Cornwall teen takes plunge into freestyle kayaking

CORNWALL — Six years ago, when Cornwall resident Emery Tillman was a nine-year-old at Camp Songadeewin on Lake Dunmore, she could have focused on anything from tennis to crafts.
But the camp’s kayaks proved to be the greatest lure. Before long, the New Orleans native had spent hours out on the water and mastered an essential trick of kayaking — popping back upright after rolling underwater.
“I’d just paddle around Lake Dunmore, and I really liked it, and I got my roll and everything,” said Tillman, whose family moved north from Louisiana a year ago and raises alpacas west of Middlebury.
That summer on the lake sparked a passion for the sport that led Tillman, now 15, to pursue it in 2004 in North Carolina; to spend most of the summer of 2008 training in kayaking on Canada’s Ottawa River; to paddle in Chile and New Zealand, where she plunged over a 35-foot waterfall (yes, intentionally); and this past academic year to attend a West Virginia school offering specialized kayak training.
Last summer in Canada, she also decided to focus on freestyle kayaking, in which competitors earn points for completing as many tricks as possible (such as 360-degree spins, or tilting the kayak on its side and backward, a move known as a “blunt”) during one-minute runs along often artificially created waves.
That decision paid off in Glenwood Springs, Colo., in late May when Tillman earned one of two spots on the U.S. junior women’s national team (for 15-to-18-year-olds) by taking second.
Tillman said late last summer she talked to one of her coaches up in Canada, who encouraged her to work hard and go for the national competition.
“I remember asking one of my coaches last year, ‘Do you think I should do team trials? I’m not sure,’” Tillman said. “And he’s like, ‘Dude, you can do it.’”
When that prediction came true, Tillman earned a trip to the world championships this August in Thun, Switzerland, and a couple sponsorships to help defray the costs: Williston’s Julbo Inc., which makes sunglasses, and Seal’s Spray Skirts, manufacturers of material to prevent water from pouring into kayak cockpits. Tillman will also offer kayak lessons to help pay her way.
Clearly, Tillman’s love of kayaking began on Lake Dunmore. She had always loved the water, and had begun to sail competitively. But Tillman switched to kayaks for a couple of reasons, one being its more dramatic action.
“I guess I said, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping,” she said.
The other was social. Tillman said kayaking offers more interaction than sailing.
“Probably my favorite thing about kayaking is the people. Because I’ve now gotten to meet and paddle with the best of the best,” she said. “And it’s really cool … Everyone’s really helpful and really nice to beginners.”
After the summer at Songadeewin, Tillman persuaded her father, Cass, to let her go the next summer to a North Carolina outdoor center. Then, for a few years her pursuit of the sport stagnated, but she wasn’t ready to give it up. Tillman signed on for the multi-week program in Ottawa last summer and focused on freestyle. “We paddled every day and had some of the best coaches in the world teach us,” she said.
The original plan called for her to return to Vermont for her fall semester, and then switch to New River Academy in West Virginia to add kayaking to the curriculum halfway through the school year. Tillman said she gently twisted her father’s arm again.
“I got really, really into it. I knew I was going to my kayaking school for the second semester of the year, but after my time in Canada I begged my dad to send me for the entire year,” she said.
At New River, along with national Canadian and U.S. junior men’s champions, Tillman worked hard to improve her repertoire and her physical strength.
“It was really intense,” she said. “We’d get up, have morning workouts, eat breakfast, go to all our classes, and then paddle about four hours every day.”
After Ottawa, even at the beginning of the school year Tillman had improved dramatically — she surprised a number of other top kayakers at an early competition.
“I came in second, beating all the world-class guys, which was very cool,” she said. “I had a lot more confidence.”
During the school year, students took trips abroad, and that’s when the visits to Chile and New Zealand came. Tillman said she became one of the youngest kayakers ever to make the plunge over a 35-foot waterfall in New Zealand, a feat she plans on duplicating at times this summer in downtown Middlebury.
“It was one of the scariest things in my life. It’s a really easy waterfall. It’s perfectly clean, other than the fact that it’s 35 feet,” she said. “You slowly go over, and … it’s less than a second you’re in the air. And then you go so deep down. You go, ‘I want light. I need oxygen.’”
According to the USA Canoe/Kayak Web site (, the goal in freestyle kayaking is “to throw as many different moves as possible in a 60-second time frame; and the higher the degree of difficulty the better. Judges award points based on difficulty, variety and amplitude.”
Tillman agreed scoring is like that in half-pipe snowboarding, with bonus points awarded for performing tricks cleanly. Judging can be subjective: She and her mother, Carol, both believe she should have been awarded a bonus for a move in Colorado that could have placed her first.
Advanced senior kayakers, according to the Web site, have moves that “can launch athletes and their kayaks … up to four feet in the air.” Other moves go by the names of air blunts, air screws and loops.
Tillman’s best moves are spins in either direction, and she is working to upgrade her blunts for Thun.
“I definitely am going to get better if I want to do well at Worlds,” she said.
Tillman believes she has a shot, but at the same time said she does not fret too much about the results in Switzerland.
“Worst-case scenario is I do bad and get knocked out,” Tillman said. “Beyond that, I’m still on the U.S.A. team and went to the world championships. So I still find it pretty cool. And I’m the youngest person on the U.S. team this year.”
Tillman is eyeing a future berth on the senior U.S. team, which she said would mean some hard work.
“I’m glad I have a few more years of practice until I have to be a senior,” she said.
Even if that goal is not met, Tillman believes the sport has taught her much that will serve her well when she goes to Middlebury Union High School for the first time next fall.
“I’m a lot more confident,” she said. “It’s going to help me a lot when I transfer to Middlebury next year because I don’t know that many people in Middlebury, because I meet new people on the river every day.”

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