April’s Featured Plus Size Athlete - Sheila, Kayaker

Being one with nature, out on the water, can be a very calming and soothing experience. But it can also be a workout!  Meet Sheila Porteous, a 45 year old from Victoria, British Columbia and plus size kayaker who has been paddling for over 8 years and serving as a professional guide.  Sheila is our Featured Plus Size Athlete, and in this segment, you’ll learn why the self described “Persistent” athlete never gave up finding a way to be active, healthy and athletic, despite being confronted with some challenging barriers.

In addition to kayaking for pure athletic and health enjoyment that has included a 105 nautical mile (195 km) 11-day camping trip from Port Hardy to Coal Harbour on Vancouver Island, she also gives back to her community, having served as President for 4 years with SISKA (South Island Sea Kayaking Association).

Photo courtesy of Sheila Porteous, kayak seal launch.

1. Your participation in paddle sports are a result of having to find a sport that works with your chronic conditions and disability. A main one being arthritis in your knees. How has going through that process, changed the way you think about fitness for all body shapes, sizes and conditions?

The tricompartment osteoarthritis in my knees is the result of a devastating injury to the ligaments in one knee. I spent many years in knee braces using a walker for basic mobility. It was hard to find medical help, and I think my body size interfered with my medical care. Three surgeons refused to surgically repair my knee. After several years of searching, one surgeon was willing, likely because he asked about my activity level and quality of life before the injury. By this time, both of my knees were compromised and required surgical interventions. The surgeon had me commit to a year of physiotherapy to ensure success in healing. (I was more than willing as I was motivated to get ‘my life back.’) This surgeon treated me like a human being, and heard my story of emotional and physical loss. Many, many surgeries later, I am still getting physically stronger.

It was in the recovery process, in between surgeries, where I met a kayak guide and shop owner. She offered to take me paddling. At the time, I was a bit horrified as I was very physically and emotionally unfit. I had extreme doubts that I would even fit in a kayak, and if I could fit, HOW could I get in the boat when I was braced from hip to toe. This young woman helped me roll in to a big kayak from the dock. In that moment my life began to ‘move forward’ again. Suddenly, I was capable of participating in a sport, outdoors, exactly as I was! Big and ‘broken’ were not barriers in the world of paddle sports!

2. As a plus size, professional kayaker, have you experienced judgement based on your size? If so, how do you handle it and have things changed through the years, with the growing body love acceptance movement?

Fortunately, I have always accepted my body and not let it be a barrier to enjoying everything that I want to do. To be honest, I suck at sports. I loved doing and trying everything as a young person, and quickly found out that if I focused on having fun, rather than looking good or ‘mastering’ something, then I was able to live the life I wanted, even if my style was often comical.

I have been judged, albeit silently. There are clients that I have met that give me an initial scouring look that scans my body from head to toe and finds me lacking. This has always made me smile for I am confident that I have something to offer, and look forward to demonstrating how capable I am. On the other hand, I love the people that I work with who honestly state that, when they first met me, they figured if I could do it, then they could do it. If my body’s size and shape helps someone try something new, that is great. And better yet, my hope is at the end of the day, that the people I work with actually discover something about their own preconceived ideas about what ‘fitness’ or ‘athleticism’ looks like.

I often feel like the ‘comic relief’ of the professional kayaking community. Some of the hard skills in kayaking are very challenging for me, and I learn slowly. As a result, I spend a lot of time under my boat and/or in the water! Fortunately, the community is filled with many strength-based mentors who continue to encourage me while focusing on the unique skills that I do offer as an instructor and kayak guide.

My favorite people to teach or guide are the people that struggle. When someone is having a hard time gaining a skill, or mastering a self-rescue, I feel that I can really relate. Due to my own learning style, I can often break skills down into small components and help people learn in increments. I have taught many people with body image concerns, including plus size individuals. Due to my limitations and body size, I have adapted some skills for myself over the years. It is always great to pass this learning along and help others gain confidence in kayaking.

3. In addition to time in the kayak, what other exercise movements can one do on-land, to improve their paddle stroke?

Working on anything ‘core’ related will be a benefit in paddling sports. Cardiovascular fitness is also important. Lots of kayakers believe in yoga for the increase in strength and stamina, as well as the benefits of having a more flexible body. I am still looking for a yoga class with an instructor capable of adapting the regular program to my unique needs (I hate just sitting there instead…)

4. Who is this sport ideal for (are their kayak weight or size restrictions) and where can women get the appropriate athletic gear?

This sport is ideal for anybody! In Victoria BC, a local non-profit organization, Power to Be has an adapted recreation program that has kayaks that are outfitted for people with physical disabilities. My first kayak was a Telkwa High Volume made by Nimbus. This boat has a roomy cockpit, which makes it great for larger paddlers and individuals with mobility problems. The kayak is very buoyant and has the capacity for a large amount of kayak gear, as well as the ability to carry a heavy paddler. There are also “sit-on-top” kayak options that may feel more comfortable for some people. A good outfitter can help an individual find the right boat for their personal paddling goals and comfort level.

Photo courtesy of Sheila Porteous, wearing her Kokatat Dry Suit.

There is also great paddling gear available! For the cold-water, comfort seeking paddler, Kokatat Drysuits (one piece paddling wear) are excellent quality and the manufacturer honours all sizes. I fit a standard size! Womens XLS. The S is for short. This means I can order a suit at no extra cost, and buy off the rack in most stores. Plus Kokatat willingly makes custom sizes, which does not add a significant amount to the price. Kokatat has earned a lot of respect in the paddling community, and obviously has earned mine by including a diverse range of sizing in their standard line, reinforcing the message that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.

If a $700+ drysuit is over your budget, NRS makes a great farmer john wet suit for about $150. I have a Hydroskin model, which is like wearing a yoga outfit that keeps you warm in the water. They have a diverse range of sizes, although to find the best fit, I chose a men’s model (up to 4XL). A comfortable rain jacket, with tight wrist enclosures, can be paired with this item for cold water protection.

If you happen to live somewhere where the waters are warm (a.k.a. you would choose to swim there), you can get away with wearing quick dry shorts and a t-shirt.

Note: We found this Moken kayak can take a max load of 400lbs (but remember that needs to include cargo and weight is to be evenly distributed across the kayak.) For safety reasons, work with a professional to get the right kayak for you.

5. One of your athletic goals is to complete a triathlon, and based on what you’ve shared with us, we know that you won’t let your barriers stop you. What are your plans for accomplishing this?

What was that one word? Persistence. I started by reading everything I could on triathlons and triathletes. I was surprised to immediately find books about diverse triathletes in the local library, including “Fat, Slow, Triathlete”. This was very inspiring for me as I had the fat and slow part mastered and just needed the right mentor.

Right now I am focusing on what I can do, without pain, swimming. I have an excellent road bike, and plan to begin riding it for enjoyment and to become familiar with the sport this spring and summer. In the fall, there are several triathlete programs that I can join to begin the ‘training portion.’ I have ‘trained’ with 2 local triathlete groups so far, and was welcomed and accepted, just the way I am. Realistically, I may need to focus on walking the running portion of the triathlon. One of the reasons I am drawn to this sport, is because of the “it is about completion” mentality, rather than competing with others. There are short, non-timed, triathlons for absolute beginners right in my home town, this is where I will start in the spring of 2016!

Photo courtesy of John Kimantas, Wavelength Magazine.

6. Anything else you’d like to share?

I have often worked with people whose perceived barriers were far greater than any actual limitations. Kayaking, triathlons, and other sports can seem incredibly intimidating. I remember the first time I joined masters swimming how hard it was to walk across the pool deck, not knowing how the other ‘fit’ swimmers would receive me. Fortunately, I was able to walk across the deck with my head held high and remind myself that I deserved a life of fitness and that I belonged there as much as anyone else. Pushing through those challenging moments is something I can do, or I ask a friend to help. I am well aware that many people are limited by their ability to push through these moments of self-doubt and self-discrimination. As we see more body sizes in athletic activities, my hope is that diversity becomes the norm and that the mental barriers become simple stepping stones along the road to engaging in fitness activities.

I’d be happy to help anyone who wishes to move beyond barriers in their desired fitness goals. Sheila Rami-BamBam Porteous on Facebook or [email protected].

Thank you Sheila for sharing your story. We know you have inspired many with your persistent attitude and we are all behind you in making your triathlon dreams come true.

About the Author:

Krista is the Founder of Born to Reign Athletics, a blog + portal website dedicated to motivating, educating and celebrating plus size women who unleash their inner athlete as a means of living a healthy life.  She is an award-winning multi-sport athlete in triathlon and indoor rowing, and is recognized as a global leader in plus size fitness and athletics.

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7 Responses to April’s Featured Plus Size Athlete - Sheila, Kayaker

  1. Sheila Porteous October 27, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

    Just reread this post. Fantastic. It is fall 2017 and I have now completed 4 sprint triathlons and have become a NCCP Community Coach for adults. My current goal is to complete a standard distance triathlon in the summer of 2017!

    TriStars training in Victoria BC is a Body Positive group with a diverse group of members. http://tristarstraining.com/ They encouraged me to coach and participate at the level I was at and to celebrate ALL my successes.

    • Krista H. October 27, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

      Sheila, what a year you’ve had. Congratulations on all your athletic accomplishments. So happy for you, and I know by unleashing your inner athlete over and over again, you are inspiring others. Thank you for sharing this update.

  2. Ann May 5, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    I am a very overweight 64-year old woman who is entered in a women’s Triathlon in the middle of June. Kayaking is one of the events, so I went out yesterday with another woman who is also competing to check out the kayaks. She’s very fit and thin. I was afraid I couldn’t find one that I could sit in - which had happened years ago at a public event, which was mortifying to me at the time. Luckily, they had a kayak I could fit into yesterday. Getting back out was NOT pretty, LOL, but I love Sheila’s take on it. I’m there to get in shape and have fun and if I provide comic relief to others, so be it! This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • Sheila Porteous March 23, 2016 at 12:50 am #

      You are most welcome! Just spotted this comment now. I STILL have hard time getting out of my kayak. My friends are willing to sit on my bow while I take my time doing it. Hope you are still enjoying the sport!

      Sometimes taking the seat out of a kayak will increase the amount of room in the cockpit and make it more comfortable for larger paddlers too!

  3. su May 1, 2015 at 10:35 am #

    What an inspiring article! Sheila is one of my favourite people - due in part to her inspiring positive attitude- on and off the water. (and she knows how to roll a kayak 🙂

  4. Barb May 1, 2015 at 12:26 am #

    I know and love Sheila and know that she will conquer anything that she puts her mind to. She is a wonderful woman

  5. Paula Johanson April 30, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

    A wonderful profile of a wonderful paddler! Terrific to see a full-figured woman that I know being profiled here.
    There are a couple of models of inflatable kayak from Advanced Elements that might suit a person who is very heavy. I’d recommend their Expedition or Convertible models. I have also used their StraitEdge2 sit-on-top kayak for my friends who have stiff joints or are differently able.

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