Hannah Ray J: the kayak enthusiast turned SUP supremo

WE TALK to Hannah Ray J about how growing up in Iowa led her to a passion for river sports and has seen her develop into an established SUP competitor.

Hannah Ray J

Hannah Ray J got her first experience of kayaking on a river in Iowa where she spent a day on the water with her brother.

HANNAH RAY J grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa and was encouraged from a young age to enjoy all the Great Outdoors had to offer. It was through her brother that she was introduced to river sports and it wasn’t long before she realised this was where her sporting ability was best suited.


It was through kayaking that she found the sport and this is today where she puts most of her energy in terms of training and competing as well as promoting the water discipline in her local town.


Read on to find out what it is about the challenge of a river and the sport of SUP that keeps her motivated in all areas of her life as well as her voluntary work with local river communities in the state she resides.


Tell us about how you got involved in water sports and who encouraged or inspired you most at the beginning?


My first river experiences on the river were with my brother, kayaking the meandering streams of northeast Iowa. He was the first person I knew who paddled the river and I wanted to join him as much as I could.


Our quiet water paddling continued for many years until I saw whitewater kayakers ripping up a river wave near my hometown. I waited on the river bank until they came to shore. I introduced myself to one of the kayakers, Marty Colbert, following with a barrage of questions. He kindly and enthusiastically answered every question I asked. He offered to help me learn how to whitewater kayak and connected me with more whitewater paddlers.


Through my introduction with Marty, I then met Ty Graham. I got my first playboat from Ty and he taught me how to roll at his home spot on the Cedar River called Clay Hole. Then Ty got a custom Badfish SUP River Surfer. I had never seen a paddleboard as short and maneuverable as the Badfish board. Ty let me try his board and I was hooked!


Hannah Ray J

Hannah Ray J has made many long-lasting friendships on the river and feels a great sense of belonging to the kayaking and SUP community.

I’ve met so many amazing people on the river. Too many to list. Marty continues to be my rock. He’s always ready, supportive, and willing to try my next adventure idea. Ty Graham has this contagious energy that pushes me to be my very best and try new tricks. I’m grateful to have close friends that support me, encourage me, and challenge me.

Where did you grow up and how often were you able to get out on the water?

I grew up on a family farm in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa. I helped my family raise hogs and care for farm animals. I drove tractors and combines for our corn growing operation. I was the official tool handler, light holder, and test driver for our repair business fixing snowmobiles and ATVs.


Hannah Ray J

Hannah Ray J grew up on a farm in northeast Iowa and was also encouraged to enjoy and make use of the activities available in the great outdoors.

As a child, I was encouraged to play outside. My brother and I would race corn cob boats down rainstorms rivers in the farm yard. I would go swimming in the local creek and fishing with my father at local rivers and ponds. As a young adult, I discovered just how much fun paddling the river was. Many weekends and after chores/work runs on the river were the norm for making the most of my free time. I’m drawn to the water, a child of the river, with a thirst to return to it again and again.


What have been some of your biggest successes and highlights on the water to date?


My most recent highlights are landing 360s on my Badfish River Surfer and SK8, surfing Diagonal Ledges on the Lower Gauley River, WV, and my first time kayaking the Upper Gauley River, WV.


I’m grateful to be a part of so many great teams of incredible people who help me continually progress my paddling skills.


Hannah Ray J

A recent highlight of Hannah Ray J included landing 360s on my Badfish River Surfer and SK8, surfing Diagonal Ledges on the Lower Gauley River, WV.

When did you get involved in SUP and how far have you progressed in the sport?

I have been paddling sup for around four years, primarily SUP river surfing. I’ve progressed from learning to surf a river wave to landing 360s and shove its on my Badfish River Surfer. There was no one in my area to show me how the tricks are done. I learned by watching videos, trial and error, visualising, and perseverance. I’ve won the Charles City Challenge Surf Comp three years running. I also host Iowa’s only whitewater SUP surfing clinic yearly at the Charles City Challenge. When someone just shows up and says “I’d like to learn to surf a river wave!” Yes! Impromptu surf lessons are one of my favourites!


Hannah Ray J

Hannah Ray J enjoys the variety of sporting tests a river can offer on a day-to-day basis.

What is it about SUP that keeps you motivated and what are some of your aims in the sport for next year and beyond


Each day on the river is different. The flows fluctuate just as much as the Iowa weather does, so there’s always something to explore. The exploration of what can be done on a river wave is ongoing. I love learning new tricks, continuing to practice my skills, and developing new moves to try on a wave.


River surfing, paddling, and being on the river is pure fun for me. It’s friends at first sight when I find fellow surfers and paddlers who love being out there just as much as I do. Introducing beginners to the sport and watching them grow their skills is gratifying. In the year ahead I’ll be paddling and surfing as much as I can, building new skills, and connecting with my fellow river siblings.


What other water sport projects are you involved and as an athlete what is your biggest goal on the water and how will you make it happen?


Iowa has one of the most altered ecosystems in the contiguous United States. Our last wild places are the rivers and streams across the state. Building in-stream whitewater parks is catching on in Iowa. I’ve had the opportunity to assist with promoting and volunteering for whitewater park projects in my hometown and other river communities around the state. There are more potential whitewater park projects on the horizon that could be huge successes!


Hannah Ray J

Hannah Ray J enjoys promoting SUP in her local community and immersing herself in fresh river SUP challenges one day at a time.

My biggest goal on the water is immersing myself in the moment. Being fully aware of what it took to get here, grateful for all the support I receive, and paying in forward. I volunteer my time hosting whitewater clinics, organising events and meet ups, and promoting whitewater paddling in Iowa. Introducing more people to whitewater paddling encourages communities to become active and to be invested in their natural resources. In turn, this develops stewardship and awareness being passed on to future generations.

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