on earth happened between 2014 and now?
Clearly Ottie learns tricks quickly and easily – she can’t remember any particular stumbling block on her rapid progression – no agonising over the roll, double pump or nailing the third end for instance.
But also lots of practice: Ottie gets out two to five times a week, paddling regularly on flat and moving water. And the support of a few people, too, most notably dad/chauffer Will who also paddles with us on Wednesday evenings.
Two other very important people in Ottie’s development as a paddler have been Claire O’Hara, fellow British paddler who has won no fewer than eight world titles. “She’s amazing,” says Ottie, “really supportive, and has helped a lot with the mental side of the sport especially dealing with the pressures of competition as well as the physical moves.”
It’s hard to imagine Ottie, always so ready to throw her paddle away and plow into a stopper to perform loops with just her hands, feeling the pressure, but she does. She gets over it, one presumes – “Mostly, but if not I just paddle… maybe the adrenalin helps!” is her reply.
The other person who has taught Ottie hugely is Dennis Newton of Sweetwater Coaching. Den is the GB Freestyle Performance Director and has overseen Ottie’s development over the last couple of years. “I just seem to click with Den’s always fun but still serious coaching style” says Ottie.
In terms of gear, Ottie paddles a small 2016 Jackson Rockstar (one in plastic and one in carbon) and Claire O’Hara’s old squirt boat, a Murky Waters Slip. And, like all Squarerock paddlers, she’s happily kitted out in Sandiline dry gear and Ophion paddles.
Ottie is, as she would say herself, a more accomplished hole-rider than she is a wave surfer, although during a recent trip to Hurley Weir, she threw her first airscrew. “Mike (Michael Shaw) just told me what to do – and I did it!”
The feature in Argentina would be best described as a hole/wave, allowing all the hole moves and some wave/hole crossover moves. Time will tell if the wave part of the equation will allow more experienced wave riders to score big with blunts and pan ams, but there’s little doubt of a very good finish for Ottie either way. She’s presently working on the back loop and lunar orbit and will no doubt have both nailed soon. When she’s not on the river, Ottie also enjoys wakeboarding, skiing and mountain biking – she must have her work cut out.
“Ottie is amazing” says Claire O’Hara. “She is the leading force in girls’ freestyle in Europe at the moment and really making a big difference to the future of freestyle in the UK. Ottie paddles way beyond her years and is redefining what is possible in junior women’s freestyle. Junior world champion Sage Donnelly started this drive and now Ottie is there with her pushing the limits on the world circuit. She has worked extremely hard for what she has achieved and has the right passion, skill and drive to really push the future of the sport. Everyone should watch and be inspired by this young girl.”
Upcoming trips for Ottie include the Ottawa this summer to ride the epic Garburator Wave, not to mention the dozens of other features on this river and, of course, San Juan in Argentina this November where, at the age of just 15, she will be one of the best British hopes, and one to keep a close eye on. She will be up against her American counterpart Sage Donnelly, also riding for Jackson and it’s a sign of what they have achieved that for the first time in junior women, we are going to be treated to a high-scoring clash of titans. So let’s take our hats off to both of them. But this is the Paddler magazine in the UK – so let’s keep our fingers crossed for Ottie!
Ottilie Robinson-Shaw, Team GB, paddles for Jackson and Squarerock.