On Saturday Sage Donnelly became a canoe freestyle world champion, three years after falling out of love with competing, and just one hour after battling to get her blood sugar levels under control so she could get back on the water.

She had been at the top of the mountain before. In 2015 she became the ICF junior world champion – the same year fellow American Emily Jackson became senior world champion. It was the last medal won by the US in the senior women’s kayak – until Saturday.

Not so long ago Donnelly would have been considered the least likely to end the US drought.

“In 2020 I decided to take a break from competition when Covid hit because I realised I wasn’t really happy, and I wasn’t having fun when I was kayaking any more, which was a huge problem for me, so I just stopped everything and got into my creek boat and started doing really big stuff,” she said.

“But then last year I heard that freestyle worlds were going to be on a wave, so I decided to go to team trials. I didn’t have big expectations, but then I made team, and then I thought that felt good, I’m going to come back.

“But this year has been a great year, and I’m stoked with what happened and how it went. My mindset with competition has grown and healed a lot, which has made me really happy, I’m actually having fun now, so I’m stoked.”

Donnelly was so much back into the competition groove she decided to dip her toe back into the bubbling waters of canoe slalom. She had been on the international circuit for several years, but it was one of the first casualties when she made her career-changing decision in 2020.

Earlier this year she went to trials, and not surprisingly, won her way onto the US team, opening the door to a possible first ever Olympic Games.

But she knocked it back. It was a tough decision.

“It was a bigger decision for sure. I looked at it as what I thought would make me happiest this year,” Donnelly said.

My mindset with competition has grown and healed a lot

“Turning down what is an Olympic spot essentially is hard, but I would have had to dedicate all of my year into that, trying to make the team for potentially not making it. I can’t afford to be everywhere anymore.

“I weighed the risk versus reward and what would make me happy, and I decided that with the snowmelt California got this year it would be more fun ticking off some of my creeking goals, and then really focus on my freestyle goals. So I think it worked out great, I have no regrets.”

Which brings her to the other major challenge she faced on Saturday on her way to the world title, a challenge which she’s lived with her entire life. While everyone else was busy preparing themselves for a world championship final, Sage Donnelly was frantically trying to get her blood sugar levels under control.

She wasn’t panicking, of course. As a type one diabetic she deals with these dramas all the time. And she had learned the hard way how.

“The health stuff is always hard, the blood sugar skyrocketed up from the adrenalin in between the semis and the finals, so it’s always a juggle,” Donnelly said.

“But I’m really lucky because my parents raised me to have the mindset that it’s not something that stops you, it’s just something extra that you have to deal with. It’s part of something I deal with every day and I definitely don’t let it stop me.”

Donnelly knows what happens if she doesn’t quite get it right. Underlining how tough her decision was this year to turn her back on a potential Olympics, her health battles sabotaged her attempts to get to Tokyo.

Turning down what is an Olympic spot essentially is hard

“In competition, the second my blood sugar gets low, I can’t do anything,” she said.

“I’m useless. It’s why I missed out on the spot for the Olympics in 2019. It’s a balancing juggling act and I nailed it today.”

Now at the age of 23 Donnelly is also making big changes off the water. She’s turned her passion for photography into a business, and is chalking up an impressive portfolio of weddings and events. She jokes that while twisting and turning her way to her world title this weekend her message bank was filling with clients wondering if she could photograph the biggest events in their lives.

It’s given her a broader perspective on life, in many ways more grounded and more relaxed about her paddling goals.

“I came here and my main goal was to just paddle to the best of my ability, and the long term goal was just to make it into the finals,” Donnelly said on Saturday.

“Once I made it into the final I just wanted to throw my ride. I didn’t quite get my whole ride unfortunately because it was really awesome, but I got most of it, and it was enough, and I’m just beyond words right now. 

“I didn’t really have a big expectation. In the back of my mind I knew if I could get my whole ride, maybe I could medal. I’ve been working on changing my mindset a lot with my competition, and I think it worked out.”

It sure did. Life has always been a balancing act for Sage Donnelly, but never boring.


Canoe Freestyle