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Riding the Rapids

Seventeen-year-old Lauren Ryan has an odd predicament.

She’s a defending world champion with nowhere to train.

With the Souris River and local lakes unsuitable for training, she opted to inquire about the possibility of using local pools.

Even when donning her navy blue U.S. National Team jacket – the same one she wore atop the podium at the 2011 World Championships in Plattling, Germany – her pleas to local fitness centers and hotels have fell short.

She might be the best athlete in Minot, but you may know little about her sport.

Freestyle kayaking

The terms McNasty, Phonics Monkey and Space Godzilla are commonplace in the world of freestyle kayaking.

Ryan, also a two-time defending junior women’s national champion, said it’s challenging to explain the sport to outsiders, especially with the wild names of tricks.

“You know how there’s slalom skiing and then there’s freestyle skiing? It’s like the same concept,” Ryan said. “You do tricks to get certain points. The more difficult, the more points.”

Freestyle kayaking takes place in features – either holes or waves in a river that allow paddlers to spin, flip and cartwheel their kayaks. Competitors have about a minute to complete as many tricks or combinations as possible.

The sport has gained momentum in the past 15 years and served as a demonstration sport in the 2012 Olympics. There’s a chance it could join sprint and slalom kayaking as a discipline in the 2016 Summer Olympics, though it’s more likely to be added in 2020 or 2024.

For now, the pinnacle of freestyle kayaking is held in late summer every two years.

“Freestyle kayaking is not in the Olympics, so the World Championships is like our Olympics,” Ryan said. “It’s our most prestigious event.”

Early memories

Ryan has always been a bit of a daddy’s girl. In 2002, her father’s fondness for kayaking rubbed off on his then 6-year-old daughter.

“When I was at that age, I did everything my dad did,” said Ryan, who is married. “I was always on the back of his boat, in the water wherever he was.”

Said her father, Nathan Burress: “She was, of course, with me always at the foot end of the take-outs. She would get on the kayak and paddle with me. She’d just kind of hang on the back of me and sit on the back of the boat.”

With Ryan’s mother, Kathleen Burress, snapping photos, kayaking quickly became a family affair.

While living in Evansville, Ind., Nathan Burress began training his daughter at age 4 to hold her breath and become comfortable underwater, so she wouldn’t panic when she was old enough to run a river.

By 2003, Ryan was ready. The Burress family made the six-hour trek to the Nantahala River in Tennessee for her first solo kayaking experience.

Ryan’s parents prepared their only child’s brand-new, yellow Jackson Fun 1 youth kayak near the rocky edge of the Nantahala and then watched her paddle the Class 1 rapid – the mildest class of rapid.

At first, Ryan made it only a few feet before tipping. But then she made it a half-mile and a mile.

“It was an experience the first couple times,” Nathan Burress said.

Soon enough, Ryan could roll her kayak – a vital skill needed to return upright after tipping over.

“Once she did that, it was on after that,” Nathan Burress said. “We were running Class 2 to 3 and then we went to Class 3 to 4 and then she was running Class 5 stuff.”

The higher the class, the more dangerous. In Class 3 rapids and above, injuries and death will occur without the proper training, Nathan Burress said.

So when Nathan and Kathleen Burress discovered freestyle kayaking, they introduced it to their daughter.

“At that point, I kind of thought to myself, ‘She’s doing really well, but she’s a kid. I’m not sure this is what I want her to do,'” Nathan Burress said. “We just thought (freestyle kayaking) was a safer route for her.

“Don’t get me wrong, she still runs Class 4-5 stuff, but I didn’t want that to be her focus. I really wanted it to be more of a sport thing.”

Success on tour

Like Minot, the area around Evansville, Ind., offered little for experienced kayakers. So for three years, the Burress family drove to Tennessee – the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers – each weekend in search of whitewater.

“It was about a six-hour drive,” Ryan said. “I remember we would leave Friday night, come back Sunday night. We’d go out and kayak all day Saturday and then try to get a run in Sunday.”

In 2005, the Burresses moved to Cleveland, Tenn., in order to paddle on a daily basis. At that point, Ryan plunged into the world of competitive freestyle kayaking.

“She was once the cute little kayaker, young and not very skilled,” said Eric Jackson, a former Olympian and a pioneer of freestyle kayaking. “She always got attention, but it was often due to her being young and cute – youngest girl in the little pink boat. Over the years, she became skilled, and then her skills surpassed the competition as she matured into a young lady.”

With her father serving as coach, Ryan quickly ascended the junior women’s freestyle kayaking ranks. Nathan Burress said her youth benefited her as she learned new tricks and techniques. She had no bad habits to break.

“Somebody can try to coach someone to teach them a move for a month or two months,” he said, “but Lauren could get instruction from somebody and pick up the move in an hour.”

As medals and trophies piled up for Ryan, her family relocated twice – to Pueblo, Colo. and Glenwood Springs, Colo. – but always stayed near lively rivers. For two years, the Burress Family lived out of an RV as they traveled the country with the freestyle kayaking circuit, which runs March through August. Nathan Burress worked during the winter to save for the spring and summer expenses of kayaking, as the events offered little to no prize money.

The sacrifices paid off, as Ryan excelled at the junior women’s level. In 2011, she placed first at the U.S. National Championships and capped her year with a gold medal at the World Championships, which she described as “surreal.”

“It was just like the Olympics,” Ryan said. “They raise your flag, they play your anthem, they give you flowers. You have to wear your U.S. team coat.”

Eventually, Nathan and Kathleen Burress moved to Williston for work opportunities, which meant Ryan spent last summer with a GPS and her white Toyota Four Runner as she competed on tour. She traveled to Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana and Canada for competitions, finishing in the top three every time and successfully defending her national title.

“Lauren is a tenacious competitor who rises up to the level of her competition,” Jackson said.

Why not Minot?

Minot is a bizarre place for a world champion kayaker to live, but for now, it’s home to Ryan.

After spending two years at Stanley High School, Ryan acquired her GED and took a year off, during which she married her husband, Klae. She trains to keep fit, but not in a kayak.

“Lauren has been handicapped over the past year or so by being so removed from the freestyle scene but she did USA Team Trials and won,” Jackson said. “She is a little rusty, but will be ready for the Worlds, I believe, and has a chance at winning again.”

The 2013 World Championships will be held Sept. 2-8 in Bryson City, N.C. The U.S. National Championships take place on Saturday in Hartford, Tenn., at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Ryan, who will attend Minot State University this fall, will miss her first two weeks of classes to compete at the World Championships. She said competitive kayaking will not always be a top priority. Unless freestyle kayaking becomes an Olympic sport, she plans to pursue a career “like any other college kid.” However, she wouldn’t mind relocating closer to whitewater, just for fun.

“Kayaking seems to be one of those things that has stayed with her no matter if we live in North Dakota or live in the heart of kayaking, which is in the Southeast,” Kathleen Burress said.

Said Nathan Burress: “I’m proud of her. Whatever she decides to do, that’s fine with me.”

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and Legion baseball. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgrenMDN.