Kayaking suits Kaitlyn McElroy
Kaitlyn McElroy was a cross-country skier for Bates College in Maine until a training accident during her junior year. She broke an arm, broke a few ribs and reinjured her back. For a while, McElroy tried to return to skiing, but she knew she would never be as competitive -- at least in that discipline.
But it was hardly the end of her athletic career. McElroy, now 28, moved from the woods to the water, and the sport of kayak.
"There is huge transfer in the base I had for skiing that worked well for kayak," McElroy said.
At the end of this month, she and her partner, Maggie Hogan, will participate in the K2 sprint kayaking event at the world championships in Germany. The pair will race in the 200-, 500- and 1,000-meter competitions.
The 500-meter will be the test, that's the Olympic distance. Coach Shaun Caven thinks the two have a realistic chance of reaching the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but first there will be training and qualifying.
"She works hard," Caven said of McElroy. "She's very focused and very determined."
Growing up in the pristine woods of Maine, McElroy skied with her family in the winter and canoed in the summer. An only child, her parents had been much more adventurous before she was born, getting dropped off at distant points on whitewater rivers in Canada and rafting their way out over the course of a few weeks.
Her mother, Karen, always knew her daughter had inherited the sense of adventure.
"She always had to move her bones," Karen said, "from an early age on."
McElroy's version of sprint kayaking is a two-person event. It's big in Europe, particularly in Hungary, but not as well known in the United States. McElroy, who is 5-foot-7, is enrolled and training at Oklahoma City University, which has a groundbreaking varsity program.
Caven, a former coach of the Scottish national team, moved to Oklahoma City to develop the program from scratch. The school has a flat-water kayak course on which athletes can learn to maneuver their crafts around corners and reversing direction.
Caven said part of McElroy's advantage is that she is very strong despite the fact that she is relatively light -- and the lack of weight makes a difference in the boat's ability to cut through the water.
"Pound for pound, she's strong," Caven said. "When it comes to pull-ups, she can put the guys to shame on that."
McElroy lives, trains and goes to college in Oklahoma, where she is applying to schools to study neuroscience. She got interested in the discipline after reading Oliver Sacks' book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales." The vignettes opened the door to the mysterious inner workings of human cognition, and McElroy is diligently learning more even as she trains as a world-class athlete. For her, the connection between being intellectually engaged and being active is obvious.
"I'm happiest when I'm doing both," McElroy said. "I find when I combine them, I excel at both. You need to use your brain and your body to be happy."
She found that out after her training accident. She was listless and perhaps a little depressed when she decided to move on to kayaking. She already had the core strength she needed from cross-country skiing; what was tricky was moving from an endurance event to more of a sprint. She needed the bursts of movement to power the blade through the water.
"I missed skiing tremendously," McElroy said, "and I still do, but I definitely found something I love just as much, if not more."