10/30/05 — Kayaking grandmother tests the waters by pursuing degree

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Kayaking grandmother tests the waters by pursuing degree

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on October 30, 2005 2:05 AM

WILMINGTON -- It is 6:30 a.m. as Kristen Whitmore enters the surf with her flat bottom kayak. She calls it "dawn patrol," when the clouds are still pink and the wind soft. She says it's her favorite time of day, when there is excitement and wonder for what the day will bring.

Ms. Whitmore also loves kayaking in the middle of the day when the sun overhead turns the water crystal blue; and in the evenings, when the water shimmers with a thousand hues.

"Kayaking is about the closest thing to walking on water for me, or maybe waltzing on water, like a dance with the universe," she said.

When this 53-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one took up the sport of kayaking seven years ago as a means of relieving stress, her plan was to paddle through the marshes, watch the birds and enjoy nature. Then she found the surf.

"I was living in Savannah and was in awe of the marsh," she said. "I wanted to see what was around the next bend. When I paddled out in the ocean, dolphins swam around me. Now I spend most of my kayaking time surfing the waves."

In 2000, she moved to Wilmington, entering her first kayaking competition in 2002. It was the U.S. Nationals held at Shell Island Resort. She placed fourth.

This year she placed first on the Women's United States East Coast Surf-Kayak Team. Her next competition will be the World Cup Championship in Jaco Beach, Costa Rica.

The other women on her team are between the ages of 22 and 24, but that hasn't dampened her drive or her spirit.

"Sometimes with Dawn Patrol, it's too early, the water is too cold, the sand is too dirty, the waves are not right, the boat is too heavy, and no other women are out," she said. "What if I break a fingernail? Can't I just watch surf videos and sit on the couch like normal grandmothers?

"Wait a minute, how many normal grandmothers watch surf videos? Maybe I just better get out there and do it rather than sitting around talking about it. That's about how long it takes to adjust the attitude."

One day her age may become a factor in competing, she said, "but I also know I can continue paddling for years. I guess my future plans are to not let the world overtake my priorities. I need to remember my health, my serenity and always make room for that in my life. Kayaking is good medicine."

As if being a nationally-ranked kayaking grandmother isn't enough of a challenge, Ms. Whitmore has added another to her list: earning her college degree. Two years ago, she enrolled in the Heritage program at Mount Olive College in Wilmington.

"I was worried at first that I would not be able to remember any lessons, but so far, one test at a time, I seem to be OK," she stated.

She has completed the requirements for an associate's degree and is currently pursuing a degree in early childhood education. She is also working as a nanny.

Career, family, education, kayaking, being a nanny all make sense to her, she said.

"It all ties together," she said. "As a nanny and a new grandmother I try to offer the best of the methods I am learning.

"My husband, who is 55, thinks it's great to be married to a college student."

He also surfs, so the couple's days revolve around tide, wind and wave conditions. Their house has surfboards and surf magazines or fins in every room, she said.

"It all comes back to something we study in (early childhood education)," she said. " In play-based learning there is a point during creative experiences that the child is totally absorbed in what he is doing. Maybe that is what all of us need. It is either concentrate or get smashed by a wave called life."

As a senior in the education program, Ms. Whitmore said she is weighing her options for the future.

"I think ideas will unfold and choices will become clear," she said. "I still consider this a process. My church is building an orphanage in Africa. Maybe I will be worthy of helping those children with my education. Maybe I will have learned just the right thing to do and say to my grandson. Whatever I do, I know my classes have helped define my thinking about the importance of early childhood."