Paddling Powerhouse Fits Right in at Washington Canoe Club

By Liz Pennisi

When Kelsa Gabehart first showed up at the Washington Canoe Club last July,  she was immediately impressed by how nice the boathouse was.  (Just think what she would have thought if she'd seen it before it was closed down). She learned to paddle in Hawaii, where many clubs are no more than a spot on the beach--and the WCC had showers (outdoor ones) and indoor boat storage. Then when she went on the Potomac the first time, she was further surprised by how beautiful and green the landscape was.  And when she began to get to know club members, she was hooked. "Paddling and being on the water is my life," she explains. "It's like finding the same crazies as you."

This "crazy" had just come off two years on the SUP racing circuit, where at one point she ranked 14th in the United States. But her paddling days began in an outrigger canoe in 2003, with the Wakiki Beachboys on Oahu.  And paddling was a offshoot of competitive swimming. In all three sports, she had excelled, as she did in her first local race, the Frank Havens 10K, three months after she and her husband Nate moved here from Denver because his company, Boeing, promoted and transferred him.  

The Frank Havens Race is a fun, but for some WCCers a highly competitive end-of- season event named after two-time Olympic medalist, Frank Havens. Kelsa and Sean Havens beat all the local favorites save Havens' dad (and Frank's son) and Jim Ross, who high-kneeled across the line just seconds before them. Though he comes from a strong paddling pedigree, Sean had just come back to paddling after several years hiatus. Kelsa was in her first race in an Aluminum canoe. But when the gun went off, her focus was knife-edge sharp and her power astonishing. "I really love the zone--being out there in the moment and focused on one thing, the feel of the water," she says.

For more than a decade, that feel yearly earned her a spot, sometimes as stroke, annually in the Wahine O Ke Kai 6-man outrigger change race, a 42-mile run between Molokai and Oahu. Twice--in 2011 and 2014--her team has crossed the finished line as the first open women's crew. Her best doing that run in OC-1, was second in 2015.  

She attributes these successes to years of competitive swimming. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, she was 5th in the state for the high school mile distance and also raced the 400 meter individual medley and the 200 meter butterfly. "I learned fairly early on in swimming how grab the water and to pull through it and that was translated to paddling, she recalls.  At Brandeis University, a division 3 school, she broke records for the mile and other distances. "The longer and harder it was, the better I was at it," she recalls.

Being on a team meant a lot: at the end of one season, with a bribe from her male teammates, she let them shave her head, just as they do for themselves, just before a race. "I looked terrible," she recalls, "but I knew it would grow back and it was kind of fun."

After getting her masters degree in molecular biology, she headed for Hawaii, supposedly for a gap year, but stayed seven, becoming addicted to paddling the very first day she tried it and eventually earning a Ph.D., specializing in asthma and allergies, at the University of Hawaii and meeting and marrying Nate.

In 2009, they headed to Denver, where she had landed a postdoctoral fellowship at a research hospital specializing in airway diseases. There she started looking into the role of environmental factors in triggering asthma. She bought an old outrigger locally and trained in a lake, returning to Hawaii each year for the Molakai race. Nate was paddling SUP there, so to do something together, she joined him in 2012. Even with a beginning board she was winning local races, and she upped her game with better boards and won even more. When her fellowship was ending, Nate suggested she try paddling full-time.

The first year on the SUP circuit, she averaged about a race every other week, and the second year, "I realized I needed more training than racing time," so she would go to Hawaii for 6-week stretches (Nate, too would be on the road for more than 200 days that year for his work).  Her advice for SUP paddlers: Work on footwork, balance and sprints. That means going out in rough conditions, and also in conditions where falling in is not an issue, and balance on an edge until that's what happens. As for SUP paddlers who want to try outrigger. "The biggest thing you have to worry about is timing," she says.

Her favorite SUP races were in Abu Dhabi and Brazil. Different paddleboard makers supplied her boards, so she raced with a wide variety. She was eighth on the SUP Molokai to Oahu crossing in both 2014 and 2015. Even so, she found sponsorship hard to come by: "I wasn't good enough that people were coming to me and not outgoing enough [to attract them.]"

So her plan in coming East was to get a staff scientist job and put paddling on the back burner. "It's not really worked out that way" --yet, she says. But while she job hunts, and more recently house hunts, she's been planning a startup business with her two sisters--she's the middle one. They are setting up an online company, Test Flight Foods, that sells "Tasting Boxes,"  where monthly a box will contain a half dozen or more of a kind of food or spice with histories and recipes for comparing the different brands. That suits Kelsa's love of baking and cooking -- desserts are her specialty. "We cooked as kids," she says, and her dad was an excellent dessert maker. She uses many of his recipes. And her sisters can take care of sales and marketing.

Asked what it's like to be racing solo, she smiles and talks about how during a race, especially toward the end, it's easy to get upset when something goes awry.  In a team boat, it's easy to blame and forgive someone else, but alone, "the only one I can get  grumpy-pants toward is myself, and you have to be able to forgive yourself," she says. That takes a lot of mental discipline."