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No Barriers Podcast Episode 147: Abby Holcombe, Team USA Freestyle Kayaker



During the recording of this episode the term McNasty was used. A quick search revealed some of its family members… the Sasquatch, lunar orbit, blunt, and a favorite… the tricki woo. These are all terms used to describe freestyle kayak tricks and is the world in which our guest, Abby Holcombe, operates. Abby is 3x Jr. National Champion and on the Team USA Freestyle Kayak squad. She’s 17, lives in a van with her parents, and is home-schooled… Correction, road-schooled and recently graduated high school. She’s a pro at living with uncertainty (some kids might move a few times in a year, she moves almost daily) and as she spends a bit of time underwater in fast moving rivers, has some ideas about managing fear. She’s certainly living an alternative lifestyle and one of which, by the looks of the images and videos that she shares on social media, invoke a degree of jealousy in any outdoor enthusiast.

Our regular host Erik Weihenmayer is back from his climbing expedition to Ecuador and is joined by guest-host Antoinette Lee Toscano. As you might know Erik kayaked all 277 miles of the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. Antoinette is an all-around adventure sports woman who came to whitewater kayaking to recover from a TBI and spinal cord injury resulting from her military service.

Connect with Abby Holcombe:

Abby on Insta: https://www.instagram.com/adventurous.miss
Abby’s website: https://www.abbyholcombe.com
USA Freestyle fundraiser for World Championships: https://www.gofundme.com/f/usa-freestyle-fundraiser-for-world-championships

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Episode Transcript

Abby Holcombe:
I look at my fear as whether it's rational or irrational. Whenever I got to Lava in the Grand Canyon, I had the skills to do it. I had a solid role. I knew I had the boat control to maneuver that rapid, which means that my fear was based off of the size of the waves, which is pretty irrational, because I had the skills to back up running the rapid, I guess. But if it's a rapid where there's dangers and maybe I couldn't maneuver my boat where it needed to be, or I could get hurt, then that would be a very rational fear. And I should really sit back and decide if that's something I should do. Whereas, if it's a irrational fear is whether I want to do it. That's helped me a lot on deciding whether or not I am being too scared, or if it's actually dangerous.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Didrik Johnck:
During the recording of this episode, the term McNasty was used. A quick search revealed some of its family members, the Sasquatch, lunar orbit, blunt, and a favorite, the tricky woo. These are all terms used to describe freestyle kayak tricks, and is the world in which our guest Abby Holcombe operates. Abby is a three time junior national champion and on the Team USA freestyle kayak squad. She's 17, lives in a van with her parents and is homeschooled. Correction, road-schooled, and recently graduated high school. She's a pro at living with uncertainty. Some kids might move a few times in a year. She moves almost daily. As she spends a bit of time underwater, in fast moving rivers, has some ideas about managing fear. She's certainly living an alternative lifestyle, and one of which, by the looks of the images and videos that she shares on social media, invoke a degree of jealousy in any outdoor enthusiast. Our regular host Erik Weihenmayer is back from his climbing expedition to Ecuador, and is joined by guest host, Antoinette Lee Toscano. As you might know, Eric kayaked all 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. And Antoinette, she's an all around adventure sports woman who came to whitewater kayaking to recover from a TBI and spinal cord injury resulting from her military service. I do hope you enjoy this conversation. I'm producer Didrik Johnck, and this is the No Barriers podcast.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, everyone, welcome to the no barriers podcast. This is Eric. I'm back from Ecuador, finally. I was away for three weeks, climbing a peak called Cotopaxi, which is what, 19,500 feet. And we got this guy, Sebastian Carrasco, he's a local stud in Ecuador. He's in a wheelchair, he's a paraplegic. He had a climbing accident. Him and about 20 of his best friends and myself and my friends, we helped him get to about 18,000 feet. It was hard work, cranking him. He was cranking his way up the mountain on this special sled. We're going to interview Sebastian as well in the next couple weeks, but he got to 18,000 feet. His friends built a kind of a snow runway, pushed him off the mountain and he flew down and disappeared in the clouds. His wing opened, and he landed miles and miles away. It was a very cool project. But psyched to be home in Colorado. Antoinette, thanks for joining us today. And especially Abby, man. This is going to be a great interview. Thanks for joining us.

Abby Holcombe:
Thanks for having me.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. And you're over in England right now, right? Training.

Abby Holcombe:
I am. Yeah. I'm training for the world championships. I've been in Nottingham, England for the past month and I have two more months here, which I'm really excited about.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, lets just dive here because there's so much to cover with you. I watched a bit of Dirtbag Diaries, and the story about you hitting the road in your, I guess a Winnebago RV. So what, at 10 years old, your family decided to quit their jobs and travel around the country in an RV with you?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. My parents are-

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's a little bit bold.

Abby Holcombe:
Definitely. Yeah. My parents are professional photographers, so they worked from home. They always had their own business as long as I can remember. It was a wedding and portraiture business. Then they hit the road because we were going to move to the mountains, and why not travel in between moves? And we just never stopped. Their business kind of transformed into a commercial photography business and almost like an influencer side of things. Yeah, it's just been amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You started kayaking at four. I had this image of you in this tiny little kayak, a tiny little human being at four years old, like a toy kayak.

Abby Holcombe:
Yep.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You were already a kayaker at 10, and you hit the road. Was it partly to improve your kayaking, so you could hit rivers all over North America?

Abby Holcombe:
Definitely not. My parents just wanted to show me the country, and I was scared to death of kayaking and I didn't really enjoy it until I was 12. I had fun with it whenever I got on the water, but it was always really scary and not my favorite thing until later. But now it's my favorite thing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
They just wanted to give you an experience, an education on the road?

Abby Holcombe:
Exactly. Yeah. They wanted to take me to all their favorite places that they traveled to for climbing and paddling and everything, and just spend time with me while I was so young to experience all these amazing places.

Erik Weihenmayer:
While you still love them.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What was that like being with your... Wait, do you have brothers and sisters?

Abby Holcombe:
No, I'm an only child, but we have a huge yellow lab.

Erik Weihenmayer:
So it's just you and your parents. That could be a little tricky, just you with your parents in an RV.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. Yeah. It can be hard sometimes, but for the most part it's worth it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
You have your own privacy? Can you close your own door and have space? Or do you have to go out in the woods and sit on a stump or something?

Abby Holcombe:
Definitely more sit on a stump. It's kind of evolved. We started in a 24 foot Class C Winnebago, which had more room. I had my own bunk, I had a curtain. And now we're living in a Winnebago Rebel, so it's a lot tighter. Some nights I'm in a tent. Some nights I'm crammed in the van. It just kind of depends, but it's all been fun.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Then a last question and I'll hand it over to Antoinette, but tell us the highlights of the North America travel.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. We've been to all 50 states, and it's been incredible. We checked off Hawaii this winter, not with the van we flew, but-

Erik Weihenmayer:
That would've been hard.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. It would've been really hard. It's just been amazing getting to be able to go to so many different rivers has really helped me develop my paddling. I've discovered so many passions and had so many opportunities because of our travels. I'm really grateful for that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Cool.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Abby, most people don't know what a dirt bag is, and I'm exposed to the adventure sports lifestyle. Do you think of yourself as a dirt bag? Is that how you identify? And from your perspective, what is the adventure sports lifestyle? Because from the outside, you're living the dream in my opinion.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, I've never really considered myself a dirt bag, but I guess technically I am. I'd almost say I'm more of a gypsy or live in a van down by the river, however, you'd label that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, because maybe you like showers, right? Isn't that anti dirt bag if you actually enjoy a shower?

Abby Holcombe:
Exactly, yeah. We're in our apartment here in England and it's been so nice having a bathtub and an oven. So I don't know if that classifies as being a dirt bag, but yeah, maybe. Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
There are a lot of new entrances into adventure sports and outdoor recreation in general, but still there are adult seniors and youth look at the kinds of adventures that you and I and Eric do and they don't know... They think, "Wow, that looks amazing. But how do you get started?" How does a person get started? I know you had a little bit of an advantage because your parents are outdoorsy, but mine were not. That's kind of a barrier, but how does a family decide that we're going to be outdoorsy, we're going to recreate together and we're going to learn all of these skills?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. My parents always valued being outside. They climbed and my dad was a BMX biker and all kinds of stuff. Or not a BMX biker, a motocross athlete. And all kinds of cool stuff. He was always outside, and so it was only fitting for them to do that with me. When I was four, they got me my own little red kayak. It was tiny, and I had my own paddle and my own gear, and I was so excited to finally get to go with them on the rivers instead of hanging back. Like I mentioned before, I was scared of the water, but I over time got over that fear. I think it's just starting small and taking baby steps and having fun with it. You don't have to be climbing the biggest mountains or kayaking the biggest rivers to get outside and have fun. Just push yourself as much as you can and do what you want, and just really have fun with it.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
I imagine you're often the only woman casually recreating and training in some locations. What is that dynamic like? How did you manage it? Also, how did you handle when you are a better boater than some of the men and some of the people who are older than you?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. I don't know. Yeah. There's often... I've always been a girl that likes to hang out with guys. I've never been a girly girl that hangs out with all the other girls, and maybe that's because there aren't that many women in my sport, I don't know. Or if that's just how I would be if I went to a normal high school. It's never really been a challenge for me, but it's definitely different. Sometimes I remember when I was really young, there weren't that many women throwing the really hard tricks. I remember watching one of the junior men paddle ,and he was throwing all these hard tricks, and I remember thinking like, "Man, I wish I could do that. That would be so cool, and I'm so sad that I won't ever get to do that." Then it kind of hit me like, "Why can't I do that?" There's no nothing stopping me. There's no reason not to. It's been really cool to watch other women that have been leading the charge and doing some of the harder tricks and trying to catch up with them and the boys.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
That's awesome. I want to talk about fear for a minute.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
You and Eric paddle at a whole different class of boating than I do. Being an iffy class three boater with not a solid role. Lets talk about fear. You paddled the Grand Canyon.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. It was amazing and terrifying.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
How did you manage fear? I love how, especially on social media, you were very vulnerable about what you're thinking and feeling and talking about fear. That's really helpful to newer boaters to hear, because it looks like someone gets in a kayak and they are an amazing boater when they're competing at your level overnight. But it's been a long process. Talk about fear, of what is it like, how do you experience it? How do you manage it?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Abby, yeah, by the way, I had a friend when I started kayaking, he said a lot of kayaking is about fear management, and I found that a hundred percent true, my gosh. I don't think I've ever been so scared as being in a boat, way scarier than climbing mountains. Because you're moving at the river's pace and you're going into these things and whether you like it or not. I just found it... I don't want to be overly dramatic, but it can create even some trauma I found, when you are down there and you can't roll up and you're panicking. What's your experience with that? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but definitely my experience was pretty scary sometimes.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. I tend to do the freestyle side of kayaking. I've obviously done the Grand Canyon, and I love river running too. But I like freestyle because most of the time you know what you're getting into. You don't really ever float into anything that's unexpected. You see it. You see what you're going to do, whereas rapids are sometimes unknown. There's beauty in that too, but I've just kind of been drawn to the freestyle side of the predictability and stuff like that. I look at my fear as whether it's rational or irrational. Whenever I got to Lava in the Grand Canyon, I had the skills to do it. I had a solid role. I knew I had the boat control to maneuver that rapid, which means that my fear was based off of the size of the waves, which is pretty irrational because I had the skills to back up running the rapid, I guess.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, it just comes down to that. But, if it's a rapid where there's dangers and maybe I couldn't maneuver my boat where it needed to be, or I could get hurt, then that would be a very rational fear. And I should really sit back and decide if that's something I should do. Whereas, if it's a irrational fear, it's whether I want to do it. Yeah, I don't know. That's kind of how I like to look at it. That's helped me a lot on deciding whether or not I'm being too scared or if it's actually dangerous.

Erik Weihenmayer:
How'd you do in Lava? I bet you sailed through it easily.

Abby Holcombe:
I ran it backwards, I think the first time. But it was really awesome.

Erik Weihenmayer:
I did too.

Abby Holcombe:
Yep.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Hey, are there any waves that you can surf in Lava? Could you surf one of those lower waves, or are they too just chunky and not right?

Abby Holcombe:
I was so excited that I got through Lava that I wasn't even thinking about that, but I think that very bottom wave would probably be pretty fun. Yeah. I can't remember the name of it, but the one right below the rock. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Right.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Abby, you've been talking a lot about Lava. For people who don't kayak, what is Lava?

Abby Holcombe:
Lava is a huge rapid on the Colorado River, in the Grand Canyon. It's one of the hardest and most difficult rapids on that section of Whitewater. It's the biggest challenge, and you never know how it's going to go. It flips huge 18 foot rafts, and it's very intimidating.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah. I'm not ready for my Grand Canyon debut, but I'm getting there.

Abby Holcombe:
I believe in you.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well, let's talk about freestyle. When I was training in kayaking, I went to the Ottawa River. And I remember going through... By the way, my guides are in front of me with radios, so they're talking to me and... Excuse me, they're behind me, giving me directions with these radios, and I got through. Have you been to the Ottawa?

Abby Holcombe:
Yep.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah, I went through Garburator, and I was just psyched, like, "Wow, I'm upright. I made it." Then I pulled over into an eddy, and my guide started surfing Garburator. I just went, "Oh my God." There's so many levels to this sport. Any pursuit, when you think you're okay, there's somebody eight levels above you. What attracted you specifically to freestyle? Then, talk about that river a little bit. Garburator, I bet you've surfed it too.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. The Ottawa was the big turning point in my paddling where I decided that I loved to paddle, and that it was really fun. It's not where I got my first combat role, but once I started getting them consistently, which was a big game changer. Once I started getting into freestyle and being brave enough to plug my bow for loops and all the other tricks. The Ottawa was a very special place in my heart, and I get to go there this summer and I'm really excited about it. Yeah. I think freestyle is... I love the creativity of it. I love that you can always add a cartwheel to a trick or a loop, or just there's so much to do. There's so much to practice, and the features are always different. Even the competition side of things is really fun, too.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Well explain though, visually, because some of our viewers or listeners probably have no idea what it even looks like. And think of it as you're describing it for our listeners for blind guys too.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. Freestyle kayaking is when you get in a really small kayak, I think mine's like five foot three, and you throw acrobatic tricks. You're surfing standing waves in the river, throwing acrobatic tricks. There are front flips, back flips, cartwheels, all kinds of different acrobatic moves.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What's the hardest thing you do? What's the hardest thing? What's been the biggest... Do you call them tricks or what do you call them?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. They're called tricks.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Yeah. What's the hardest thing you've struggled with and you've you've broken through and now you're able to do it?

Abby Holcombe:
I think the hardest thing is being scared of features and not wanting to flip upside down in them. And then I don't try any tricks, which is never as fun, and it's not fun being scared either. That's probably the hardest thing. But as far as technical tricks, there's a trick called the McNasty, which is where you go into a back surf and then from the back surf, you rotate and do a front flip out of it. It's kind of complicated, but that was the hardest one for me to learn by far. And right now-

Erik Weihenmayer:
Wait, so you're facing down river? You're facing down river, backwards on the wave?

Abby Holcombe:
Yep, and then you-

Erik Weihenmayer:
And then you do a front flip-

Abby Holcombe:
Out of it. Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Oh, cool.

Abby Holcombe:
Then the more recent trick that I've learned, that's technically the hardest trick and worth the most points in competition, would be a Lunar Orbit. It's a backwards McNasty. You start in a front surf and you go to a back flip.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Rad, even a cool name. Yeah. Also to explain to people, you're riding these waves, and they're created by holes, right? In the river. These features where, usually like the current goes over a rock that underwater rock or something, and it kind of recirculates and creates kind of a washing machine that you're riding. The waves that you're riding... I've always heard, and I don't mean to get too technical, but they're smiles and not frown. Meaning they have, if you're going down the river, they would look like a smile. They would curve down the river. So if you flip, you get spit out, right? You're upside down, you get spit out, you just roll back up and then you, and then you go back up the eddy maybe and try to do it again? Is that how it works?

Abby Holcombe:
It depends on the feature, but that's in general the case.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Are there ever waves though that you get stuck and you're getting recirculated down there? That can be terrifying.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. There's one on the Ottawa called Phil's Hole. I went to the Keeners Program, which is a kids summer camp for some of the best kayakers in the world, the teenagers. We all come together and get taught by the best in the world, which is amazing program. They have a thing called Beat Down Thursday, where you go into Phil's Hole on the Ottawa and see how long you can get surfed in Phil's Hole. It is terrifying, and I hated every second of every Thursday, but-

Erik Weihenmayer:
I did that, too.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. It's a safe environment and nothing ever happens.

Erik Weihenmayer:
They pull your paddle away, too, I've heard. I heard they take your paddle away.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. Some kids choose not to have their paddl.e I always had my paddle.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Good for you. That's smart. That shows intelligence.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Cool.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Affordability in this sport is kind of a big deal. The gear equipment, apparel, and the instruction, travel, all of that is hugely unaffordable for a lot of people.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
In other countries, there is low cost and no cost access to training, but we don't have that here in the US. How do you afford all of the things that you need? Because it's usually expensive, and especially as you grow both in size, going from a youth to an adult, and then grow in your sport. Then you add other sports. I see that you've been doing some river surfing on some backflip boards. What's your strategy for affording the things that you do, if that's not too personal?

Abby Holcombe:
No. Whenever I was little, my parents got me a used kayak and a used paddle, and I had hand-me-down neoprene wetsuits and tops and pants and nothing too fancy or anything like that. Just enough to keep me comfortable and having fun on the river. I think it's important to have a new life jacket and a new helmet, because those are really important pieces of safety equipment, but everything else is okay to be used. You don't need to think about having the shiniest or the fanciest equipment. I think that's the biggest priority. Then from there, whatever you want or whatever you can't afford is awesome. I had one kayak, and it was great. Then as I got better, I got sponsors and I started to get gear and stuff like that, which has helped a lot. I've done fundraisers. I work in the summer. I'm working right now for KOKATAT as a social media intern.I kind of pick up random jobs here and there, and that's helped me cover all of my travels and expenses and all of that. But I'm also trying to figure out how to afford all of that, as I turn 18 in a couple weeks.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What was it like becoming a professional kayaker? You're a good kayaker, and then you make that decision to become a pro. Obviously a lot of things change at that point, because now you got to train like crazy and you got to make a living at this thing, partly.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. I'm still trying to figure that out. I don't know if there's such thing as a true professional kayaker, at least a true professional freestyle kayaker. When you win a competition, you don't make very much money, if any money at all. It's kind of a hard line of figuring that out. But I've been working a lot on my social media recently and building my following and researching that, and trying to hopefully pave my own career through social media.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Is that where you see your career progressing into? It sounds like it would be in addition to freestyle competition, you'd have some other outdoor industry career. Does social media and marketing feel like a good fit for you?

Abby Holcombe:
Definitely. I think that all professional athletes always have social media obligations or media obligations. I see that work as being part of a professional athlete, and not a different career. I think that's what you have to do in order to be a professional athlete and have sponsors, especially in kayaking.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah. A lot of people don't know how sponsorship works, and I have definitely benefited from sponsorship myself. Thanks KOKATAT. Can you explain some of the key principles of what it takes to become sponsored? Because you are an amazing athlete. I am an enthusiast, and we come at it from different points of view, but can you explain, what a competitive athlete is expected to do or achieve before they become sponsored?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. It's kind of different for me because I was sponsored when I was so young. As part of my family, we go on these adventures together and we do all these cool things together and more of a recreational enthusiast. As I got older, I've seen what's happened to my friends, but my experience was a lot different than that. I think just having fun and loving what you're doing, people are attracted to that. Working on creating content and media and writing, whatever type of content you enjoy creating is really important and really valuable to companies. Yeah, just having fun and sharing what you love with the world.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
That's great. I love how you put that.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Abby, in terms of becoming a pro kayaker, as you said, there aren't any fully pro kayakers, but what's the training like every day? And how do you stay motivated? Because I know whenever, you're devoting yourself full time to skiing or climbing, especially kayaking because there's a lot of misery in it. You're cold, you're shivering, you're a little bit scared. You're tired. There's pressures. You're probably... You were at one point in school, trying to study as well. All these things, it's super easy to get burned out. How do you, how do you keep yourself motivated and moving forward?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, I think I just love paddling so much, and there's no better feeling than getting a new trick in my opinion. That moment when everything just clicks and all of a sudden you get it after months and months of trying. I think that kind of fuels my passion for paddling and progressing and just constantly chasing after that feeling.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Abby, I'm in Loveland, Colorado. Anytime you want to come up and paddle the Pouter, you've got a bedroom waiting for you.

Abby Holcombe:
Well, thank you. That would be amazing. I'll be in Colorado. I'll be in Buena Vista all summer, so you should come up and come paddle.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Oh, sweet. Yes. Are you going to-

Abby Holcombe:
Or not all summer, but yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Will you be at CPS Paddle Fest?

Abby Holcombe:
I won't. I'm in England through July 5th, but all of July I'll be in BV, for the most part.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
I will definitely hit you up.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. That would be awesome.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Meeting somebody you admire so much, it's always dicey. Because you never know if they will be as warm and genuine and fun in real life as they are on Instagram. So, it's been really great meeting you in person. I really am inspired. I'm a nervous kayaker, so I really gravitate towards people who can talk about their vulnerability, about being scared and how they manage it. I cannot tell you how you have helped me with my nervousness and confidence. It'll be really great to meet you in person.

Abby Holcombe:
That would be amazing. Yeah. It's so hard because so many people in our sport don't talk about being scared, even though everyone is scared. They're lying if they say they're not. But I always felt isolated, especially within my friends and the teenagers of always being the scared one when everyone else was so brave or at least willing to push past their fears.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
I noticed in your training, Abby, you do a lot of stretching and yoga poses. Can you talk a bit about what kinds of mobility, stability and flexibility is required for freestyle kayaking?

Abby Holcombe:
Oh man, every year I get injured in some way. I learned something about flexibility or strength or all of the above... Normally overuse injuries. I focused a lot of on flexibility in the past, and I would do yoga and all kinds of stuff like that. Then this year, I focused on strength training and I forgot about the stretching, and now I hurt my abs because I wasn't stretching enough. I'm still trying to find that balance and a good routine on how to make everything work and healthy.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah. I saw you doing some sort of mobility and stretching routine. I think it was in the fall or maybe late summer, and it really clicked for me that I need to add more flexibility and mobility to my routine. Then Britney Parker kind of connected me with some materials, and it's really changed and improved my role.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, that's awesome. Yeah. It's always a constant balance, I feel like, of figuring everything. But hopefully I'll get there soon.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
It's funny your name's Abby and you strained your abs. Great. All right. Moving on there. That must have been discouraging of course, getting hurt. Because I know athletes are super impatient, and you want to train all the time. You don't want to rest. But what other times have you been really discouraged? I imagine there must have been moments where you're just pulling your hair out. That's part of life, right?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. I mentioned before that there's this trick called the McNasty, and that was the hardest trick for me to learn. Once I learned it, I perfected it. I would do it every time. I would go out on the wave, I would do a left McNasty, and I just did it over and over and over until perfection. Because it was going to count and it was going to be my competition perfect trick. And that's not fun. It was terrible, because I would just do this one trick over and over for hours upon hours every day. So I was getting really burned down of paddling, because there's no fun in just doing the same trick over and over again. Luckily right then is whenever I met my coach, Dennis Newton, and I worked with him while I was here in Nottingham in 2019. He kind of opened the door of creativity for me in paddling. Everything doesn't have to be competition perfect. Or you don't need to follow all of the competition rules all the time. You can have fun with it. You can work on tricks that aren't even on the score sheet. That really opened my eyes and allowed me to have way more fun while paddling. I also got better, a lot better, way quicker than I would've otherwise.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Time wise and mechanically, how does that change your training then? You don't go and do one thing for hours and hours, you just have a variety of things that you do? How did it exactly change your setup?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, I think it just depends on the day and what my goals are for that day and where I am. Most of the time I have one to three tricks that I focus on per session, and it might change. I might do multiple sessions a day, and it totally is dependent on where I am. One to three tricks is kind of the sweet spot for me. Because then that way you can switch it up, but also it's not so many that you don't make any progress on anything.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
It seems like professional kayaking is a little bit like being a fishing guide. You turn something you loved into a business or a profession, and then there's the risk that you might learn to not like it because now it's a "real job."

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Is that why you do other sports, so that you can have some time away from your profession, so to speak?

Abby Holcombe:
I don't think so. I think I... For instance, when I'm in Buena Vista, Colorado, that's one of my favorite places to train. And it's also a really big mecca for river surfing. River surfing's fun. It's a great way to spend a rest day when my body's so sore from kayaking that I can't paddle. I love being in the river, so I kind of picked up other sports that I can do when I either don't have access to a river or whenever I am too sore or tired or need a break for my paddling. But I would choose paddling over any other sport pretty much any day. I love it so much.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
That's great.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Do you love it all the time? Or are there days where you're just like, "I don't really want to get my boat today." Or then do you just force yourself and override it and get in there? Or do you kind of listen to what your brain's telling you?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, I always listen to how I'm feeling and emotionally and physically. Some days you don't want to paddle, and that's okay. But for a lot of my time growing up and as I started to get more into kayaking, we were balancing living in a van as a family. It's not like we lived in a house and I would go to training after school and I'd do my sport. We were all dependent on each other in the sense of if my parents had a work assignment somewhere far away from a river, or they wanted to do something far away from a river, that meant that I couldn't paddle and I couldn't train. Now that I'm getting older and able to create opportunities for me to paddle year round, I'm taking advantage of it and just loving every second of being able to paddle all year round.

Erik Weihenmayer:
That's awesome.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
How'd you learn to river surf? Did you take a class? Did you just get up on a board and say, "I'm doing this I could figure it out."?

Abby Holcombe:
Pretty much, yeah. I had a bunch of friends. I've been friends with Miles Harvey forever and he's-

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
He's amazing.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, he's amazing for river surfing. I would go paddle with him and then surf with him, and met other cool surfer kids along the way. But it wasn't until recently that I got more interested in it.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Nice.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Freestyle, I'm trying to like wrap my head around it for folks. A lot of the younger folks in climbing, they love bouldering, and bouldering has become a new sport separate in a way from climbing with ropes. Then in skiing, some people turn to big mountain kind of stuff. Kayaking is a similar thing, right? Where just paddling rivers, that's not as exciting as now getting in and surfing waves, which has become kind of like a new sport, a new separate industry beyond paddling, right?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. It's been around for a couple decades now, so it's not a super new sport, but it's evolved a lot and very quickly over the years. I'd almost compare it more to surfing. There's the long boards that are really slow and gentle and laid back. Then there's the big wave surfers, like Kyle Lenny, and I compare that to the waterfall, the people that run a hundred foot waterfalls. Then there's the freestyle aerial surfing, and that's kind of what I relate to the most and what my sport is most similar to.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Cool. Yeah. That makes sense. So Abby, what's your future plans look like? What are your goals for kayaking? You're only 18 years old. You got a lot of life ahead of you.

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah. I just want to progress my... I want to continue to progress my freestyle skills. I want to get as good as the boys and hopefully be on the podium with the men. That would be really cool. Yeah, just keep paddling. I would love to get a world title. That's a goal at some point. Yeah, just keep paddling and having fun with it.

Erik Weihenmayer:
What do you think your window is for being so competitive in freestyle? Do you think it's 10 years? How long do people last?

Abby Holcombe:
Oh man, I think it depends on who you ask. I think most people want to have kids and a family around 30, so they kind of slowly phase out of competing. But Eric Jackson is I think, 50 or 55, and he just made Team USA for God knows how many times this year. We'll get to compete with him. He'll be on Team USA at Worlds. I think it just depends on the person. I'd love to compete as long as EJ has. That would be amazing.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Do you think you'll stick with freestyle? Or do you think... How there's different kinds of kayaking. There's kayaking down rapids for speed, and there's individual and team and all this stuff. Do you have any interest in any of the other pieces of kayaking or is freestyle it for you?

Abby Holcombe:
Well, within freestyle, I'm hoping they just added C1, which is where you sit on a kayak, or kneel in a kayak with one paddle blade. And you can do that for Slalom and People's Creek like that or River Run. But they just added women's C1 into the world championships, so I'm hoping to learn about that and get into that in the next couple years. I think as I get older, I will become more brave and fall even more in love with river running and creeking. I definitely have some places in South America I'd love to go creek or go back to Norway. But I think I'll save that for when I'm a little bit older and not as competitive.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Freestyle isn't in the Olympics though, right yet?

Abby Holcombe:
No, no.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Is there any talk that'll ever get there?

Abby Holcombe:
They did it as... They had freestyle in the 2012 Olympics as an exposition sport, but there's no plans or talk right now of having it anytime soon. But hopefully, that would be really cool.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Would you like it if it went into the Olympics, or do you like it being more of a fringe sport?

Abby Holcombe:
I think there's pros and cons in having it in the Olympics. I think an Olympic sport gives you a lot more opportunities for sponsors and funding, which could possibly grow the sport, or at least change the potential in what tricks people are throwing. People will actually be able to focus more on freestyle rather than side jobs and stuff like that. That could be really exciting to see where the sport goes if people can solely focus on it and be true professional athletes. But I've also seen the Olympics kind of lock down the rules of sports and change the sports and the rules and everything. That would not be great, and it could kill the creative freestyle side of things that I love. So pros and cons. I don't know how I feel about it, but I do think having more opportunities would be really cool.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome. Abby, if people want to learn more about you and follow you and all your pursuits, how do they do that? What's the best way? We'll have it in the show notes, but why don't you tell us?

Abby Holcombe:
Yeah, I am on TikTok and Instagram at adventurous.miss. M-I-S-S.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Sweet. All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It's really fun-

Abby Holcombe:
Thank you.

Erik Weihenmayer:
To have you aboard. We interview a lot of old crusty people, so it's fun to have somebody young and cool on the podcast.

Abby Holcombe:
Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.

Erik Weihenmayer:
Awesome.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Thanks so much for being here.

Erik Weihenmayer:
No Barriers to everyone. Thanks, Antoinette.

Antoinette Lee Toscano:
Yeah.

Didrik Johnck:
The production team behind this podcast includes producer Didrik Johnck, that's me. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman. Marketing and graphic support from Stone Ward. And web support by Jamlo. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com. That's nobarrierspodcast.com. There's also a link to shoot me an email with any suggestions for this show or any ideas you've got at all. Thanks so much and have a great day.



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