When Kim Hillhouse answered the phone she was on the lake by her home, training for her next paddling race. The water lapping up on her board could be heard over the phone. Her dedication to the sport of stand-up paddle board (SUP) racing is immediately apparent, as is her connection to the Chattajack 31.
The Chattajack 31 is an annual long-distance race, 31-miles on Tennessee River. Unlike any other race, the course takes competitors from Downtown Chattanooga, through the Tennessee River Gorge, and ends on Nickajack Lake. Starting out as a small event in 2012 with 35 paddlers, the registration is capped at 550 for 2017 including 162 women. While paddlers battle the weather, the river conditions, and push their abilities to the limit, they are surrounded by history and scenic views that caused this part of the Tennessee River Blueway to be nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Tennessee. As a long-time competitor in the race, Kim Hillhouse has become synonymous with Chattajack 31.
Kim started SUP in 2010 and until she learned about racing, SUP was just a healthy hobby that she enjoyed. “I never thought that you could race. I had no clue until someone had mentioned ‘hey, there’s a race’ and I looked at them like they had three heads. Wait a minute, people race these things?” In 2012 she began her career as a competitive SUP racer. At the same time, the SUP race scene was exploding across the country from Hawaii to the Midwest. No longer a blip on the map, SUP races have become popular in-part due to the accessibility of the sport. Someone who learned how to paddle only five minutes ago could race. They won’t likely win, but the mere fact that anyone can compete makes the sport attractive. In 2013, Kim competed in the Chattajack 31 for the first time finishing in 6th place. That was the spark that drove her to spend more time on the water, in Chattanooga, training for her next race.
The 2014 race was the first time Kim’s name and the race became entwined. “Trouble seems to follow me,” Kim said with an uncomfortable laugh. The race started with cool weather and a slight head wind, but the current was on her side. At mile 7 of the 31-mile race trouble struck. Kim’s fin hit a rock and she was launched from her board into the water. At mile 9, she was tossed again by a tree branch. This time she was separated from her board. Bravely, she got back up again and paddled on, the worst yet to come. At mile 11, Kim watched in disbelief as her carbon fiber paddle was snapped in half by an unexpected entanglement with a channel marker. With 20 miles to go, her race was over, or so it appeard. Almost as quickly as the paddle snapping, Kim decided she wasn’t going to give up. On her knees, Kim paddled on, eventually getting a replacement paddle and finishing 4th. From last place to 4th, giving it her all, Kim made a name for herself in the SUP racing community around the Chattajack 31. Further validation of Kim’s commitment came only two years later. With her parents watching her compete for the first time, Kim finished 1st.
Kim will soon be turning 48. She is the mother of two teen-age boys and has competed in over 100 paddling races. She is also sponsored by Future Fins, Tailwind Trailblazer, and High Country Outfitters. Kim finds a sense of empowerment competing and succeeding in a sport that one might expect from someone in their 20s. Further proving that age has nothing to do with your ability to compete physically, Kim thinks “if she can do it, so can I.” While highly competitive, when it comes to the women she races with, Kim enjoys the comradery of her fellow competitors – bound by water.
During the 2014 race, Kim experienced the generosity and spirt that makes her enjoy this sport. “It’s so much more than just being outside and enjoying the water and nature; it’s about our community, our family, our ohana – we help each other out – it’s what we do.” (www.kailuabound.com, 2014) Kim holds high admiration for the volunteers and the women that share her passion. From this passion and sense of community, Kim has become an advocate for women to take up their paddles and join her―growing the sport and encouraging women to compete with her. Kim has this sound advice for those just starting out or who are training for their first race, “It’s totally okay to fall in…once you fall, all that fear is gone,” and “…time on the water is how you get better. You learn while you are out there.”