XX Factor


Dec 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Extreme Kayaker
Gore, New Zealand

WHY SHE RULES: Unlike her more specialized paddling peers, Nikki Kelly has made a career out of rodeo kayaking, steepcreeking, expedition kayaking, even river rafting—and she kicks tail in every discipline. Last July, at the 2003 Teva Mountain Games, in Vail, Kelly took first place in the head-to-head competition and the eight-ball sprint (racing three other paddlers on a 200-meter course), along with second place in the rodeo and steepcreek categories; she won the extreme-paddling title and placed second in head-to-head racing at the 2002 Gorge Games; and she's been crowned the world river-rafting champ every year since 1999. The New Zealand native spent her late teens guiding raft trips near her hometown on the South Island, but it wasn't until a 1995 kayak trip in Costa Rica that she swapped rubber for plastic. "I got addicted," she says, "and kayaking snowballed into a lifestyle." When not competing, she's scouting more remote rivers to run—like the Class V+ Zambezi, in Africa, and California's Middle Kings—often with all-male teams. "Competitions are a way to make a living between big trips," she says. "Expeditions are what kayaking's really all about." SAYS WHO: "Nikki is aggressive but graceful, and in it for all the right reasons," says kayaker Brad Ludden, who's led more than ten major expeditions. "She paddles for passion and for herself, and that makes her so much better." SECRET WEAPON: A degree from the Core Massage Institute, in Knoxville, Tennessee, which she was awarded in December. "It's amazing how outdoors people abuse their bodies and never get a massage," she says. "I think I'll be quite popular on the kayak scene." FORWARD SPIN: In May, Kelly plans to join Ludden and five other kayakers on an eight-month round-the-world paddling adventure exploring 30 river systems, including the Mekong and the Blue Nile. —JASON DALEY