When Alex McLain '11 competed in a national sea kayaking competition in San Francisco last weekend, she was the only female paddler who was not an Olympian.
She came home with a silver medal.
McLain, who finished the 17-mile course in two hours and 47 minutes, was out-paddled only by Nikki Mocke of South Africa, a recent competitor at the Beijing Olympics. McLain said that until she crossed the finish line, she had no idea that she had placed in the medal standings.
"After 17 miles you are so spaced out," she said. "Someone yelled to me right as I was crossing the finish line, and I was just so ecstatic."
The silver medalist's introduction to kayaking came from her parents, who were both serious canoe paddlers. "I started because both my parents have been huge competitive paddlers," she said. "They always wanted my brother and [me] to paddle when we were younger, but I kind of hated it."
A few years ago, however, McLain changed her mind and began training seriously. "When I turned about 15, I decided I really wanted to start racing," she said. "I got third at this little recreational race, but it just got me fired up."
Most of the time, McLain paddles a boat dubbed the "Surfski," which got its name from the way it moves through water when a kayaker is paddling with the waves. "You plow through the waves on the way out, but as soon as you turn around, you can just surf the waves in," she said.
In her race last weekend, McLain said it took her about an hour and 50 minutes to paddle out into the bay, but only about 50 minutes to return to shore after she had turned around. The athlete credits her strength in the sport to the rough-water training regime that she and her father, who is also her coach, have developed. Though West Coast paddling conditions are rougher than East Coast conditions, McLain, the only female East Coast paddler, in the competition, said she was well-prepared for the race last weekend. "My dad always makes me train in really tough conditions," she said. "You get out in the ocean swells in Maine, and it's really rough."
Training in rough conditions prepares paddlers for waves that may try to knock them out of their boats. Though many kayakers fell out of their boats more than once during Nationals, McLain said that the balance she learned from training kept her in her boat for the duration of the race. She added that the already difficult course was made even harder by race officials.
"San Francisco Bay has some of the harshest conditions they can find," said McLain. "They normally try to start a race before the winds pick up, but this is the first time I've ever had them postpone a race for a few hours because they wanted winds to get rougher."
The tactic worked. While conditions in the protected part of the bay were manageable, both waves and wind picked up intensely around five miles out. "Truthfully, these were the toughest conditions I've ever seen," said McLain. "You just get these huge swells until you get back into the bay."
McLain said that she entered the race thinking that it would provide her some good racing experience, and did not expect to compete as strongly as she did. "Everyone had an awesome start, and I was still kind of getting used to the fact that I was at Nationals," she said. "It's like, Golden Gate Bridge right there."
"I had a terrible start which is very unlike me," she said. Though she was at the rear of the pack at the start, she was determined to stay mentally focused.
It paid off. When McLain reached the rougher waters in the bay, she began to fly by other paddlers. "As soon we went under the bridge for the first time, the waves just got out of control," she said. "I saw people falling out right and left."
Though paddlers who fall out of their sea kayaks are able to climb back in, McLain's rough water experience helped her remain in her boat and paddle toward the front of the pack. When she finished the women's race in second, McLain was more than half an hour ahead of the third place female finisher. In addition to being the only female paddler who had not competed in the Olympics, McLain said she was also the youngest competitor. Does she want to compete in a future Olympics?
"It's a huge shift," she said. "I'll really have to stop doing the ocean thing and get onto more rivers and flatwater, but who knows?"
McLain said that when people find out that she is the second fastest female paddler in the nation, many ask her if she will attend the 2012 Olympics in London. "That's totally my top dream," she said.