This week Bill Carne writes about a very talented young lady from our county called Gabrielle Ridge, who is a rising star in the tough world of Canoe Slalom...

Gabrielle Ridge has recently completed her A level examinations and is delighted to be moving onto the next phase of her life, starting with her summer training programme in respect of her beloved Canoe Slalom.

You may know it as kayaking or canoeing, but what Gabi loves to do is to race in time-trial events, down white water rapids (sometimes back up-stream against the onrushing water), whilst negotiating a series of ‘gates’… Whitewater Slalom Racing!

London 2012 saw Canoe Slalom thrill the crowds with Team GB winning gold and silver in ‘canoe doubles,’ the man-made Olympic course designed to test the ability of contestants to the full. To touch a ‘gate’ suspended over the water, or fail to negotiate it properly, results in time penalties being added to the run time, and helps create more tension in a very physically demanding sport.

Gabrielle has achieved so much in the last five years in this specialised sport yet is very modest of her attainments. She is presently ranked ninth in the UK, with 2014 seeing her achieve her goal of winning a UK Premier race, an extremely rare achievement for a junior.

In addition she became the highest ranking Welsh lady ‘paddler’ (across all ages – even though she was only 17) as well as becoming reserve GB Junior Champion in Slalom’s ‘Ladies Kayak’ category.

Gabrielle has been successful in attaining a Sports Wales Award again in 2015 in recognition of her training commitment and achievements to date as she trains at least twice midweek in Llandysul, and a weekend can take her anywhere in the UK, both to race and train at venues as far afield as Grandtully in Scotland, Bala in North Wales, and Nottingham in England.

However, more recently, the Olympic course in Hertfordshire has become a more frequent training location as Gabrielle has been invited to train as part of the GB home nations/podium potential group - one of only two Welsh lady paddlers to be invited to date.

She was awarded the Pembrokeshire Sports Award - ladies under 16 in 2013 and has since added a string of race titles to this coveted award. Gabrielle plans to relocate to Nottingham this autumn to further her training at the National White Water centre and to study Bio Chemistry, and as top helper, mum Hazel, jokingly says,

“You may have noticed that the training location is No.1 priority here!”

Gabrielle was one of six young athletes from West Wales supported by the Keith Cobain Memorial Awards at the biannual Sports-Aid dinner at the Ivy Bush in Carmarthen, where a sum of £600 was awarded to her by Barbara Cobain, widow of the late Keith Cobain, who raises money for Sports Aid in memory of her late husband to aid young sportsmen and women who are excelling in their chosen fields.

The money is intended to assist them with the travel costs of travelling further afield for specialized coaching and access to training facilities.

Ask Gabrielle about short-term ambitions and she would answer,

“My next aim is to be included in the 2016 GB team as an under 23, to get myself firmly on the ‘GB map’, to compete for GB as well as continue to race for Wales, whilst more long-term the ultimate prize would be to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 or beyond. All of the training and racing in-between are stepping stones in a bid to reach this goal.”

Gabrielle has an intense summer ahead as she once again departs Wales to race and train across Europe in these coming weeks. This summer started with racing for Wales in Bratislava, and Ivrea with further slalom training also in Prague, Augsburg and Bourg St Maurice.

Summer 2014 was a similar commitment, with several weeks spent with other members of the Welsh Elite Performance Squad, training in Prague, Augsburg and culminating in a squad training camp and international race in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Overseas competitions this year already include the Irish Open, where she took the Kayak Lady Title (Under 18) in March (in spite of a frustrating winter and glandular fever!) and an International ranking race, 'The Presidents of Krakow Cup' in Poland in mid May, where she was runner up under 18 and 4th lady overall – and would rate this performance as one of her best ever.

On a less competitive note, Gabrielle told us,

“I also loved paddling with Alexandra when she returned to the water following spinal surgery because it was brilliant to see her back in action. Another highlight for me is canoeing on the River Wye every Christmas Eve with Nigel and friends in compulsory festive garb!" Nigel Midgley is the Development Officer for Canoe Wales and also the gentleman responsible for starting this exciting journey.

“A disappointment for me, however, was catching glandular fever last year, and not being fit enough for selection for the British team in 2015"

Gabrielle has been very fortunate to have had the support of her school Ysgol Dyffryn Taf' (where she was Deputy Head Girl), and headmaster Mr. Robert Newsome OBE to pursue her sport alongside her A Level studies and was thrilled recently to be presented with the Peter Wills’ Memorial shield at the annual Prize Giving in recognition of her many sporting attainments.

Amazingly, with her commitment to slalom, Gabrielle has still found time to be involved in other sporting activities that include hockey (as a centre to county level), netball, athletics, and cross country. Other interests include ballet for six years, as well as being justifiably proud of the fact that at 12 she was British Sheepdog Young Handler of the Year (under 14)!

Gabrielle is presently the only Premiership-ranked lady paddler resident in Dyfed, (her sister Alexandra was also a Premiership ranked paddler and member of the Welsh Performance Squad, until taking a break from the sport at the end of last season to concentrate on her studies).

Alexandra has been key to Gabrielle’s development in the sport as her role model and training partner, as it was Alexandra and close friend James Coney that introduced Gabi and James' younger brother William to the sport. Gabrielle is coached by Geoff Forster, of whom she is most grateful for his patience and expertise, along with a small team of coaches working under Richard Lee, the Welsh head coach based at Bala.

On the family front it is mum Hazel and Alexandra who have done the bulk of the travel, leaving dad David at home to look after Gabi’s twin brother Lucas (a useful youth rugby player with Narberth) and younger sister Mercedes, who is the artistic member of the Ridge family!

Gabrielle’s commitment to the sport is very evident but what is more remarkable is that she has attained all of this alongside her family’s personal turmoil of her father’s fight against cancer; in no small part due to the support of other paddling families and in particular the Coney’s.

Gabrielle has been extremely aware of placing extra demands on the family’s finances in pursuit of her sport, as David's' return to full health is still ongoing. If anyone out there is able to promote her achievements in any way she would understandably be very grateful.