Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team coach founder and head coach Alan Anderson remembers Katy Hill’s first practice.
She was just 12 years old, and was one of the club’s first paddlers, when GHCKRT was still just getting started.
For most kids, keeping the boat upright is a challenge in the beginning.
“I remember holding the boat for her and saying, ‘This is a wild stallion and you need to tame it, show it who’s boss,’” Anderson said.
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Hill took off right away.
“I saw something a little different about her immediately,” Anderson said.
That natural talent allowed her to become one of the team's best paddlers relatively quickly, secure a scholarship to kayak in Oklahoma for college, meet her husband, and eventually, return to Gig Harbor, where she's currently helping as a coach for GHCKRT.
It all started with that first practice, when the shy 12-year old was dropped off by her mother at the dock and hopped into a racing kayak for the first time.
There was a group of girls on the team, mostly ages 14 and 15, who had been friends for years. They had grown up together. Hill was a bit of an outsider to that group, being younger, and not having the established friendships with them.
“She was just quiet, went to work, did her thing and stayed out of any drama the girls might have been causing,” Anderson said. “When kids know each other for that long a time, there’s always bickering. But Katy just went to work. She was organized — she was the most organized and detail-oriented athlete I’ve ever coached.”
Anderson asks his young athletes to keep a journal — writing down their thoughts before and after races, their positive thoughts in big wins, etc. Hill took it to a different level.
“She’d record her heart rate when she went to bed and when she woke up, how long it took her to get to sleep, the food she ate that date, her reflections on the training of the day,” Anderson said. “She had a great organizational skills.”
And she was good on the water, too. She won multiple individual national titles in kayak and represented the United States at Junior Worlds in 2007 and 2009.
Hill, who graduated from Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma in 2010, earned a scholarship to paddle at Oklahoma City University.
“There weren’t many colleges that offered kayaking scholarships,” Hill said. “Going there enabled me to get my education and continue training.”
Hill received a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a master’s in business administration. She also met her husband, Andy, when she was in Oklahoma, in 2011. The two married in 2015.
Andy, a national team rower for Cuba, defected in 2006.
“He didn’t have his first pair of shoes until he was 15-years-old,” Hill said. “He would brush his teeth with a bar of soap. Life was really hard for him. It was a hard decision for him to leave his family, but you don’t have any freedom down there. He’s made a really good life for himself here.”
His perseverance has been a steady source of inspiration for Hill.
“He’s my biggest inspiration,” she said. “I’m so proud of him every single day. His story is just amazing, all the hurdles he has overcome.”
Andy became a United States citizen and works for the Tacoma Police Department. The couple moved back to Gig Harbor and recently had their first child, Markus, who just turned 1 in May.
It was only natural that Hill would help out Anderson and the team.
“I feel like as big as the team has grown, we haven’t lost that family culture,” Hill said.
Hill, 26, draws from her experiences to connect with young athletes.
“I get to grab from those experiences I had in the beginning,” Hill said. “I can instill them. The athletes I have now, I have a lot of lessons I can teach them. It’s really cool to witness, to see it from my experience.”
For Anderson, having paddlers come back to his program later, as coaches, is satisfying.
“She was a big part of the early foundation of this club,” Anderson said. “I wanted the athletes to think that they’re not doing all this hard work only for themselves, but for future generations. I wanted them to feel like pioneers, building something for others, not only for themselves. I think that actually helped with their work ethic. Katy was a big part of that. For her, now, to have done all that work and now come back and share that with others is kind of awesome.”
Anderson said it’s been a “blast” to be back out on the water with Hill, listening and watching her instruct the younger paddlers.
“She has such a strong link with these kids,” he said. “I coached from a different perspective. Her perspective is being a young lady, developing her skills in the sport, she offers a great, fresh perspective and understanding that I didn’t have.”
Paddling helped shape Hill’s adolescent identity, allowed her to travel the world, gave her a college scholarship and allowed her to meet her husband. Now, she’s just happy to share what she's learned.
“If it wasn’t for this team, I don’t know what my life would be like right now,” Hill said. “I’m happy to give back now.”