A Conversation with Girls at Play Founder Anna Levesque

Anna Wagner
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Anna Levesque has dedicated her life to teaching, promoting, and advancing women in the notoriously male-dominated world of whitewater paddling. A former pro kayaker and play boating star, Anna is best known as the founder of Girls at Play, an organization that offers whitewater, yoga, and stand up paddleboard instruction and adventure travel for women. She and her husband, kayaking pro Andrew Holcombe, make their home just minutes from the French Broad River in Asheville. I sat down with Anna to talk about ten years of leadership on the river, and her groundbreaking approach to whitewater.

Girls at Play just turned 10 years old. How did it get started? 

Girls at Play at the end of a river trip.
Girls at Play at the end of a river trip. Courtesy of Girls at Play

In 2002, I was sitting on the banks of the Ottawa reading this awesome instructional book by Ken Whiting. Out of the hundreds of photos, three of them were of women. I know because I went through and I counted. I had already been feeling frustrated because I felt like women who had boyfriends who paddled had an advantage. If you were a woman of your own volition trying to get into competition, I felt it was difficult. There was no coaching back then. And so as I'm saying “This sucks,” Andrew’s sitting there, and he was like, “So write your own book.”

But a book seemed crazy overwhelming. I decided to make a video instead. I was so nervous! It provided good instruction but what I really wanted to put out there was the female kayaking experience. There’s a section called "It’s ok to cry on the river." People still make fun of me in certain circles for that. And I’m ok with that because it was really ground breaking. It was brand new, and I feel like it really did help.

I did an instructional tour for the video and it went really well. Tons of women showed up for skills clinics. Girls at Play grew organically from that.

Tell me about the philosophy behind Girls at Play.

Anna Levesque in her element.
Anna Levesque in her element. Anna Wagner

What I’m seeing now, after ten years, is that GAP has always been an invitation for women to be themselves on the river. You don’t have to act like a guy or have the mindset of a guy to kayak. It's powerful to express your fear and your vulnerability. If you can be ok with your vulnerability, it's your greatest source of power.

But we’re not hand holding. I’m known for tough love as kayaking instructor. I tell it like it is. If you're going all drama about how scared you are, I’m going to bring it back to: you’re telling yourself a story, so what’s the root? Let’s drop the story, and probably what you have left is that you’re feeling nervous, but you can probably do it, so let’s do it.

You lived out of the Dagger Subaru for years on the competition circuit and have paddled across the globe. What is your relationship with kayaking today?

Big smiles and big boofs on the river.
Big smiles and big boofs on the river. Stef McArdle

To me kayaking is like a yoga practice. It’s a way to practice calming the mind, making good decisions. It’s about being social, going out with people who are having fun, communing with the river. It used to be about being cool, and I think we all have ego. I think actually ego can be really helpful because it does push you to do stuff beyond what you think you can. Not that I advocate that all the time, but I do feel that there’s a little push that ego gives us that is quite nice. And at the same time, as anyone who kayaks knows, when you let your ego get too big—that’s when you get the smack down from the river. It’s about finding that balance and building confidence and self reliance. Kayaking teaches us so so much.

What's coming up for Girls at Play? 

Anna strikes a warrior pose on a stand up paddle board.
Anna strikes a warrior pose on a stand up paddle board. Andrew Holcombe

Lots of ways to get out on the water! We have a great season full of clinics—beginner, intermediate, and an advanced class 4 creek week, as well as  Stand Up Paddle Boarding and weekly Stand Up Paddle yoga. We have our yoga and kayaking Costa Rica trips, and we’re doing a Main Salmon trip in Idaho in September.

I’m also going to be doing a ladies Southeast series from beginner to intermediate with meet up paddles on rivers like the Lower Green, Tuckaseegee, and Nantahala. No cost, just meet up and paddle. There's no instruction, so people will have to have a baseline.

How would you suggest getting involved in kayaking to someone who is brand new to the sport?

I would suggest they definitely take a weekend class. Women can take it with Girls at Play, and I also have another brand, Mind Body Paddle, that's co-ed. Green River Adventures or Asheville Adventure Rentals, which is starting to teach classes this year as well. For whitewater kayaking, you have to take a class because you have to learn to wet exit and get acquainted with all the gear. From there, there are a meet up groups—WC kayaking, Western Carolina Paddlers Club.

Why did you and Andrew decide to live in Asheville?

This is an awesome town! We wanted to live here because there are so many good resources, my goodness, the French Broad, the Green is so close, Big Laurel, and then there are a ton of rivers within an hour to two away. I’m also a yoga instructor, I teach for Asheville Yoga Center and I love it. The yoga community is amazing. I’m getting more involved with the community, volunteering with the Greenway and the proposed whitewater park.

Girls at Play on the Green River.
Girls at Play on the Green River. Stef McArdle

For more information about Anna and about paddling in Western Carolina, visit the Girls at Play website

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