A conversation with Jean Montgomery. She was a paddler. Not a rower, a paddler! She paddled a kayak. It started with a beginner’s course on the River Liffey. October and icy mists swirled on the water’s surface; airborne eddies, wrapping around trees, appearing, and disappearing. Wobbling in general purpose canoes, the small group drifted down river practising with their double ended paddles, trying and sometimes succeeding to keep their craft moving in the intended direction. Instructors herded them, ducklings on their maiden voyage. They glided towards the Wild Water Kayak Club. Apart from the faint rumble of water pouring over the 11 ft drop that is Palmerstown Weir, all was calm. The weir is one of most challenging obstacles for competitors of the Liffey Descent. Those ‘in-the-know’, line up for the point of the inverted V, paddle hard down the centre and bounce through a series of haystack standing waves below. Those who aren’t, fall victim to the churning stoppers that run along the bottom. Succumbing to the fear of being trapped underwater in the raging torrent, is the cause of many capsizes. A look of quiet panic crossed the instructor’s face. He shouted, ‘PADDLE FORWARD…NOW.’ He shouted again. Realising the command was aimed at her she dug in hard and pushed. Pushed when she should have pulled. And that was that. The stern moved out into thin air over the V. Perfectly aligned for a clean shoot, the canoe slipped over the edge, slid down the tongue of water and hit the standing waves at the bottom. Caught by surprise, she capsized. Submerged and disorientated she kicked free of the cockpit, surfaced gasping, and grabbed the upturned boat. Alone in the river and drifting fast she would soon be in Dublin – if she didn’t freeze first. As if by magic, two instructors appeared by her side. In no time she was in the clubhouse, where members commended her ‘beautiful reverse shoot’! Undaunted by the baptism she continued to enjoy the sport, competing around the waterways of Ireland and on occasion further afield. In the faster, sleeker but very tippy K boat, she raced long distance on rivers, traversed choppy lakes, negotiated white water, and shot a variety of weirs. Excellent balance, a low centre of gravity and a good pair of hips kept her upright most of the time. Despite all this experience, her club weir, her first weir, was her nemesis. No matter how many times she lined up perfectly to shoot it, she capsized. No matter how many times her clubmates shared tips and experiences, she capsized. No matter whether the water was high or low, she capsized. It became a joke, ‘Oh look out! She’s going swimming again’. She saw the face of that weir so often she could have carved her name on it. The Liffey Descent came around again. Tension was high, water was high, expectations were high, fear was palpable. Spectators lined the banks, jostling for position; watching for dramatic capsizes, skilful descents. Above Palmerstown Weir the roar of the thunderous stoppers was all the paddlers could hear. Nerves jangled, adrenalin raced, breath laboured, hearts pumped, eyes strained, confidence drained. Don’t hesitate, commit, SHOOT she told herself. Then it was over. And she was still upright and safely on her way to the next obstacle, her scream of delight drowning out the crowd’s applause. She had conquered it! This time anyway.
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