A 40-Year-Old Kayaker Gets Back in the Game

When Polly Green set out to work her way back to kayaking's World Championships, she had no idea that she'd end up documenting the rise of the sport's next generation

Jun 10, 2013
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Vimeo.com

When Polly Green hung up her paddle in 2007 at the age of 35, the pro whitewater kayaker never thought she'd come back to the sport. After a decade on the world freestyle circuit, she had tired of competition and lost her love of rivers.

"My fire burned out and I walked away from my dream," says Polly, who went on to reinvent herself as a self-taught documentary filmmaker, winning accolades for her debut film, Nomads: The Wandering Women of the Whitewater Circuit. The itinerant kayaker circled the globe as a videographer for Blue Planet Run before decamping to New Zealand to learn to surf, work on her filmmaking, and paint. "I thought kayaking was over. I even started to sell my gear," she says.

Then in 2010, an old boating friend stopped by for a visit. "He casually mentioned he thought that if I trained hard, I could finish in the top ten at the World Championships," recalls Polly. The closest she'd come to winning Worlds was her fifth-place finish, in 2003. Taking on the top women in the sport after a four-year hiatus was going to be a grind. But Green made up her mind to try, and to make a film, now titled Game: There is Only One, about the attempt.

After a year of grueling, six-day-a-week conditioning workouts, Green finally arrived at the Isar River in Germany in June 2011, and found the competition, including British paddler Claire O'Hara and American Emily Jackson was fiercer than ever.

If her 27th-place finish at Worlds was disappointing, the film she made about her journey there is anything but. Polly quickly realized that the real story wasn't her comeback at 40, but the dominance of young women in a sport that had evolved so radically in the years she'd been gone. "I saw how well [they] were paddling and my focused shifted over to them," says Polly.

Three years in the making, Game follows the sport’s top women through the competition and beyond, elite athletes in a little-known sport who aren’t in it for glory, fame, or money. "I learned a lot about winning and that if you're not enjoying the process, you shouldn't be playing," says Green. Get a glimpse of Game, currently making the rounds of the adventure film festival circuit, in the trailer.

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