- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ATHENS — Rolling hills rise in the distance. Water sparkles in the morning sun. A stiff breeze cuts across the course at Schinias Rowing Center, where Nate Johnson and Jordan Malloch have just finished their preliminary heat in the 1,000-meter two-man canoe race.

“It’s great,” says Johnson, a first-time Olympian from Seattle. “Everything is great.”

Johnson is fortunate. As one of the world’s best male sprint canoeists, he gets to be here, gets to compete. Gets to live his Olympic dream.

Pam Boteler is a woman. She doesn’t.

A 35-year-old canoeist from Alexandria, Boteler is the top female sprint paddler in the country. Undefeated against American racers. Swifter than many men.

From her chiseled physique to her love for her sport, Boteler has all the makings of an archetypal Olympian — only women’s sprint canoe isn’t part of the Summer Games program.

And so she sits at home, watching the Athens Games like everyone else. On television.

“I wish I could go be a spectator,” says Boteler, who formerly worked in the Office of the Inspector General at the Interior Department and now works for Homeland Security. “I’ve always been a dreamer and had dreams of the Olympics. I know I deserve to be there representing the United States.”

A technically demanding sport in which athletes kneel in a narrow canoe while furiously paddling on one side, sprint canoe has been part of the Olympic men’s program since 1924. It is the only Olympic event other than boxing that excludes women.

Boteler hopes to change that. For the last four years, she has worked to raise the sport’s profile — lobbying the International Canoe Federation, traveling around the world to compete and even racing against men.

Over the same time period, the International Olympic Committee has added women’s pole vault, weightlifting and wrestling to the lineup despite repeated declarations that the Olympics already is overstuffed.

“They keep adding more,” Boteler says with an incredulous laugh. “We have been waiting in line for 80 years.”

A former kayaker who paddles at the Washington Canoe Club, Boteler tried sprint canoe on a lark in early 2000. She was frustrated at first, frequently falling into the Potomac, unable to balance a lightweight, carbon-fiber vessel that can measure as narrow as 14 inches across.

Nevertheless, Boteler enjoyed the challenge. She improved quickly and spent nine days in Mexico training with the Cuban national men’s team.

“People thought I was silly,” Boteler says. “More so in Europe but even here in the States, women just didn’t do canoe. It was just seen as weird.”

Returning home, Boteler discovered female sprint canoeists would be allowed to race at the 2000 national championships in Gainesville, Ga. This was a first; previously, USA Canoe/Kayak’s bylaws had forbidden women from competing.

The only catch? Women would have to race against intermediate-level men. Teaming with Canada’s Heather McNie, Boteler won gold in the 500-meter two-person race and bronze in the 500 solo event.

“That was the first race where I had to stay in a lane,” Boteler says. “In the Potomac, you can go all over the place. My whole goal was to just make it down the course. I ended up surprising myself.”

More surprises: The next year, Boteler paddled with three men and won the four-person 1,000 national title. She also won two silver medals at the Pan American Games in Brazil.

In 2002, USACK revised its program to include women’s canoe events in all age and boat categories at the national level, seven years after Canada took the same step. The American organization since has lobbied the ICF to recognize women’s canoe formally and offer the same races for men and women at the world championships.

“We’re supportive of gender equity,” says David Yarborough, USACK’s executive director. “Pam’s a very passionate, articulate, irrepressible component to this. She does this largely at her own expense. We give her all the moral support we can, but frankly, we’re not a very strong federation, politically.”

International canoe is dominated by old guard European federations, many of which view the sport as unsuitable for women. Two years ago, Boteler made her case to the ICF Congress in Seville, Spain, where USACK submitted a gender-equity proposal.

The proposal was defeated by vote (44-22), with 10 national federations abstaining. Afterward, a member of the ICF executive committee expressed concern to Boteler that racing might damage the female reproductive system.

Women’s marathon was subject to the same argument until Roberta Gibb famously sneaked into the Boston Marathon in 1966. Still, the 26.2-mile race did not become an Olympic medal event for women until 1984.

“It’s tradition,” Yarborough says. “Go back a generation and there was a paternalistic, protective attitude toward women. That’s an anachronism. But the more formidable hurdle is economic. I’m afraid at the Olympic level, we’re at a point where it’s a zero-sum game.”

To add women’s sprint canoe to the Olympics, the IOC likely would trim one of the men’s canoe or kayak races — similar to the way American universities ax men’s wrestling and gymnastics programs to preserve football scholarships while complying with Title IX.

As a result, the canoe and kayak community is divided. Male racers don’t want to lose events, while female kayakers are more concerned with their discipline receiving equal treatment.

“I don’t have any problem with it,” Malloch says. “The only problem is that we have a limited number of spots. It would be great to see our sport get more.”

The Olympic program includes 1,000- and 500-meter races for men’s canoe and kayak and the 500 for women’s kayak.

“I would love to see [sprint canoe in the Olympics] just for the equality,” says Kathy Colin, an American kayaker. “Right now, the men have nine medals, and we have three. I think we should race [women’s kayak] 1,000s, too.”

Though women’s sprint canoe is popular in Canada, it has only about 500 elite competitors worldwide. Boteler and Yarborough both admit the sport needs to grow before it can be considered for Olympic inclusion.

The first step? International recognition. Last year, the world championships featured women’s sprint canoe as a demonstration event, often a prelude to official status.

Shortly thereafter, the Russian canoe federation changed its national championship to include women’s events.

“I could lie and paint a grandiose picture,” Boteler says. “But it’s not there yet. We do want to make sure that we are legitimate, that we have the numbers and the skill level. By 2008, 2012, we will be ready. What we have to do is show development.”

To that end, Boteler appeared in the now-defunct Sports Illustrated for Women and has created a Web site that promotes women’s sprint canoe. She took this year off from competition, the better to improve the sport’s international organization and help send three American women to April’s Pan Am Games.

Boteler plans to spend next year living and training in Canada, where she can benefit from more coaching and test herself against stiffer competition. She is looking for sponsorship and has been invited to give clinics in England, Slovakia and Russia.

“It’s a matter of time,” she says. “Whether it’s within my competitive life of not, that’s OK. Hopefully, 10 years from now I’ll be sitting in the stands or on the sidelines as the coach of the first-ever Olympic team. We have to keep pushing hard.”

In the meantime, Boteler continues to dream. A few weeks ago, she was shopping for sushi at the Whole Foods market in Clarendon, wearing her USACK jacket. An older woman approached.

Excuse me, she asked, but are you going to Athens?

“I said, ‘No, I’m not,’” Boteler recalls wistfully. “But the thought was sweet.”

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