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Whitewater river’s rush holds no fear for Norman

If it floats, chances are Sue Norman has paddled it to a winning finish.

Though deeply in love with skiing and other things Tahoe-esque, the 43-year-old South Shore resident has dedicated her life to racing almost anything that will glide across the water – sleek kayaks, rubber rafts and, most recently, outrigger canoes.

It all started with a family canoe trip in the Ozark mountains. Just 3 years old then, she remembers loving the feeling of being on the water. In her adolescent years, her family moved from Kansas City, Mo. to Southern California and back to Ohio. The whole time they developed their paddling habits on weekend trips to nearby rivers.



At 16, Norman switched to kayaking and joined the slalom racing scene where kayakers maneuver around gates in the river. The discipline escaped popularity in the Western United States but is revered by whitewater enthusiasts in the southeast.

She called slalom a difficult sport that requires strength, endurance and mental toughness.




“A big part of slalom racing is mental,” she said. “It’s very fast, exciting and dynamic – you can’t really recover from a mistake.”

Just as she was rising to the top ranks, Norman joined the Army for a free ticket through college.

When she got out, all of her paddling mates had made it to the big time. It was time for her to catch up.

“When I was 23 years old I decided to make a commitment and see where I could go with it,” Norman said. “I made the world championship team that year, it was 1981.”

The ’80s adorned Norman with medals: she won the national title in 1982, and paddled furiously for the U.S. national team in 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1986.

“Then I went to UC Davis for graduate school,” she said. “It was time to get a job and grow up.”

Academic interests kept her close to the water. With a master’s in hydrology, Norman has crafted a career around the river.

In 1989, a hydrologist position with the U.S. Forest Service brought her to Tahoe – the place she calls “base camp.” In recent years, Norman has taken on the job of managing recreational interests on California’s rivers.

Still she’s found time for competition.

The 1992 Olympics allowed kayak racing for the first time.

Norman, although absent from serious competition for at least four years, put her paddle back in the water.

“I knew I wouldn’t be good enough for the Olympics but I wanted to experience going through the trials,” she said. “I had a goal of making the top 10, and I came in ninth.”

That high mark in her paddling career hasn’t tweaked her drive for a win. She did however switch vehicles.

Raft racing down some of the world’s most dangerous rivers became the focus.

The sport took her and her team of five California paddlers to Africa, Costa Rica, Chile and Russia.

Two years ago she started looking at outrigger canoeing as a training method for rafting, which requires a huge amount of strength and stamina.

She joined the Sacramento River outrigger club.

“At first I had no intention of competing with the club, I just wanted a work out that simulated the stroke for rafting,” she said. “But then I found out that these women are pretty darn serious about their outrigger paddling and I got sucked in.”

They race in the masters division for paddlers over 40 years old.

“When you’re young you think racing in masters is kind of pathetic,” Norman said. “But now that I am there, I’m OK with it.”

“My goal now is to become a legendary outrigger canoe steerperson – it’s something I think I can start in my 40s and still do.”

Working toward that dream, Norman is competing this week in Hawaii’s Molokai Crossing – a 33-mile stretch of Pacific Ocean paddling.

Travel to warmer climes and telemark skiing on Tahoe’s backcountry peaks will fill in the fun-time on Norman’s winter schedule.


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