Two weeks before Great Britain’s team selections for 2020, 17-year-old Ottilie Robinson-Shaw was lying in bed, sick and hopped up on antibiotics. The day before the event, she still didn’t know if she was well enough to compete. On the morning of October 13, 2019, the day of the competition, Ottie made the call to compete in team selections and, despite not feeling her best, ended up making history.

Freestyle kayaking has always shown a gender gap between men and women both in participation numbers and competition scores. Competitions often see twice as many male entries as female, with top scores in the men’s category often doubling or tripling the top scores in the women’s category. Until now.

Not only did Ottie win the Junior Women’s category at the Great Britain team selections last October, but she broke the world record for the highest ICF-scored freestyle ride executed by a woman. 1,225 points for Ottie, making her the very first woman to break 1,000 points in an ICF-scored freestyle ride, a goal women in the sport have been working toward for years.  

Ottie didn’t do it all by herself. Women like Tanya Faux, Tanya Shuman, Emily Jackson and Ruth Gordon Ebens have been pushing the sport and progressing the women’s division for decades. But even with these top women training and competing at the highest level, the evolution of women’s kayaking has been slower than that of the men’s.

Gordon Ebens, the winner of the 2007 Freestyle Kayaking World Championship and regarded as one of the top female kayakers in history, says strength-to-weight ratio favors men progressing in the sport faster than women. “Women have to learn more finesse to master a move, while men can often muscle it. Due to this difference, having sport-specific instruction has helped women make large gains,” says Gordon Ebens.

This sport-specific instruction has been instrumental in helping Ottie make her way to the top. Dennis Newton, the owner of Sweetwater Coaching, a freestyle-focused coaching service in the U.K., began coaching Ottie in 2015 and played a significant role in helping increase her physical and mental strength in the sport. “Den is amazing. He has allowed me to set goals, reach them, and enjoy kayaking and pushing the boundaries,” says Ottie. She isn’t Newton’s only protégé—he’s also coached 10-time world champion Claire O’Hara since 2009.

Paddler in pink kayak on a wave
Ottilie Robinson-Shaw at Hurley Weir in the United Kingdom. | Photo: Peter Holcombe

Den is a phenomenal coach. His understanding of the sport and his ability to individualize his coaching to his athletes is incredible. The time, energy and commitment he has given to me as an athlete is unbelievable and has been critical to our progression and success,” O’Hara says.

Through their achievements, both O’Hara and Ottie have proven that with sport-specific instruction focused on technique and finesse, women can progress in freestyle just as fast as men. For years, O’Hara has been throwing down moves most of her competitors can often only dream of. Now it’s Ottie who is leading the charge.

“What she has achieved is amazing and makes me so proud. Several years ago, I was the first woman to throw combos and hit complex tricks. Today, Ottie is putting them into competition routines,” says O’Hara.

O’Hara attributes much of her success to Newton’s coaching. Ottie does the same, but also gives credit to her biggest role model in the sport. When asked who inspired her most to push boundaries within freestyle, Ottie doesn’t hesitate: “Claire O’Hara has always been a massive role model and inspiration for me. She is always prepared to take time out of her own training to help and encourage me and many other young paddlers.”

O’Hara isn’t done competing in freestyle, but if she were, she would be proud of the legacy she has left behind. “A few years ago, I was asked what I wanted my legacy to be, and to be honest, Ottie is it. I remember saying I wanted the next generation to see no boundaries, to push the limits further than we could imagine, and to be enjoying themselves every minute. Ottie is doing it every day, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

A big-wave freestyle kayaker, Brooke Hess is from Missoula, Montana and a member of the U.S. National Freestyle Team.

Ottilie Robinson-Shaw at Hurley Weir in the United Kingdom. | Photo: Peter Holcombe

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