Rachel (she/her) is a kayaker, instructor and competitor, who is an integral part of our Inclusion Advisory Group which was established in 2021. As part of our #WePaddleTogether commitments to celebrate role models from under-represented groups, and listen to diverse, intersectional voices, we are pleased to share the insights and stories of trans paddlers this Transgender Awareness Week. Thank you to those who have shared their insights and experiences with us.
I first started kayaking at the school youth club, which ran as an after school activity back in 1973. We had an opportunity to build our own kayaks in fibreglass (KW7's and later Snipes), but even with several paper rounds I could not save the £40 cost to build my own kayak and my parents could not afford to give me that much money, coming from a large family of 5 brothers and 2 sisters. In between youth club sessions I would meet up with my friend Robby and carry his kayak down a very steep hill to the River Tyne on a pair of pram wheels.
At the youth club we would go to Scotswood Pool with a trailer load of kayaks where I learnt very quickly the Pawlata kayak roll. As well as the weekly visits to the pool we would venture out onto the River Tyne at Prudhoe or go to Longsands in Tynemouth and paddle to St Mary's Lighthouse or play in the surf. I continued my kayaking after joining the Royal Air Force and competed at the Inter services WW racing and Slalom events. I completed my Proficiency Award in 1977 and started on in the coaching scheme in 1986.
There are so many things I like about canoeing. Firstly, there is always something for everyone in this amazingly diverse sport, whether it is in a canoe, kayak or SUP, competitive or recreational. I have kayaked to quite a high level when being selected for the GB team at the 1993 World Rodeo Championships and competing at Division 2 in Slalom both in men’s and women’s K1 events after I had completed my transition.
It’s very hard to pick out one memorable experience, as with over 48 years of experience there are so many things I have done and seen. One highlight was when in 1986 I broke the World Guinness Record for 1000 kayak rolls with a paddle in a time of 41minutes 27 seconds at the International Canoe Exhibition at Crystal Palace. Three months later I did it all again at Elswick Pool in Newcastle, improving my time to 34mins 43 seconds which still has not been beaten. This event raised £1,200 to support Leukaemia Research.
Later in 1987 I returned to Crystal Palace again where I set a time of 2 minutes and 58 seconds for 100 kayak rolls with a paddle. Strangely enough, although I had set this record following the Guinness Book of Records criteria, I did not claim this as a new World Record. I was invited to be filmed in London for the Spectacular World of Guinness Records TV show, hosted by David Frost in 1988. A number of factors meant I could only complete the 100 rolls in 3 minutes and 7 seconds which is the record that still stands.
Some people may ask why? Well, for the majority of my life I have not been able to understand the internal turmoil and denials of being transgender and I needed distractions throughout my life to suppress these feelings. Of course it is not as simple as that, but I was very active in sports which helped. While serving in the RAF I also was selected for the RAF under 21 Basketball Squad and competed in many inter- services championships. Most people have bucket lists and one of mine was to go kayaking around the Greek Isles. I fulfilled this ambition in 2016 while on holiday in Kefalonia, where I joined a guided tour with 'Sea Kayaking Kefalonia’.
The following year I went kayaking again with Rhodes Roads on a coastal trip. Both of these trips were so memorable with some fabulous caves to explore. Sea kayaking has always been a draw for me, with the chance of exploration and the chance to see an abundance of wildlife. Back in my youthful years when starting out with the school youth club, my coach Jonny Gorman would sing 'The Mingulay Boat Song'. I asked him where Mingulay was and he painted a picture of wildness and remoteness with golden unspoilt beaches and towering cliffs. I told him one of these days I will get to Mingulay and in the summer of 2021 I got there, when I completed a solo 4 day expedition to the Outer Hebrides.
For any trans men or women out there: I started and completed my transition when I worked for British Canoeing as a Development Officer. Everyone I interacted with, whether it has been while supporting a club or centre, delivering Coaching Updates or attending Regional Development Team meetings or as a coach delivering to sessions on the water, everyone has been so accepting and friendly. Our sport is so inclusive and welcoming, any perceived fears after 'coming out' as a Trans woman were soon eradicated. Someone told me,
For the clubs centres or disciplines: We are all equal and everyone should have the same opportunities to enjoy our sport in their chosen discipline. Promote a 'Can Do' attitude and be supportive to all members of our community. Be particularly mindful to use the correct pronouns and if you are not sure, then ask how they would like to be addressed. There are plenty of resources available so ensure you are familiar with Gender Diversity along with Paddle-Ability and club /centre management, coaching and leadership materials and paddling exploits.
When I first broke the news to the HR Manager at British Canoeing that I was transgender and was wishing to start my transition, they soon set to work on creating a plan for the start of my transition into the workplace. We created a support and guidance package that included; a presentation for staff and colleagues on what it meant for them, myself and my family, an FAQ sheet to answer the most obvious questions and a timeline of when key dates would happen. Everyone was also invited to ask any questions at the presentation and at any point afterwards. The support I received from Kate the HR manager, Howard Blackman and Sue Hornby and everyone else at British Canoeing was amazing.
If you fall into the Transgender spectrum then Canoeing is a sport you can enjoy and feel safe, knowing that we are one big accepting and caring family. Be yourself and get out on the water and live your life to the full.– Rachel Hudspith