Outdoors: Extreme goddesses

Whether you're navigating Pisgah's technical single track or plunging over the Green River Narrows' notorious rapids, don't be surprised if there's a ponytail waving out the back of the helmet that passes you.

Leaving others in the dust: With just three years' experience, Alexis Decosimo has been blasting the competition, moving rapidly up in the ranks. Photo courtesy Alexis Decosimo

Asheville girls are no joke.

Mountain biker Alexis Decosimo and white-water kayaker Adriene Levknecht raise the bar for female adventure athletes — not only locally, but worldwide. Both girls compete at levels that leave even the boys in dust. And both say it was Western North Carolina's supportive outdoors community and world-class terrain that have helped them excel.

Last year, Adriene seemed to wind up on the podium after every kayak competition she entered.

From the Teva Mountain Games to the Freestyle Kayaking World Championships, this young star has been steadily pushing aside the competition. After first-place finishes on the Gauley and Russell Fork rivers, her year was looking pretty good.

But it wasn't till she returned home to her favorite Asheville-area river that she really nailed it, crushing an event that is the benchmark for women's kayaking. Last November, Adriene became the first female to finish the world's most extreme kayak competition — the Green River Narrows Race — in less than five minutes.

Extreme talent: Adriene Levknect recently became the first female to finish the Green River Narrows Race in less than five minutes. Photo courtesy Adriene Levknect

Alexis, too, is quickly rising to the top of her sport. With only three years of biking experience, Alexis has claimed first place in the US Mountain Bike Sport Division and a top-10 ranking at the Collegiate Nationals. She also helped her Brevard College team take home the gold at the Division II National Championships in Truckee, Calif., last fall.

"Alexis has advanced very quickly because she is dedicated and smart," notes Patricia Pinner, president of Alexis' Team Prestige Subaru. "She is disciplined and spends the time necessary for training and learning new techniques."

What is it about Asheville that fosters such strength and determination in its female athletes?

"The women athletes in this community are incredible role models," says Alexis. "I look up to every one of them, not only for their talents but the love they have for playing in the woods and getting muddy." And through the Asheville Women's Cycling Club, Alexis, in turn, aspires to be a "positive mentor to any woman interested in rolling around in the dirt."

Logging daily training runs on the Green Narrows, Adriene highlights the incredible outdoor playground surrounding Asheville. "People can mold their daily lives around when the river is running," she explains. And groups such as Girls at Play, spearheaded by Asheville's own Anna Levesque, help forge a female kayaking community at the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Asked about her hometown's wealth of outdoor options, Alexis simply says, "I dream of Pisgah."

Aided by legendary terrain and top-notch mentors, these feisty females also developed extraordinary levels of mental and physical tenacity that quickly set them apart.

"It's hard on women to get past the 'beat-down' phase of kayaking," notes Adriene. She recommends keeping a cool head on your shoulders and finding a group of patient friends who'll be supportive as you progress.

Alexis, meanwhile, advises neophyte outdoorswomen to just "smile and not get frustrated." Playing outside is all about having fun, she emphasizes, and if you maintain a positive attitude, the skills and comfort on harder trails will follow.

Whether it's the desire to push their own limits or to pass a guy in the next race, these adventure goddesses continue to break the mold. And the next time you're outdoors, you might hear the shouts and laughter of a female who's having a blast. So pay attention: You just might learn something.

[Traveling freelance writer Susan Hollingsworth is currently living in Asheville so she can enjoy nearby rivers and mountains.]

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