When your father is an Olympic canoeist, following in his footsteps is easier said than done. When you are a decade younger than your closest competitors, this is even harder. But when you are Alex McLain '11, nothing is out of the question. Her goal is not to match her father's fifth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics, but to better it, beating the best kayakers in the world on the biggest stage there is.
At the season's final race in York, Maine, McLain's 72 points more than doubled the second-place finisher's 35. This victory was her third championship in a row, and over those three seasons she has been undefeated by female competition.
McLain competes on a surf ski, a 21-foot by 18-inch vessel that is the fastest type of ocean kayak. In her NESurfski races, she paddles courses from six to 21 miles long, while national and international races can be up to 30 miles long (and take nearly four hours).
"My best race is probably around 10 miles," she said, "and my strength is being able to read ocean conditions."
There are 10 races each summer, and the New England Championship standings are based on a graduated system of 12 points for first place, 11 for second, and so on, with an athlete's top six races counting.
Between 30 and 50 paddlers usually compete against McLain, with many more competing internationally.
"Europeans are obsessed with paddling," she said, "but us Americans tend to like contact sports."
She had been around paddling sports since she was young, but never became interested in doing them until she was in high school.
"I got third in my first race, and felt nasty competing," she said.
Having just completed her sixth season and having seen her times get better every year, McLain has improved drastically since she was 15 years old. Although the best age to paddle is during one's late twenties or early thirties because so much of the sport is about experience, she has been undefeated in NESurfski races since 2007 as one of the youngest competitors. Her usual times would make her the sixth-fastest male competitor in New England, and she has finished as high as fourth overall against men.
Rod McLain, Alex's father, competed in two Olympics in two-man canoe competition, and placed fifth in the Los Angeles Games' 1,000-meter C-2 race.
"My dad is my coach, and I regularly text him in the mornings to get advised about workouts for later in the day," McLain said.
Moreover, her mother was trying out for the Olympic kayak team when she became pregnant with Alex, so one could say the surf skier was literally born en route to the Olympics.
Rod and Alex compete in the same races, with the senior McLain paddling a single-person outrigger canoe, canoeing's equivalent to surf ski.
"We're the same speed, which is awesome for training," noted McLain. "My dad and I sometimes stick together to draft each other during races, kind of like our own mini team."
"The thrill of racing is awesome," she added. "I've always loved the ocean, and now I'm able to go out and conquer the waves."
McLain was a three-sport athlete throughout high school and was recruited to Bowdoin to play lacrosse. After two seasons of lacrosse she left the team in order to devote more time to kayaking.
Once she graduates, McLain's hope is to keep improving so she can make the female national team. A friend of hers took a year off of college to make the team by training with the Hungarian squad, and when she came back she showed drastic improvement.
Consisting of eight to 12 paddlers, the national team does not have many other people competing for spots; however, only the fastest national team member competes at the Olympics. McLain's goal is to make the national team in the next two years and to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
The only Olympic kayaking event for her is the K-1 flatwater 500-meter sprint on rivers—a far cry from her usual ocean surf skiing. This paddling utilizes no reading of the ocean for miles on end—McLain's forte—and instead is about giving 110 percent for just a few minutes.
"It's going to be a challenge for me to break into the sprinting world," she said. "It's like going from being a cross-country runner to becoming the fastest woman alive."
McLain's current offseason training consists of running and lifting for 10 hours a week, and in the winter she uses a kayaking erg to stay in shape. In season, she does multiple workouts a day, with two hours of paddling and then time in the gym. A nagging shoulder issue makes things tough for her in the weight room at times, but it does not hinder her performance in the water.
Her sophomore year, she was the fastest female ocean kayaker in the country, and a more recent race gave her the title of fastest paddler around Manhattan Island's 28-mile coastline.
McLain has met more success on the surf ski than she could have imagined, but she still believes there is room for improvement. She has her sights set on outdoing her parents, and until her New England experience translates to international success, she will not be entirely satisfied.