The butterfly effect. The theory implies that small causes have larger unpredictable effects, metaphorically, that a butterfly’s wing flap in Mexico can cause a tornado on the other side of the world. It suggests that our actions are more important than we often give them credit for. It is the case with Anna Levesque, who despite her accomplishments both personal and professional, still has to be reminded of the difference she is making in the world.
Her upbringing did not destine her to become a whitewater badass. She grew up in the small town of L’Orignal in Ontario in a family that was not drawn to the outdoors. With the exception of the alpine ski race team her father made her get into, she did not really experience the great outdoors until she got a summer job at a whitewater rafting company.
“I went to college in North Carolina but came back home for the summers. I was looking for a job and got one in the kitchen at this rafting company which is 20 minutes from my parent’s house on the Rouge River. Working the kitchen, I got no respect from the guides. I begged people to teach me how to kayak. The first time I went whitewater rafting on the Rouge, I thought it was so fun. I loved it. Rafting the canyon section going through the biggest rapid was exciting and exhilarating”
Thankfully, the head of the kayak school was a nice women willing to teach Anna who would willingly shadow her on her days off. The following summer, still unable to make it back home in time for raft guide training, Anna got promoted to the administration department. She kayaked the river even more and from that moment, she knew she really wanted to go somewhere where she could kayak for a living. She had her last year of college in Chile where a local raft guide took her paddling on the most amazing rivers. These experiences were more formative than the college degree she was taking at the same time.
“I grew up in an upper middle class family where you went to school, went to university, got a job and it was just the way it was. There, I was introduced to this whole community of people for whom career and money were not the number one important thing. Their priorities were enjoying life, living life to the fullest. That is what hooked me more than anything else. That, and a combination of the adventure, the confidence building, feeling good at something, really being driven to get better and the culture that surrounded it.”
From her college graduation, she got her parents to drop her off at a rafting company in West Virginia, much to their dismay. That was just the start of her river adventures. Anna applied to every adventure company listed on the back of Outside Magazine and ended up working all over the place, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, US, Canada, until the next adventure came up.
“There was a guy I guided with at the Nantahala Outdoor Centre and he was a really good paddler. He told me I was good enough to compete, that I should just try it out. So I tried out for the 1999 Canadian Freestyle Team and made it. I was super stoked. I went to New Zealand, competed and did horribly, 40th out of 60 I think, but it was such a cool experience. That started my competitive career.”
Competing on the world stage allowed her to travel some more, paddle new rivers and meet some awesome paddlers. It also set the stage for her career. All over, she’d meet these strong female kayakers who’d share with her some stories of what it’s like to be a women in a male dominated sport.
“I would talk to other women and they would tell me “Some guy told me that if I couldn’t decide wether to run a rapid or not in like 5 seconds, then I shouldn’t be on that river and I should walk.” All these crazy things. I heard stories about girls with a bunch of guys that would get really nervous and frustrated so they would paddle away and go cry away from the guys so they wouldn’t see them. The sad part is they could not be themselves on the river, especially difficult rivers. They really had to live up to this ideal that the guys were setting.”
She decides to put together a video part testimonial from these women, part instructional. The message; it’s ok to be who you are on the river. The video got a lot of attention and opened the door for Anna to start a business instructing women. Girls at Play. Over the last 13 years, she was the vessel for thousands of women to improve their kayaking skills along with their confidence. She could relate to them, confidence was alway her Achilleas heel.
“I’ve always struggled with my confidence. When competing, the head game is what was the hardest for me. Yoga and meditation have always helped me manage.”
Mindfulness provided by Yoga and meditation have been part of her routine for a while and it was just natural for her to add them to her teachings. When her and her husband went through hurdles for years trying to conceive, her practice helped a lot.
“I really became aware for the first time of what being depressed feels like. Maybe that’s it. No matter what you do, it doesn’t matter, you’re just in it, in the shit. After a while trying to force myself out of it, I just allowed myself to be in the shit. From then, if I really wanted to go out, I’d go but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. My Yoga practice and my meditation were just that, me accepting of those feelings. The connection with nature was really important, but me being compassionate and accepting was even more.”
Today, her business is shifting from mostly whitewater kayaking clinics to also include Yoga, Ayurveda and overall wellness and stand-up paddling, a new sport she fell in love with.
“I love that stand-up paddling is so accessible. So much that for the first time, my 70 years old mother felt she could come try out something I do. Yes whitewater is great and adventuring is great, but being outside is the most important and you don’t have to go on crazy adventures to reap so many benefits.”
When starting out Girls at Play thirteen years ago, Anna wanted to be the vehicle for people and mostly women to be themselves on the river. One thing that struck me with Anna is how oblivious she seems to be to the fact that her doings have changed the world. The world of whitewater kayaking for women, but also likely on the wider front, by affecting the lives of these women, she allowed them to reach their full potential on water and in life. She is a great example of the butterfly effect and you can be too, sometimes it’s just a matter of believing in yourself.