BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — For Ria Sribar, her kayaking journey may be taking her around the world, but it started right at home.
Ria was introduced to the sport by her dad, Rok. An extreme kayaker - that is, someone who paddles large, quick-flowing rivers that include rapids and waterfalls - Rok was always on the river when Ria was young, and she wanted to be just like him.
“I was definitely Daddy’s little girl,” she laughed.
“I think she would just see my head out with my friends whenever I had some free time. When I got home and I was always happy, kids pick up on that. They see ‘okay, dad is happy when he kayaks, it must be something that is fun,’” Rok said.
So, when Ria was just 6 years old, her dad took her out and began teaching her the basics, first in the pool and then on the river, sans waterfalls. Soon, they were out on the water almost every weekend in the summer, and she progressed quickly. When she was 11, fellow Team USA athlete Sage Donnelly introduced Ria to slalom, and she was hooked - especially once she met the world champions in the sport.
“We went to the senior world championships and on the stands I met the Slovenian racers,” Ria recalled. Her dad, who was born in Slovenia, wanted to meet them. Despite Ria’s initial hesitation, they began chatting throughout the competition. “They were letting us hang out with them, cheer for all their friends, and then the next day they won the world championships. I was like, ‘Wait, real people actually win this thing? People I’ve met?’”
That, Ria said, was the moment she began setting her sights on training and racing. While Rok could teach her the basics, he didn’t have the background in the slalom-specific skills, and Ria quickly outgrew his knowledge base, forcing Rok to look elsewhere to help her succeed.
Because kayaking - especially slalom kayaking - is a niche sport in the United States, Rok ended up reaching out to a coach in his native Slovenia to see if she would be willing to train Ria. Rok had gotten his start in the country, first trying the sport when a local club’s trailer got a flat outside his grandmother’s house; making use of the paddles and kayaks that were stranded for a while. Rok moved to America to get his Ph.D. at Cornell, where he met his wife, but his heritage still pulled some weight back in Europe. The Slovenian clubs were happy to have Ria visit, and in 2015, she began spending her summers in Europe to train.
Even as she learned from other coaches, Ria never forgot her first coach.
“My dad honestly helped me the most, because he cared the most. All these coaches are insanely knowledgeable, and everyone is just a great help and so supportive, but no one will ever care as much for me as my dad. So it’s been great,” she said. “I think it’s just incredible to have such a great support as a dad and a coach.”
To see Ria succeed in the sport they both love, and to see her represent the country they both love, he says, is incredible. From Ria's Californian hometown, to Slovenia and now Buenos Aires, it has been an emotional journey for him as both coach and dad.
“I get tears in my eyes all the time, when I see her race. I am very proud of her.”