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Elite American Kayakers Vie For Olympic Gold

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Maryland native Ashley Nee is one of the top two women slalom kayakers in the country.
Jonna McKone
Maryland native Ashley Nee is one of the top two women slalom kayakers in the country.

Caroline Queen and Ashley Nee have a lot in common: They're both in their 20s, they're both from Darnestown, Md., they're both short, with blond hair and blue eyes, and they're both vying for a spot in the U.S. women's slalom kayaking team at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Yet, in spite of everything, something else they share is friendship, which is pretty remarkable, one could say, given that these slalom kayakers have been number one and two in the sport for a long time. In fact, at this month's Olympic team trials, they'll most likely be one and two.

As Ashley explains, Caroline's the one who earned a spot, or "berth," for U.S. women's kayaking at this year's Olympics, thanks to her performance in the first of three qualifying races for the Olympics: the World Championships in September.

With each of the three qualifying races, you earn points, and in gaining the Olympic berth, Caroline pulled ahead of Ashley. Now the women are gearing up for the second qualifying event, to be held in North Carolina later this month: Olympic Team Trials, where Ashley says she'll "have to be top two to even think about racing at the World Cup," the third qualifying event, slated for June.

Ashley adds that at the World Cup, she'll "have to be top 20, and beat [Caroline], and I've never been top 20. I've been 23rd, top 30 a couple times."

But not too long ago, Ashley could have been on her way to being on top of the world at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"I qualified the berth in 2007," she says, "but tore apart my shoulder, didn't get shoulder surgery, needed it, and then trained on it,  [then] missed the team at Olympic trials. I was fourth, and at the time you had to be top three."

Caroline actually got third, though she didn't make it to the Olympic Games. As for Ashley, she eventually got surgery, did about two years of rehab, and now she spends countless hours on the Potomac, paddling like a pro.

Silvan Poberaj coaches the U.S. National Whitewater Kayak Team, and says "For kayakers, [the Potomac] is probably one of the best places in the states. It has really nice rapids; it's very good. And especially the location, going through town like Washington, it's something very unique."

Silvan has trained both Ashley and Caroline for years. But he won't say which one he thinks might go to the Olympics.

"I think they are close enough and the way the selections are going, unless something really unusual happens at the team trials, then I think it's gonna go to the World Cup in Cardiff, [Wales]."

In the meantime, both Ashley and Caroline are training hard - the former near her home in Maryland, and the latter down in North Carolina. Caroline says it'll be tough to face each other at the upcoming Olympic trials, since "we both want to be number one."

But if nothing else, she says, it'll strengthen their friendship... and their skills.

"It's a very positive thing," she says. "We push each other."

Ashley agrees: "Ideally this year we're pushing each other to get to that next level, to be able to compete with this international crew. Ideally, we're training each other for the Games."

Consider it one more thing these two friends share: just the latest item in an ever-growing, ever-flowing, list.

[Music: "Victory" by Trampled by Turtles from Palomino]

Photos: Maryland Kayakers

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