The following is the story of Ashley Nee, an out, Olympic caliber kayaker whose past injuries caused her to narrowly miss the 2008 Beijing Games. But they’ve inspired her to work harder and stand taller than ever before. She tells more of her story, below.
In 2007 I was ranked 1st in the U.S. As a 17 year old, and I qualified the single Olympic berth for women for the Beijing Olympics. But I dislocated my shoulder in China five months before Olympic Team Trials. I was then fourth, and my dreams of being on the 2008 Olympic Team were over. I was devastated.
I have learned that some of the most beautiful things come from some of the toughest moments in life. I went back home to Maryland, I gave up paddling. I took a job at the summer camp where I first learned to paddle. That is were I met my current fiancé, Ashley McEwan. I didn’t know it at the time but missing the 2008 Olympic team led me to the best thing in my life! We moved to Hawaii together, which have no rivers that I could train on. I wanted to move on with my life.
Eventually, after surgery in 2009, my shoulder was getting back to normal. Ashley convinced me that I chasing my Olympic dream was still possible and still important to me. In 2010, we moved back to our home state of Maryland and I started to make my come back.
I was back to my old form by 2011. The Olympic selection process is a year long with three races and the athlete is decided through a point system. In 2012, myself and another young Marylander, Caroline Queen, were tied after the three races. The single Olympic spot came down to a technical tie-break. Unfortunately, I was the looser of that tie-break. The difference this time was with the support of my family I didn’t quit like in 2008. The day after I missed the team I decided to train for the Rio Olympics. Caroline has retired since then but my dedication and passion are burning brighter than ever.
How do you see allyship as important in the world of Olympic Kayaking?
Training and racing at the top level in slalom kayaking has taken me all over the world and I have met people from many different backgrounds. These experiences have opened my eyes to some of the human rights issues the world faces. While I don’t think the Olympic Games is a place for politics, I believe sport is a great opportunity to develop allyship to improve the situations of many people.
Do you find sexism and homophobia linked in that world?
I race against women from all over the world, each of our home counties have various attitudes towards women and homosexuality. My sport in particular is one of the last gender unequal sports included in the Olympic Games. There can be up to four men competing for a particular country in slalom at the Rio games while women can have at maximum one woman per country and 21 total. It is a goal of mine to help inspire the next generation of up and coming female paddlers in the U.S. but it is tough to do that with the current gender discrimination.
As an out athlete, I found myself feeling grateful that I am not a winter Olympic athlete because I would have been very nervous to travel to Sochi. Debating whether or not to attend an Olympic Games because of a fear of personal safety because of your sexuality is not a part of the Olympic dreams I had envisioned as a young girl but that is the position the IOC put many athletes in these past winter games.
What do you hope to achieve by aligning with Athlete Ally?
Athlete Ally has made equality in sport their fight. I am proud to stand along side an organization that is striving to give all athletes an equal opportunity to compete. That is what the Olympics are all about. Athletics are a wonderful environment to test yourself and learn about what you are made of and that should be an available to everyone. It is a difficult endeavor but making sport an accepting environment can help young athletes grow into the people they strive to be.
Do you think the IOC/USOC could enact more inclusive policies?
YES! There have been recent successes with the inclusion of women’s ski jump and women’s boxing into the Olympics. But, we still have a long way to go. The decision to not include women’s canoeing in the Rio Olympics felt like a slap in the face to many women in my sport. I believe the IOC and USOC need to take all of their athletes into consideration when making Olympic policies. These organizations must be an example to the rest of the world and stand up for the Olympic Charter that governs them.