Sally Wetzler: Finding Beauty, Awe and Freedom on the River

Sally plays tennis, kayaks, rafts, skis and has paddled in Mexico, Idaho and NC with Girls at Play. An awesome paddler and great company on the river, Sally let’s nothing get in her way of living large, including the fact that she uses a wheelchair to get around- most of the time. Her attitude and drive in life are an inspiration to all. Read our interview with Sally to find out how she got into paddling, how she has made an impact on the James River’s accessibility and her poignant moment in Mexico that she dedicated to the woman who taught her to paddle. Thanks Sally for sharing!

59 years old (and proud of it!). Grew up in Massachusetts in a small town on coast about twenty miles south of Boston. Middle of three children = older sister, Anne; younger brother, Rob. Growing up, horses and riding were my main sports activity though also did a lot of sailing and swimming. After high school it took me three colleges, 12 years and a life altering event to finish college at New York University. During one of the ‘between college periods’ I spent enough time working with horses at a combined training facility to realize I wasn’t good enough to make a decent living doing it.

In 1976 I became disabled with an incomplete spinal cord injury. Was in New York at the time and ended up moving back with my parents for a while before moving into my own apartment, finishing my undergraduate degree and getting a job. From the time of my injury I became very involved in the civil rights movement for the disabled. This was decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act, accessibility was horrible and discrimination rampant. It also helped me work through a lot of anger in a positive way as well as see some great role models for my revised life.

Also while still in NY I began playing and competing in wheelchair tennis. That was the first time I’d been able to really feel like I was back participating in any sort of athletics. It was a relatively new sport that grew explosively with the development of new wheelchair designs specifically for sports. BTW the first new radically designed chair that became a success was the brainchild of a woman (Marilyn Hamilton) and two friends with engineering & bike technology backgrounds. She built up a company that later was sold to Sunrise Medical. Anyway for me to practice, get coaching and compete it was necessary to drive outside of the city since I couldn’t afford to pay Manhattan prices for court time, etc.

In 1987 I made the decision to leave NY and started looking for somewhere to move. I was working for a large public accounting firm that had offices all over the country. Long story short I ended up moving to Richmond in the fall of 1987 and have been here ever since. I’m working as an internal auditor for Dominion Resources which is a large energy company which owns the local electric utility and generation plants as well as natural gas storage & pipelines. My job is great – I’m always working on new things and there’s constant learning as well as being paid to be nosy!

How did you get into kayaking?  I went to an adaptive paddling demo for canoeing. Canoeing didn’t have much appeal because of the issues with stability and general awkwardness but I began talking with the two instructors – Karen Abse & Jay Lewis. They asked if I’d be interested in trying kayaking because they’d like to help teach me if I was and I jumped at the chance.

How long have you been kayaking?  I began in 1994 or 1995 not sure which – a long time ago…

What is your favorite thing about it?  My favorite thing about kayaking is how empowering it is. I can go wherever and do whatever that’s within the bounds of my abilities. I can get out in the middle of natural areas and see things that are impossible (or at least very difficult) for me to get to from land.

What are your biggest challenges? Usually the biggest issues to overcome are getting between the parking lot and the riverbank.  Sometimes it takes some innovative thinking and cooperative acrobatics to get me and my boat together on the river. There have been other issues – without a hip snap it took me over a year to find a roll I could do. I also can’t do much scouting so I’ve had to learn to listen closely to descriptions and follow someone I trust.

What advice can you give to other women boaters about the sport?  Realize that women and men have differences in the way they think, learn and paddle. Paddling doesn’t have to be a ‘power’ sport – just learn to use the water and your body movements to take advantage.

What paddling programs/clubs are you involved in right now? Tell us more about getting stairs and a ramp on the James river. I’m a member of Coastal Canoeists which a Virginia paddling organization. It’s a great way to meet up and just about each week they have trips at all different levels. I’m also very involved in the James River Outdoor Coalition (JROC) – actually on the BOD and Treasurer. JROC’s mission is to provide improvements and support for the James River Park System (JRPS). The JRPS is a multi-area natural park and is part of the Richmond City Dept. of Parks & Rec. There are several river access points in the park as well as bike/walking trails, etc.  JROC has done everything from trail building, constructing a new put-in downtown at 14th St., building changing rooms and kiosks, building steps at a climbing wall, general clean up & clearing, paying for gravel & port a potties some times when the budget was tight.  As for “The Project” – it has blossomed from just putting in a ramp to rebuilding the access have a ramp and steps wide enough to accommodate carrying a raft. Right before I left on the Idaho trip one of the people from Corporate Affairs asked if I knew of any projects in the parks or river area that might be good for a volunteer project. She knew I was involved with JROC. Just so happened I’d been having discussions on how nice it would be to put in an accessible ramp at the Reedy Creek access. Anyway Dominion took it on as an Environmental Day project which meant we could get three days of volunteers and use of an excavator. I volunteered to coordinate. The Dominion Foundation (charitable giving arm of the company) gave $5000, JROC matched the $5000 and the Parks Dept. allowed us use of Parks personnel to coordinate & help with the construction. We enlisted the assistance of the Storefront for Community Design (a non-profit group of architects, engineers & designers that assist local non-profits). They did the design for us and off we went. Construction started & we ran into all sorts of problems – huge amounts of rock that needed moving and some were the size of small houses (okay they just seemed that big). We had to do reengineering, went over budget, got another $2000 from Coastal and are currently waiting for the river to go down to finish pouring concrete for the ramp. Stairs have been put in and are already in use.  Got some great press – here are a couple of links  http://www.nbc12.com/story/15952136/one-of-a-kind-boat-ramp-gets-installed  http://www2.timesdispatch.com/sports/sport/2011/nov/04/disabled-paddlers-get-ramp-on-the-james-ar-1434063/  Sorry for going on so…

Do you have a favorite memory from one of your GAP trips?  Probably one of my favorite memories is from the Mexico trip. We were on the Actopan and I’d had two marvelous runs down the waterfall. I hadn’t believed I could do it until I was actually on my way down! The lagoon was so beautiful, the water an unbelievable blue, the vegetation and water running down the sides, such energy from everyone on the trip -  We were all feeling so positive and accomplished and energetic. Then to make it even more perfect I scattered some of Karen Abse’s ashes where the spring comes into the lagoon. I felt like Karen, as my dear friend who taught me to kayak, was able to share a new pinnacle of boating with me. Karen died in a kayaking accident almost six years ago here on the James. According to her wishes friends scattered her ashes on mountains & in rivers all over. That’s my emotional best memory.

What inspires you to keep getting out there? Every time I go out on a river (or lake or pond…) it’s almost spiritual. I’m out in Nature (with a capital N) and feel the beauty, majesty and power. It helps keep me in perspective and in awe. The feelings of freedom also help.