Paddling Through It


This story is six months in the making. I began it in June with: “As I reflect on the first half of 2020.” Here we are so I might as well start with this:

As I reflect on 2020, I reminisce about the early days of March…

Rocky Island Waves, Potomac River

In early March, I was on cloud nine. I had received admission to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, my number one choice. I was out on the water five times a week testing my skills on the waves and rapids of the Potomac River. Life could not have been better. I couldn’t wait to start classes and discover new rapids on the three rivers that flow through the Pittsburgh area.

Then a looming microscopic threat shook our collective American psyche to its core. A few short months later, in June, after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we had a social awakening. Racial inequity, police brutality, and systemic racism were brought to the forefront of our national psyche. In every part of my being, I became aware that our great country was failing people of color. They were being killed in the streets and were dying in hospitals.

Offutt Wave on the Potomac.

Thirty years ago, my parents immigrated to this country from Lagos, Nigeria through medical visas. My older brother had been diagnosed with clubfoot and severe intestinal obstruction. After several unsuccessful operations, doctors told my parents that there were no treatments available to my brother in Nigeria. With this new revelation, my parents expended all of their resources to move to the United States. America was not a nation my parents dreamed of living in. They had comfortable lives in Nigeria surrounded by friends and family but their desire to create a better future for their family drove them across the ocean.

Needless to say, my parents see me, their medical student son, surfing Class III rapids on a stand-up paddleboard as gratuitous to the utmost extent. Why would I do such a ridiculous thing? The simplest answer is love. Potentially, blind love, but love nonetheless.

A couple of years ago, I met my wonderful partner, Gabrielle. I was a washed-up Division I wrestler at the University of Maryland and I was looking for the next physical pursuit that didn’t involve lifting weights or running under fluorescent lights. Fresh out of a previous relationship, I downloaded the dating app, Hinge, and uploaded a picture of me surfing on the beaches of West Rio de Janeiro (to make me look cool because I was far from even a novice surfer).

Gabrielle had grown up surfing off the coast of Long Island, New York. I had caught her eye as she swiped through potential bachelors. She had recently picked up surfing at playspots on the Potomac and she asked me if I had ever surfed on a river. I responded, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard but I’ll try anything twice ;)”

Our romance began as she taught me how to stand-up paddle on flat water. Later, I would bike into Great Falls National Park to take photos of her surfing and sneak in some hangout time in our busy schedules. Eventually, I built the courage to paddle out on the whitewater of Mather’s Gorge (of the Potomac) where I trained under local river guru Greg “Suggz” Miller.

It was on the Potomac River that I fell in love with Gabrielle. It was on the Potomac that I fell in love with this sport.

It is only for the love of it that you wake up before sunrise in the winter to surf before work. It is for the love of it that you find your partner incredibly attractive in a wetsuit hood. It’s the absurdity of trying to pull your wetsuit off from around your ankles on a cold winter morning while they contort their body to get their head out of a drysuit and having no regrets. The seemingly ridiculous lengths we would go to for stoke consumed us and our river family grew as we made quick ties with many unlikely friends of the Po.

As my skills developed so did my hunger for the river. I was on the river at any available moment. Paddling became my social and physical outlet. I was on the precipice of challenging myself to surf big water and run tiny creeks, wanting to taste every flavor of this river life. It was like ‘living it up’ the summer before college, only it was the spring and summer before the medical profession would take the next ten years of my life.

When comparing medical schools, most people focus on statistics such as test scores and faculty, but rivers were my number one priority. For each school that invited me for an interview, Gabrielle pulled up American Whitewater to scope out if that city could support our whitewater fix. Between the Youghiogheny River, Pitt’s education, and the affordable cost of living, we were excited for our next adventure in Pittsburgh.

Diagonal Ledges, Gauley River. Photo: Julie Lang

On Friday, March 13th, when the East Coast started COVID shutdowns, we were, of course, on the river, surfing Maryland chute. We talked with others about who was going where to remote work. And we all wondered if we would still be able to drive to and from the New River Gorge. We struggled with the same uncertainty as the rest of the country, but ours was particularly centered around our travel plans and the river levels.

Over the next few weeks, we wrestled with acceptable levels of risk for various surf spots and ways to get there as parks closed and COVID cases soared. For many of our friends, family, and probably the general public, the thought of putting on a helmet to surf on a river seems absurd and risky. But with COVID, Gabrielle and I and others in our paddling family were no longer united on what felt safe and what did not. As two people who were almost always up for anything, defining the new acceptable level of risk greatly changed the dynamic of our relationship.

As spring rolled into summer and travel restrictions eased the gravity and responsibility of traveling throughout the region to paddle new rivers entered the debate stage.

Ultimately, I decided on a Memorial Day surf trip with close friends to the New River Gorge. I fell in love with Fayetteville. It seemed like the perfect river bubble surrounded by unparalleled natural beauty. So, I jokingly schemed ways I could open a medical office in Fayetteville after Med School. Having traveled throughout the country, I expected to see Confederate flags while visiting the New River Gorge. And for me, when I see a Confederate flag I know exactly where you, and your community, stand—with Racism. But the number of Rainbow flags I saw in Fayetteville surprised (and delighted) me. Though not part of the LGBTQ+ community, seeing rainbow flags up made me feel safer in an unknown rural location.

Perfect Wave, Gauley River

I came back and expressed to Gabrielle how I wish there was a flag like that for people of color. A small symbol to let you know where you’re welcome like the Green Book did for so many in the 60s. She asked if the “Black Lives Matter” sign could be that symbol. “Yea, maybe,” I said. “But I know my life matters, why do I need to be told by someone else it matters.” Hardly looking up from her crocheting, she said, “Maybe a green flag, like the Green Book.” We left it at that, in a world that feels so foreign now.

In a matter of hours after this conversation, 1000 miles away, someone would capture the murder of George Floyd on phone video and share it. Eight minutes transformed the world. It became clearer that some people need constant reminders that Black Lives do in fact Matter.

During the summer the interracial aspect of our relationship came to the forefront. We couldn’t ignore the microaggressions and facts of life that would have been easy to dismiss in the past. While she was concerned about the safety of paddling during a pandemic, as a black man, it became explicit that my life is at-risk during mundane events such as a traffic stop or doing laundry. Paddling felt like a necessary escape.

Photo: Julie Lang

One week after the police murdered George Floyd, I was the victim of a verbal racial attack in my apartment building. It was laundry day. Fewer than 10 minutes had passed since the alarm went off on the dryer I had been using. Yet, when I got down to the laundry room, I found my clothes on the floor. Frustrated, I retorted to the woman who was loading her clothes in the now empty dryer, “Wow, you couldn’t have waited a few minutes?”

Just as the outside world was imploding and exploding, my white, female, next-door neighbor unleashed the same on me in the laundry room. Her yells included words that clearly expressed her disdain for black people. We reported it to management. They responded that ‘It was not their job to police racism.’ I just wanted to get our clothes so we could get out on the water.

As we drew inward in the days and weeks after my experience and the murder of George Floyd, Black Voices and Black Stories rightfully took their place and space in the media.

Then, people started to take notice of me and wanted to hear me. I went from 60 likes on Instagram posts to thousands. What were my opinions on how we could increase diversity in whitewater sports? What were my experiences? How can we do better? Every thoughtful American company started asking these questions.

To be honest, I don’t know. Sure, I have ideas! I know what I would love to see. It spurred great conversations with brands like NRS and that’s how we got here. This blog post. But the truth is, six months later, I don’t know. I don’t know what point I want to say as a Black whitewater enthusiast.

Do I tell the story about the guy who wouldn’t stop using the N-word while we were unloading our paddleboards at a beach in New York? Do I tell the story about the kayaker who started evangelizing to me in the eddy line and talking about his mission trips to Kenya? I started to wonder if the paddling community would have embraced me as quickly without my white girlfriend.

I can go on and on about being a Black man in America, let alone a Black man carrying a pink surfboard through rural West Virginia. The culture shocks I experience as I watch my white peers enter outdoor spaces with a confidence I don’t share.

Do I not recount a story? Do I take this platform to make a point? A vision? A dream? Do I discuss systemic barriers? What about all the white families I meet on the river, the kayakers with their pre-schoolers sitting atop their boats while they surf, no fear of the whitewater, let alone any comprehension of segregated pools.

Or what about when we visited the whitewater park in Dayton this summer. Majority Black neighborhoods flank the banks of the river revitalization project. So why were there only white kayakers and surfers using this easily accessible public rec space?

Do I let the fear of my voice being seen as THE black voice in a majority white space keep me from writing? What about all the other voices? The Black climbers? Black divers? Black hikers? What if I say something about my experience that isn’t like theirs as they also navigate being the “token” Black person. No two Black stories are exactly alike, and yet, individual stories often get applied to the masses.

Should I start a non-profit? How can I create a pipeline for more Black boys to see themselves in this sport? I should do something before I talk about what needs to be done, right?

Paddling in D.C. Photo: Drew Harrison

The weight of this conversation, these questions and, let’s be honest, the sheer exhaustion of 2020… is how June became December. There was inspiration to pick this up again after Chadwick Boseman died. The only mainstream Black superhero for Black kids to admire. So, of course, white paddlers crack jokes and tell me I look like the Black Panther while donning a wetsuit. And alas, here we are.

Much has happened in this year, and 2021 will bring with it new challenges, as every new year does. As a community and a nation, I hope we have learned from the challenges we faced this past year. As I look toward this next decade, I try to focus on the wins. We have a Black, immigrant-raised, WOMAN as our vice president. Now, both girls and boys of color can go to bed at night seeing themselves in the White House. Surely, they should see themselves paddling.

Little Falls, Potomac River. Photo: Julie Lang

Outdoor brands may still look like our first 43 Presidents. But I’m here to say, folxs of color recreating in the outdoors, we are here. Intentionally made invisible, and now we are a groundswell of creating public visibility. #BlackinNature, #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackHikersWeek, @DiversifyWhitewater, and all the diverse community showcases on social media have shown us that there is no token Black person, all folxs of color and gender and ability spectrum are recreating in the outdoors and we’re not going anywhere.

Editor’s Note: Cover Image by Julie Lang. All other photos courtesy of Gabby Rovegno unless otherwise noted.