These waters would kill you

Introducing the untold biography of the first woman to steer a canoe in competitive whitewater slalom

Editing by Christina Cantwell and Sean Mikesell

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A feature story on Czech immigrants Jiřina and Josef that ran on Feb 14, 1971, in the weekly California Living, put out by the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.

They called her porcelain.

The first time she came around, she was wearing a form-fitting, cornflower-blue, wool-knit dress; a fashionable sun hat; high heels; and all the makeup fixings for going out and impressing someone. She was donning things from America that one of her brothers, now living in Canada, supplied her with.

As she gingerly walked down the steep concrete ramp smashed between the high cement walls of buildings on either side — the entrance to which was so narrow you could have passed it on the street above without knowing it was there — she was confronted by a burly canoeist ascending against her who whistled at first sight and muttered something to the effect of, “What do we have here?”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Jiřina responded self-deprecatingly. She added that she was looking for Josef. “Is he here?”

“Yeah, he’s down there somewhere.”

They twisted sideways and edged past each other, continuing their opposite trajectories through the passageway. When she made the landing of the Čertovka boat house in Prague’s Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter), those who now found themselves in her vicinity stopped and glanced in her direction. More whistles and comments flowed out of them like the section of the Vltava River they trained on here.

“That's my girlfriend,” came a brusque interjection from off to the side. It was Josef, the sportsman who had invited her to come see him in his element that day and get a feel for the place; it was possible she'd start paddling with him.

The others continued to gawk at her, perhaps even ogle her, but did so amiably enough. The men jokingly wondered if Josef would be taking his porcelán for a ride in his canoe.

Instead, he showed her around. Men’s showers, women’s showers, where the club’s canoeists and kayakers kept their boats. Borek, his former Men’s C2 boatmate and sternman, was there. They exchanged hellos.

It was getting to be the spring of 1962. Jiřina had already met Borek a few months prior on NYE, 1961, the very same evening of her and Josef's chance but fateful encounter on the Czechoslovak side of the Krkonoše mountain range, the main ridge of which separates the northern region of their home country from southwestern Poland. Coincidentally, both Jiřina and Josef had been on their separate ways to the same ski-in/ski-out hut, Penzion Zvonička.

Jiřina — completely unaware that anyone was about to be witness to it — had piqued Josef’s interest with an epic crash, a total yard sale, on the same slope where he was resting off to the side among some trees. From out of the darkness that was already falling came a husky voice asking the young lady if he could be of assistance (all rather tongue in cheek, of course). Let’s just say he had a lot of fun with it.

Although extremely embarrassed that he had caught her wiping out and sliding down the hill, she accepted his offer. As they set about gathering up her scattered possessions, including her pack and a pair of running skis she had been hauling on her back, she noticed that he was good looking and tall. Some of the equipment now slung onto his own back, they continued the journey to the cabin together.

Upon their arrival, he introduced himself and let her know it was nice to meet her. He also invited her along for some music, dancing, and dining at the main lodge further back up the mountain where a small band was playing later that evening. She answered that she’d be happy to. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and there was some celebrating to be done.

Eventually, they made their way up to the lodge and found themselves in the company of other skiers ready to to do the same. The two of them hit it off as they learned about each other and enjoyed the atmosphere. That is to say, they began falling for each other.

By the time they parted ways on Sunday, the first day of the new year, they had agreed to see each other again. They both lived in Prague. Little did they know what the future held for them and the sport of whitewater canoeing.

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