Born in Chaméry, France, Nouria Newman has been playing on white waters for over twelve years. Competing in canoe, freestyle, and extreme kayaking, Nouria’s achievements prove that you can excel at more than one sport. In 2013, she won the Ottawa XL, one of the most crucial international freestyle world meetings. She quickly won K-1 silver at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships and was crowned extreme kayaking World Champion just a few months later. The accolades didn’t stop there, and Nouria continued to collect podium finishes for the next four years.
When not competing, Nouria loves to travel, evaluate nature’s white waters, and test her fortitude and skills. Recently, Nouria embarked on a solo kayaking trip down the Tsarap, Zanskar, and Indus rivers in the Himalayas.
With a master’s in journalism and political science, Nouria is a shining example of what it means to be a successfully diversified athlete. FtC chatted with Nouria about her sport, the dangers she faces, and what it was like to travel and kayak solo in India.
This Face the Current Sports & Fitness Feature is published in Issue 24 / July-August 2019 Edition. Order PRINT here, SUBSCRIBE to digital membership for unlimited access to our content, or continue reading this article below.
Sasha Frate: How and when did you get into kayaking?
Nouria Newman: I started kayaking at age five because France has a really good club system which makes kayaking way more accessible than it is in most other countries. I also started because some of my dad’s friends stopped at the house with a blue plastic kayak on the top of their car. It matched my Playmobil car at the time and I just thought it was a big toy; I really wanted to try it. My parents said no because I didn’t know how to swim, and I think that made me want to try kayaking even more. After taking swimming classes for the whole summer I was able to join the local club.
SF: Most people run trails, but you run waterfalls! Can you share some of the dangers of your sport and what goes into the proper execution of whitewater challenges?
NN: Waterfalls are one of the features that can be found in whitewater kayaking. They are very photogenic, but kayaking cannot be reduced to running waterfalls. For me it’s about paddling down rivers, solving problems to find lines down a large variety of rapids—sometimes waterfalls— but also big water features, technical rocky combinations, and all of that over multiple days. The main danger of whitewater kayaking is getting stuck underwater and drowning.
SF: What is the highest waterfall drop you’ve completed and how did you build up to this?
NN: The highest drops were about twenty-five meters but they were definitely not the hardest rapids I have run. Tall waterfalls are a totally different kind of kayaking. You need to get used to free-falling and learn how to stay controlled. The only way to do that is to run smaller waterfalls and slowly go higher. I broke my nose and concussed myself on my first waterfall. I was sixteen years old and thought I was invincible. I learned the hard way that stepping up your kayaking takes time and work. Coming from an Olympic discipline, I used to have a training program which included kayaking but also a lot of physical preparation outside of the kayak, including a little bit of mental preparation. With extreme kayaking, I no longer have a strict program. I just paddle as much as I can but I’m definitely relying on my slalom background. For the hardest rapids, I usually make a decision in the moment. I analyze the rapid and identify the dangers and the lines. If I like it and if I feel good in the boat, I usually go for it. If not, I just portage (walk around the rapid).
SF: You compete in freestyle and extreme kayaking. Can you explain the main ways these sports differ and what must a kayaker perform in the sport to be considered “extreme”?
NN: Freestyle kayaking consists of surfing a wave or a hole, scoring as many tricks as possible for forty-five seconds. I really struggle with the term “extreme” or even with river classification. What’s the difference between one hard rapid and another hard rapid? I started kayaking on small rivers and started running harder rapids, but I don’t know at which point kayaking is considered “extreme.”
SF: Was your Himalayas solo kayaking trek your first solo? What did you like about trekking and kayaking solo, would you go solo again, and if yes, where do you dream of next?
NN: I had been paddling alone before but never on a big self-support trip. I didn’t really mean to achieve anything when I went solo. We had just spent two weeks struggling with Indian administration, not getting river permits, going from one office to another, even getting arrested by the police. I was really frustrated with my time in India and I knew that if I flew back home straight away, I would never go back. One of my Indian friends told me about that expedition up north so I changed my plans and headed up there. I decided to go alone because I wanted time by myself. I wanted to be away from the selfies-craziness and people. There is no such thing as personal space in Kerala.
SF: Riding two camels with your kayak strapped on is such a beautiful and somewhat surreal scene captured from your solo trip. Can you share something about that experience?
NN: All the photos were taken after the solo trip. I went back and ran some of the rapids with easy access. On the third day of the photoshoot I swallowed water in one of the rapids and I got really sick. The next day I was really weak and after a seven-hour drive, I was in no state to paddle. The photographers decided to go shoot with the camels, but they were actually not needed to access the river. I don’t recommend riding a camel if you’re feeling nauseated!
SF: You got caught in a “worst case scenario” for your sport while solo on the Zanskar River. Can you describe what happened and what crossed your mind when you found yourself unsure whether you’d ever get yourself out of there?
NN: I wasn’t concentrating enough and floated towards a rapid I should have scouted. When I realized how bad it was I just tried my best to get out of it. I jammed my dry bag and paddles onto the rocks, and I tried to clip my boat and jump out on the same rock hoping that I would be able to pull my boat out, but it didn’t work. I got sucked in the siphon. I was so angry at myself for making such a big, stupid mistake. I’m just so happy I popped back up.
SF: In retrospect, looking back on the fears you faced on your solo trip, how has that impacted you?
NN: After the accident, it was hard to keep going because I was scared, and I lost all confidence in my ability to run that river. I also couldn’t stop replaying the entire accident in my head over and over again. I just messed up in a place where I shouldn’t have. I don’t think there is a greater meaning behind what happened or that it was a life-defining moment. I didn’t continue afterward because I was strong or brave, I just didn’t have any other options. I definitely had a hard time running hard white water afterwards, but I didn’t want to be scared anymore. In the following months I had to ease back into running things that scared me.
SF: You once said, “I love those sequences which combine various technical moves. It’s like solving a puzzle one piece at a time.” Is it this element of challenge and/or something else that impassioned you about whitewater kayaking?
NN: I love this element of challenge; the adrenaline and the feelings you get through kayaking. But what I love most is the opportunity to meet amazing people and to travel to incredible places.
SF: Red Bull has dubbed you as the “whitewater kayaker who’s always where you least expect her.” What kind of unexpected places have you taken the sport and what do you find unique about the way or the places you perform?
NN: I think they meant that I’ve been doing quite a few different kinds of kayaking from competitive slalom, to freestyle, to expedition kayaking…it’s not common to do that many. But maybe it would fit better to describe how disorganized I can be. I often travel without much of a plan and end up doing things I didn’t expect.
SF: What is something that whitewater kayaking has taught you in life, whether it’s being in nature, the human experience, our ability to adapt, or some other “lesson”?
NN: I think it’s taught me a lot! You put in the time and effort to achieve your goals, to be humble and respect the river (because she always wins!), to make things happen with less, and to adapt when things don’t go as planned. But most importantly, kayaking brings a lot of joy in my life.
SF: Your academic career has led you to obtain a master’s degree in journalism and political science. What did you enjoy most about your academic career? Does this have a role in your sports career, or do you have a plan to utilize it in the future?
NN: Kayaking is a small sport and it’s not like you can really make a living out of it. Studying was a good way to not put all my eggs in one basket and to have a back-up plan. At the moment I am not really using my degree because I have the opportunity to paddle full-time, but I will use it at some point.
SF: Is there anything you hope to accomplish in your sport (or outside of it)? And what is up and coming for you?
NN: I am not too sure. There are rapids, rivers and things I’d like to do in my kayak but that’s pretty insignificant. I hope that I can still progress at kayaking and that I can just keep doing what I’m doing for a little bit longer because I love it.