Mariann Saether, 27, from Otta, Norway, is one of the globe's best female kayakers. We follow her intrepid expedition into Uganda to conquer a challenging Nike ACG SweetSpot.
Tell us about your SweetSpot... Uganda was described as the pearl of Africa by Churchill, and from my point of view I certainly agree. The White Nile flows through the country in a series of rapids, and also forming some of the best surfwaves on the planet on its way to the confluence with the Blue Nile, the two of them meandering their way down through Egypt as the mighty Nile.
This is a perfect Sweetspot, with warm water, 25 degrees every day, lots of huge rapids and a mecca for freestyle kayaking. The power of the river is raw, and every day can be an adrenaline filled day... Depending on the water level from day to day you can challenge yourself with rapids like Bladerunner, Widowmaker and Itanda (which means death in the local language!) In the afternoon you can head out and surf for hours on standing waves that allow for some big air in our kayaks..
The film crew has been here for three days already, and we have covered a big portion of the rapids already. Today we are moving down the river to run a drop called Kalagala, and to get some freestyle footage to go along with the hairier stuff... After all, diversity is the spice of life...
Have you always loved watersports? Yes, I was an active swimmer for years and did four years of synchronized swimming as well.
How did you get into kayaking? I grew up in an area surrounded by rivers, and by chance I started dating a kayaker when I was 16. One of our dates was learning to roll in an indoor swimming pool. The same spring I got to go out in the river and try to kayak in the current, and I simply loved it!
When did everything turn serious and you decided to commit yourself to the sport full time? This sounds like a cliché, but from the moment I was in the water, on a flowing river, I never looked back. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to become professional at that point, I simply just loved the feel of the river, being on the water with good friends, AND get good exercise at the same time… I was bored with many of the sports I was doing when I was 16, and kayaking combined adrenaline and work-out in total new way. I very fast started adapting my life to fit in with kayaking on a daily basis, and didn’t even realize it.
Can you give us a run down of your average day? I normally have two types of days: In the first, I get up and drink minimum two cups of coffee -yes I am addicted! Then I do my schoolwork (or right now, I am writing an exam today) as I am studying to become a teacher for senior High Schools and Universities. However, I have not been to a single class in the three years I have studied; I carry the schoolbooks with me around the world and do it on my own. Then I normally do a good stretch, sometimes yoga or a run, before heading out the door to train. I've recently been to Canada, training freestyle, so I would go to the spot I train on (they vary, according to water levels) and train for about three hours. I have a break and go back at it later in the day. Then I hang out with my dogs, and go back to the schoolwork. The second type of day is coffee and school, then I am on a mission to get to a river somewhere, to paddle something steep. Sometimes rivers at home that we know, sometimes unknown rivers in Patagonia, Argentina, Canada, Norway, Tibet, China. Anywhere in the world. I love to explore, and I love to be able to conquer my fear as I am about to run a big waterfall or navigate a tight canyon
And if you could have the perfect day, what would it include? Either a very perfect day, on a perfect wave, such as the Nile Special wave in Uganda, where you can push yourself and the sport of freestyle. Or going out exploring a new river, somewhere in the world, with good friends and a good team. To me, exploring and pushing my limits is the where my soul lies, but freestyle on huge waves is also something I love. It can be very challenging, in a different way.
Were you excited to create your own Sweetspot with Nike ACG? Of course! There are so many rivers that would be perfect, but in the end the White Nile was the best choice. Being given the chance to go and paddle a river that was such a personal challenge was so cool.
What made you choose to go to Uganda? Because the Nile has both big-wave freestyle and big rapids, really the best of two worlds. These days many kayakers are either playboaters hardcore riverrunners, but I have always thought it shows more skills to be able to do both disciplines. I have huge respect for the paddlers out there that can do it all: dropping a big waterfall, paddling on a big volume river, have the drive to explore new rivers but also pull off good moves in freestyle. Variety is the spice of life, and I get bored if I don’t do both disciplines.
How did it feel to finally conquer the rapids at Itanda Falls? It has been in the back of my head ever since I messed up the line four years ago, but we were leaving the next day so I didn’t get the chance to redeem myself at that point. I am a stubborn person, and I hate making mistakes. So being able to come back and redeem myself was a personal victory that felt sweet.
How did you prepare for the trip? I believe that I am a much better paddler at this point than four years ago, so I believed that I had the skills to do it properly this time. I have also spent more time on big-volume rivers the last two years, since it is very different to paddle a big river, than a little creek back home.
What’s your favorite place to paddle? Norway, Canada and Chile. It is my golden triangle.
Do you still get nervous before a big challenge? Yes, I do. But over the years I have learned what is a good way of feeling nervous, and what is not. I have learned to go past being nervous, focus on the moment and get it done.
Do you consider yourself to be an adrenaline junkie? I guess so. I can't imagine a life without it to be honest.
You must travel a lot in your line of work: what are your suitcase essentials? A good book, laptop, a tube of caviar (the essential sandwich spread in Norway!) and my paddling gear.
What have been your biggest career setbacks? I am not sure if I have had any. I have been very fortunate and not been seriously injured ever. Maybe when I was dating a guy who didn’t want to travel and kayak as much as me one year. It took me a little while to realize why I was unhappy, so we split up. Funny!
But on the flip side, what have your greatest achievements been so far? In freestyle I have started to be more serious about training, and I have won a few competitions over the last few years. In 2003 I won the bronze at the Pre-Worlds Championship in Austria, a competition almost as big as the Worlds, and I beat a lot of full-time freestyle paddlers that only playboat, and don’t run any big rapids, so that felt good.
However, I think my biggest accomplishments have been in the river-running aspect of my career. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that I am probably the woman in the world with the most first-descents, along with female first-descents under my belt. I have been a part of expeditions worldwide, from southern Patagonia to Tibet, and I have run rapids and waterfalls that most men walk around. I am proud to be able to hang with the guys, and once in a while show them the way. And sometimes when I race in an extreme downriver competition I beat most of the men, which is the sweetest feeling ever.
What affect does your career have on your personal life? It is my personal life. My life is kayaking, it has top priority, and I am lucky to have a supportive family and one of the best kayakers in the world as my boyfriend.
How do you relax when you get the chance? Having drink with my friends, hiking in the mountains in Norway, hanging out with my horse or running with my dogs.
What’s up next for you? I'm going back to Norway for the summer season, where I have a great combination of extreme downriver races and freestyle competitions waiting for me in Europe. I will also be spending lots of time with junior paddlers in Norway this summer, we will have training camps and competitions to push the youngsters in the direction they need to get better.
Are there any spots you still want to conquer? Oh there are so many rivers left to be explored out there, I have my eye on Russia and also returning to Tibet for a very big expedition, maybe not this year, but soon. Also, I want to get as good as I can get in freestyle, it is truly the one side of paddling I am not yet as good as I can be in, so that is a big goal.
See all the rest of the Sweetspots on the Nike ACG website.
Words: Amy Lindsay Photos: Ian Garcia