Paddling for Gold

From Davidson to London – Caroline Queen’s Olympic Quest

By Mike Savicki


If you happen to spot Caroline Queen on the Davidson College campus, where she is out of the water and away from her element, you might mistake her for your typical undergrad. She spends a good bit of time buried in her books, passes her free time playing intramural basketball, field hockey and flickerball and simply loves the feeling of being on campus. She loves all things Wildcat and feels comfortably at home in Davidson.


But arm her with a paddle and point her in the direction of a raging whitewater course and the transformation begins. With a splash and a powerful burst of speed, Caroline Queen transforms from backpack toting undergrad into nothing less than the top female slalom kayaker in the United States – arguably one of the best in the world. Yes, in addition to being a student, Caroline Queen doubles as one badass Olympian.


Caroline Queen’s journey started at a young age and quickly gathered momentum. At age nine, Queen picked up her first paddle and by 15, she had become the youngest woman ever to make the United States Canoe and Kayak Team. After a self-proclaimed “Cinderella” season nearly qualified her for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she firmly became one of two top prospects to make the 2012 London Olympic team. This past spring, Outside magazine labeled her “America’s next great kayaker,” and she embraced the spotlight carving through courses all around the world. In early June 2012, Queen earned America’s sole Olympic spot by placing high enough in the final qualifying race of a ten month battle that began in Slovakia, swung through Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center and finished in Cardiff, Wales.

But Queen says while becoming an Olympian was a true test of skill, the real challenge began a year earlier while she was also balancing a full Davidson academic course load.


“Making the Olympic team came with a huge degree of pressure because I was a favorite, but the time I felt the most pressure was way back when I first qualified at Worlds,” Caroline Queen shares. “I was also in school at the same time and had that pressure to manage, too. I knew that if the U.S. didn’t finish high and qualify a boat, that would mean trouble and more pressures down the road for the team and with school for me, too, I knew I had to be good at both.”


Caroline Queen thrives on pressure and the perpetual optimist says finding the good in every situation certainly helps.


“I have had a lot of experience in high pressure situations and have to keep telling myself that I am going to get through it all. The further things go, the more pressure comes along,” she explains. “But I can generally find something positive in any situation. I don’t find negativity to be that productive. And I’m generally somebody who appreciates efficiency, whether it is in training or schoolwork or whatever else I’m doing, and I know that helps.”


That focused optimism has now taken her to the biggest starting line of her young career.  Shortly after the Olympic flame is lit in London, Queen will take to the water wearing the red, white and blue of the United States and compete alongside nearly three dozen other women in the world’s most exclusive field. International rules may keep her from sporting her trademark bedazzled helmet, but she doesn’t seem too phased.


“There are so many different things I have heard will be happening all at once, and I know this sounds vague, but I’m looking forward to the entire Olympic experience,” she says. “Most of all I’m looking forward to competing. The Olympics is a one-boat-per-country event, so this will be a much different event with a much smaller field because there are some countries that didn’t even qualify. Everybody there is the absolute best.”


How does she prepare to explode from the gates?


“Before I race, I think about how I have put in the training to get where I am and how the value of that training brought me to this level. This sport is about one person against the clock, so whenever I race, I try to focus on myself and not on what other people are doing.”


Knowing that penalties can be costly, she adds, “Medals have been won and lost on as few as one penalty, so it’s not just about being fast but being penalty-free. As we call it, it’s about being fast and clean.”


In late August, Queen will return to Davidson to continue her studies. She will return to campus just days after the Olympic torch is extinguished and the world shifts its focus to the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And with her 2012 Olympic quest behind her, she will refocus on academics. Queen is still on track to graduate with her class in 2014.


After months on the road and a journey of Olympic proportions, Queen is excitedly looking forward to getting back into an academic routine.


“Just having the class routine after months of travel and bouncing back and forth between places will be great,” Queen concludes. “Being a student is really fun and I absolutely love being at Davidson. When the Olympics are over, no matter how it goes, I’ll be right back where I need to be.”


This article was originally published in Currents Magazine in 2012.