Garrett Casey ’14
When kayaker Alex McLain ’11 left Bowdoin last spring, she had her sights set on the 2012 Olympics in London. Although she did not realize that dream, McLain earned some consolation by qualifying for the International Canoe Federation (ICF) Marathon World Championships, which will take place in Rome this September.
McLain, whose father canoed in the 1984 Olympics, grew up paddling long distances off the coast of Maine, fighting through large swells as a surfski kayaker. The only kayaking events included in the Olympics, however, are whitewater and flatwater sprints—significantly different events than the ocean kayaking McLain grew up practicing.
Knowing that she would need to transition from marathon distances to flatwater sprints in order to achieve her Olympic dream, McLain joined the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club in Gainesville, Georgia after graduating from Bowdoin last spring, where she now trains full time. When she arrived at the club, it became clear that making the transition from surfski kayaking to an Olympic event was not going to be easy.
“All of my college experience, I had originally had my sights on the 2012 Olympics. Once I finally graduated I looked at what it was going to take, and what was obvious was that it takes too many years to prep for it. I’m still pretty young in this sport,” McLain said.
Most paddlers reach their prime between the ages of 27 and 32.
With her Olympic dream pushed back a few years, McLain is now busy training for September’s Marathon World Championships. She will compete in a two-woman boat for the second year in a row, while also racing in an individual boat in the Under-23 age division. The distances of the races range from 20 to 25 kilometers.
Last year McLain and her partner finished eleventh in the world. McLain has a new partner this year, and despite their dramatically improved time, they do not expect to vie for gold.
“I hope we can do okay. We have less experience in the two-man boat,” McLain said. “I definitely prefer being in a one-man boat.”
McLain’s best shot at a medal is in the one-man boat, racing against competition closer to her in age.
She hopes the World Championships will serve as a springboard as she refocuses her attention on qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In order to qualify, she will have to overcome a strong field of American paddlers and secure enough funding for the trip.
Kayaking and canoeing are not high-profile sports, so sponsorships are hard to come by for aspiring Olympians.
“This isn’t like American swimming or baseball. It’s a pretty small sport and we don’t get much national support,” McLain said. “We work through it, little odd jobs here and there.”
McLain has worked at a surf shop in Gainesville, and shares a house with a handful of other athletes.
“It’s definitely more of a struggle than some of these other sports. Swimmers are given all their meals or given housing, but I think that’s part of the adventure of being out of college anyways, living like a bum for a while,” she said.
Living like a bum is a sacrifice McLain is willing to make, as is moving away from ocean kayaking, her first passion.
“When you think about the Olympics, you kind of only have on shot at it. My hope was to give this sprint thing a try knowing that my strength was ocean kayaking,” McLain said. “I’m definitely down here fighting with hopes of going to the 2016 Olympics.”
Check out previous coverage of McLain’s career: In 2008, she took silver at the kayaking national championships, where she was the only non-Olympian in the field. As a senior at Bowdoin in 2010, she became the New England champion for the third year in a row.