#ShePaddles Ambassador Interview – Anna Stishova

The premise of my She Paddles interview series aims to show that the She Paddles Ambassadors are inspirational whilst also being normal people, that paddling is super good for us, that we can paddle in all kinds of places/ways, and that paddling is for everyone and all sorts. This is an opportunity to show the paddling sport and recreational side of it and encourage other people to get paddling. This week we will get to know Anna Stishov.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s the day job? How do you fit paddling in around daily life?

Hi, my name is Anna, aka #kayakinghijabi! I moved to UK from Russia in 2003 and have lived here ever since. I lived in London till 2019, then moved to Bolton to start a family. Before I moved to Bolton, I had worked as a gym & spa duty manager for motive8.

In Bolton, I had a baby, so have been pretty much a full-time mom to a baby girl and a stepmom to three schoolchildren for a while now. At the moment, I work as a part-time self-employed copywriter for party decor and balloons artists businesses.

In London I had access to regular training at Leaside Canoe Club on the canal and took part in canoe marathons. Now, in Bolton, I paddle at the weekends mostly on Bridgewater Canal or on club trips at Lake District. We also have paddle sessions on Monday evenings at Bolton Canoe Club.

How did you first get into paddling? Tell us about your favourite paddling experience.

As a teenager, I paddled big old foldable expedition kayaks in Russia: 2-3 seaters, up to 7 days trips of paddling and camping in the wild (very different from comfortable UK campsites). I also did a bit of rafting. In UK, I did not start paddling until 2011. I still do not know why. But when I did start paddling again, it was the best decision I made for myself. In the UK, I started my paddling journey as a white-water paddler, and later switched to marathon canoe racing, in a kayak as well. Recently, I had a lower back injury (slipped disc) which made it difficult for me to sit in my K1 (a racing boat), so I was lucky I bought an SUP shortly prior to the diagnosis.

It will be very difficult to choose my favourite paddling experience. I had lots of lovely adventures: not the fancy and difficult ones you read in magazines, but they all meant to me something.

From paddling in Russia, the most memorable was a 21 day catamaran rafting expedition on the River Tyia in Buriatya, Siberia, in summer 2011. I was invited along by old friends who worked in the outdoors tourism. The river starts up in the mountains (only a rescue truck driver agreed to take us up there), has rapids of course, and after a long stretch, falls into Baykal Lake. There is lots of unique wildlife, beautiful and frightening. Wolves, bears, blueberries and wild garlic. The water is so clear, you can drink it from the river directly. I guess, that trip brought my paddling spark back from childhood.

As for UK paddling experience, I haven’t figured out my favourite paddling place yet, but for paddling experience as such, it will have to be a Devizes to Westminster attempts: all 3 of them, regardless of the outcome. I believe that only those who ever went for the DW race, would know the true value of it. Another memorable moment was an evening paddle down the river Lea canal towards Stratford in 2012, to watch Olympic Games opening ceremony fireworks live. We were not allowed to paddle too close: the water was cordoned off by police, so we had to get off at some point, but that did not spoil the evening: local residents were very friendly and helpful, and they had a large live screen outside on the canal path. Free tuna sandwiches, tea and toilets! And the fireworks! It was a night to remember!

Do you know what percentage of rivers across England & Wales have clear rights of access? How do you find out where you can paddle?

I believe it is a very small percentage, in England it is only about 4%! And the problem is not with just rivers, many reservoirs are closed to public paddling too (but they at least explain it by mentioning all the hidden machinery in those waters).

Where is your favourite place to paddle?

I haven’t found one yet. But I believe, I am slowly falling in love with the Lake District.

Tell us about the paddling moment you are most proud of.

That would be crossing a Devizes to Westminster International Canoe Race finish line, under the Westminster Bridge, in 2019, as a Junior-Veteran K2. It was myself as a Veteran, and Sirin Arif Gisel as a Junior. I am pretty sure, we were 1st ever Muslim female K2, first ever Muslim Junior-Veteran team to finish the DW race ever! In addition, I am pretty sure, I am the only Muslim hijabi paddler to attempt DW race on 3 consecutive years (2017, 2018, 2019), and probably the 1st ever Muslim to complete in a DW race in a hijab. You won’t hear this on the TV or read about it in the newspaper! Maybe because I am a white Muslim, people may not think I did something special, but I did. I broke many barriers and stereotypes and turned many heads. I may not be a stereotypical Muslim woman, but I am a Muslim woman who cares a lot about Paddlesports and wants more women and girls in a hijab to fall in love with this sport and achieve great things in it!

What is the one piece of paddling kit you couldn’t do without?

Buoyancy aid with a whistle is a must. Whatever the paddling conditions – safety comes first. I also make sure I have a small drybag with me with all the necessities in it like mobile phone, a spare long sleeve top, first aid and contact lens solution.

How has paddling improved your wellbeing (mental or physical)?

Paddling was my antidepressant for the start, then I took it as a hobby and later as a sport. Although I worked in the gyms, I am not a gym person myself and prefer exercising outdoors, like cycling etc. So, the water and the boat became my gym. Kayaking has kept me going through ups and downs of my life for more than 10 years now. It also encourages making new friends and to see new places. 

Why do you think other women should get involved in paddle sports?

There are many benefits of paddling for women, including the ones I described above for myself. Paddling is very empowering: you learn to be one with nature, it allows you to meditate, to discover your strengths, to share your experiences with others, to inspire. Water has healing powers, so simply pausing on water in your kayak or on SUP and connecting your mind and body with nature and just being in the moment is a good medicine for body and soul. Women nowadays are so busy and have so much on their shoulders, many of us are searching for a place to recharge the batteries, to have a me-time and just switch off for a moment or to refocus onto a challenging physical core activity outdoors. For me, Paddlesports is an ultimate tool for female wellbeing management.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline? what are you up to as a #shepaddles ambassador?

I am a member of Inclusion Advisory Group for British Canoeing. We have regular meetings where we help to create an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for 2022-2026.Check out the #WePaddleTogether initiative here.

I am organising a Family Eid Paddle & BBQ event this summer for Bolton Muslim community, with Anderton Centre, at High Rid Reservoir. The event was almost booked out within a week, so there is definitely a potential in getting more Muslim women into paddling soon! After the Eid Paddle, we are planning on running monthly Muslim Girls Paddling Group at the same venue.

There are also couple of webinars planned with British Canoeing to help clubs to encourage more paddlers from Muslim communities, so I am very excited!

You can find Anna online at @kayakinghijabi and you can check out inspirational interviews with Anna by Jog On and the West Yorkshire Scouts.

Watch out for the next #ShePaddles Interviews coming soon!

She Paddles Interviews

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