ShePaddles interviews: 1. Emy McLeod

A series of eight interviews with British Canoeing’s ShePaddles ambassadors for 2022.

Interviews: Emma Love

After receiving over 150 applications from around the country, British Canoeing, Canoe Wales and the Scottish Canoe Association were excited to announce the #ShePaddles Ambassadors for 2022. Sixteen inspirational women chosen to promote paddling and encourage more women and girls to get on the water. In this series of interviews, Emma Love chats with eight of the ambassadors about all things SUP!

Emy McLeod @strathspey.sup
Pics: Neil Wilson

Based in Aviemore, Emy is an accomplished paddler, coach and runs her own successful paddle boarding club and business, Strathspey SUP. We chat about why she feels it is so important for children to be able to experience the outdoors, what continues to excite her about coaching and her plans to complete some incredible endurance paddling trips.

Tell me about the start of your paddling journey?  
I still remember my primary and secondary school camps – we would go on little residentials where we would be away for a couple of nights and take part in a whole host of activities, including canoeing. It was your basic ‘get in a canoe’, play some games, fall out and swim. It was great! I did a little bit of club paddling while at university, and this was then followed by a business career (in the music industry), but it wasn’t my passion – I felt something was missing.

What led you to change from working in the music industry to becoming an outdoor instructor?
Before and for the first couple of years at university, I spent my summers volunteering for the Rotary Clubs. They ran a programme to promote leadership called the Rotary Youth Leadership Award on Loch Tay with the Abernethy Trust. I worked as a camp leader and mentor. I would watch their outdoor instructors, and I was like, this is what I want to do – I belong outside! So, I did an intensive six-month outdoor instructor training in the Highlands just near Aviemore. The course covered paddle sports, summer Mountain Leader, skiing, climbing, biking and rafting. It was awesome – I wouldn’t be where I am today without going through that training. I now have my own paddleboard business, Strathspey SUP, I work as a freelance coach, and I am excited to be currently going down the British Canoeing Provider route.

Looking back on how formative your early outdoor experiences were, how important do you think it is for children and young people to be able to access outdoor residentials?
I think it is a really important part of children’s education, even if it’s for one or two days or even just an activity day. These experiences can plant a little seed, and each child is always going to have that memory of going to camp for the first time (and being away from home) or paddling down a loch or river in a canoe. With the pandemic, some residentials have shut down, and I know funding is an issue, but I hope this will be resolved – I think every kid should experience the outdoors.

Do you think there are now more outdoor industry opportunities than when you left school?
Yes, I think there are. I knew I wanted to do something outdoors, but unfortunately, I remember being told, “There is not really a job there, and why don’t you do something else?” There now seem to be lots more courses and outdoor degrees – it’s becoming more openly accepted as a career.

What is it that drives and inspires you to coach?
Seeing individuals progress is rewarding, and equally, I find their progress inspires me. If I can help them on their journeys, offer them some coaching and introduce them to something new, that’s awesome! To see individuals grow, achieve goals, excel and go way beyond my ability is amazing to see.

I know you have a real passion for white water SUP – how did this come about?
Matt Gambles (Paddle Surf Scotland) got me into SUP years ago when he took me on a coastal paddle. We had a great time, getting to go places only accessible by paddleboards. But I think the ‘spark’ really came from going on white water. Jim Gibson introduced and has played a big part in my WW SUP development. I kept seeing Jim going out on rivers, and I was like, well, I will give this a try, and I loved it! It’s good times with Jim; he has definitely helped and pushed me to get better. Now I coach alongside him, which is fantastic – we have been coaching every Sunday throughout the winter up on the River Spey. We have trainee coaches attending, people on their pathway to becoming WW coaches, some who are now ready for their assessment, as well as people wanting to go for their training; it is a great community we have established.

I understand you have a keen interest in endurance paddling?
I like challenging myself, seeing how much the body can take, not just physically – I think it’s a challenge mentally. I completed a trip with Jessica Phillip in October (2021) on the River Tay – we did 81.5 kilometres in a day totalling 11.5 hours. It was a mix of flat, white and moving water – we started at Kenmore on Loch Tay, at Grandtully, we paddled the Grade 2(3) white water sections. The water picked up again towards Campsie Linn and down the Stanley area, and then finally it went pretty flat towards Perth, where we hit a headwind, so that was pretty hard. We were lucky to have a good water level that day, which helped us a lot – if it had been lower, I think we would have bailed. We were careful to plan our trip with a backup crew and cut off points. We knew if we were not at these points at specific times, we would not finish the trip, and we would have to get off the water. It was a fantastic trip!

Any trips planned for this year and beyond?
This year, I hope to paddle ‘all’ the Scottish canal waterways. Anyone can sign up on the website to take part – just select the canal you would like to paddle. I’ve also got quite a few plans for the future – I want to see how long I can paddle for (again in a day), whether it’s linking lochs together, making river descents or circumnavigating some of the Scottish islands. It’s going to be awesome!

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