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The explosive rise of #ShePaddlesCymru

In 2019 less than three in 10 Welsh paddlers were female and several barriers preventing or deterring women from taking up and remaining in paddlesport were identified. Here #ShePaddles Ambassador Clare Rutter tells Paddler Magazine about her role encouraging more women in Wales to paddle, and the explosive rise of #ShePaddlesCymru.

Clare Rutter 1

In 2019, Canoe Wales decided to get on board with the #ShePaddles programme that British Canoeing had been running for three years to address an identified paddlesport gender imbalance in Wales. At the time, less than three in ten Welsh paddlers were female and identified several barriers preventing or deterring women from taking up and remaining in paddlesport. Reasons included a lack of finance or access to childcare through to lowered confidence in a male-dominated environment and feeling that, as women, it was still seen and expected that females should be the primary parent with no hobbies or interests of their own and the associated fear of being judged and looked down upon for their own wants and desires.

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Canoe Wales successfully applied for funding from Sport Wales to develop paddlesport opportunities to increase the participation, membership and retention of women and girls. To support them in their journeys, whether they wished to develop their skills and knowledge to be a weekend recreational paddler, gain awards and qualifications to become an instructor, leader, coach or guide, or pursue a competitive career as an athlete.

One of the first steps was to recruit a #ShePaddles Ambassador to inspire, motivate and be that friendly face with a supportive personality to help promote paddlesports and its participation and help drive the #ShePaddles idea, programme and opportunities forwards. As we all know, though, Covid-19 struck, potentially threatening the opportunities that may have been considered in any ‘normal’ year. 

Roll on several weeks, during the first ‘stay at home’ lockdown, I was contacted by Gayle Penn, a Development Officer at Canoe Wales, who informed me that I had been successful in my application to be their #ShePaddles Ambassador. I was over the moon, and the news came at a time when everybody needed some real positivity and glimmers of hope. The real question in such an unprecedented situation would be how we moved forwards and make a success of the programme in such an uncertain world.

I believe that there are always opportunities to be found, even in the darkest of days. Coming from a background in the Scouts, youth work, and other people-focused organisations, I knew I had the skills, experience, and ideas to help others through such difficult times and myself. I’m a big advocate for breaking the stigma of mental health and encouraging people to talk about their thoughts and feelings. I’d only returned to work shortly before the first lockdown following a long period of recovery after sustaining a Traumatic Brain Injury, and my mental health, which hadn’t always been good, was taking a hit. In reality, lockdown and no paddling was breaking me. Being launched into the #ShePaddles role was an opportunity to lift me and bring some light into the darkness for us all.

At my first video meeting with Gayle and Jen Rigby, the Membership & Communications Officer at Canoe Wales, I asked what they wanted me to do and how they wanted me to be perceived. The reply was, “Clare, if you have the ideas, we’ll make them happen; you can mould the role as you wish”. YES!! Having that freedom, encouragement and trust right from the start was a fantastic stepping stone to getting 100% directly involved rather than just being ‘the face’. This proved vital in bringing ideas to paddle reality and, ultimately, playing a massive part in the resulting explosive success of #ShePaddlesCymru! Difficult times call for creative solutions. With so many at home, this seemed an obvious doorway to our intended audience, and so effective use of social media was the way to go. As the world was facing high demand for its supply of paddlesports equipment, one of my initiatives, #ShePaddlesSaturday was born. Promotion of discussion, learning, awareness and preparedness to new, beginner and even experienced paddlers who would be desperate to hit our blue spaces as restrictions eased. #ShePaddlesSaturday is my widely shared, weekly article on topics such as safety, personal equipment, mental health, the Clear Access Clear Waters campaign, the Waterways Licence, litter, injuries and training, qualifications and awards. The initiative has been a success with incredible engagement from all types and levels of paddlers, male and female.

Early on, I suggested a Wales based Facebook group. I believed that building a solid, central hub in the time that we couldn’t be out there for real would be a time-efficient, valuable starting point for people to network. Also, for the experienced to interact with beginners, ask questions and share what they would like #ShePaddlesCymru to look like and provide. We weren’t sure if the group would take off as, at first, we only had around 25 members, and most of those were people that we knew! But then, BOOM! #ShePaddlesCymru exploded, and it hasn’t slowed down yet! With over 1000 members, the ever-growing #ShePaddlesCymru Facebook group is a vibrant and engaging community of epic women!

Emerging from lockdown...

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