Freezing Gold

Freezing Gold

It wasn't the music that turned Alison Sigethy into a regular at Alexandria's Birchmere theater last spring — it was the opportunity to spend hours in the Birchmere's walk-in freezer.

How else was Sigethy going to get used to Greenland's freezing summertime temperatures?

Last month Sigethy traveled 60 miles inside the Arctic Circle for the Greenland National Kayak Championships in Sisimiut. Sigethy, a 46-year-old Alexandria resident who teaches kayaking at Potomac Paddlesports, returned from Greenland with eight medals: gold in two rolling events, rope gymnastics and harpooning; and silver medals in the long-distance race, short-distance race, portage and relay.

Sigethy has been kayaking for seven years and teaching for six. In October 2005, she tried the smaller, more finesse-oriented Greenland-style kayaks for the first time. Her husband Tom Milani is a kayak builder who enjoys Greenland-style paddling, and he tried to get Sigethy on board to no avail until this year.

After attending a conference, Sigethy decided to take the plunge.

Sigethy spent nine months learning the intricacies of the specialized paddling style and training for the championships.

Most participants do not attempt to compete in all nine events, but Sigethy was determined to try them all.

"Once she decides to do something she does anything in her power to do it," said Cyndi Janetzko of Falls Church, also a teacher at Potomac Paddlesports who helped Sigethy train for the competition.

"Alison persevered through an extremely tough season this year," continued Janetzko. "She had ruptured a disc in her neck when training for the portage race where you run and carry the kayak on top of your head."

But Sigethy trained right through her injury, practicing rolls in the Potomac River, as well as climbing ropes in her garage, doing calisthenics in the freezer and creatively altering a weight machine to practice her harpooning.

She trained for the competition full-time, sometimes as long as 12 hours a day in the months preceding the contest. The grueling exercises put her in the best shape of her life.

"You have certain advantages when you’re younger," she said. "But I never worked this hard at anything when I was younger."

"[Training] took over her life," said Sunny Pitcher, founder of Potomac Paddlesports. "It became her central focus."

Sigethy’s regimen began with yoga in the morning for flexibility and balance. Next was cardio and weights with her local trainer, and then she hit the water for paddling practice. Sigethy had equipment set up in her garage to practice the difficult rope gymnastics event.

"We had a pretty mild winter. All my cold weather training doesn’t mean anything in June," when the local weather is warm, she said. "That’s when I began the freezer workout … to simulate a cold environment and get some cold air in my lungs."

The Birchmere let Sigethy use their commercial freezer to simulate arctic temperatures while the summer temperatures increased outside. In July, the daytime air temperature in Greenland is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the water temperature is about 30 degrees.

GREENLAND-STYLE KAYAKS are smaller and allow for more finesse and flexibility on the water than mainstream kayaks. They were developed as seal-hunting vessels hundreds of years ago in Greenland. Hunters would seal themselves into the kayaks with hooded skirts called tuiliqs that were made of sealskin. Today, the sealskin is gone (replaced with a synthetic material to keep the cold water out) and the seals have migrated north toward cooler climates. Nonetheless, kayaking remains a popular sport in Greenland.

"Greenland-style boats are very low-volume and made for the person paddling, so they have a very different feel than a one-size-fits-all, commercial-style kayak," said Sigethy. "The paddle itself is very different. It’s long and narrow for efficiency in the wind and for paddling long distances."

After 18 hours of travel, Sigethy and her husband arrived to Greenland on in early July. Despite jet lag, she competed in a pre-competition marathon the next day.

"[The marathon] seemed like a nice way to see a lot of Greenland, to see a lot of the coast and to bond with folks," said Sigethy. "We spent three days with a lot of other paddlers, and by the time the competition started, I knew a lot of people and had made a lot of friends."

The sun doesn’t fully set over the Arctic Circle in the summer, and so the skies remained light each night, which sometimes made sleep difficult during the competition. Nonetheless, Sigethy won four gold and four silver medals in her category, which included international women ages 24 to 50.

THE AUSTERE LANDSCAPE of Greenland made an impression on Sigethy.

"The landscape is very hilly, with rocky cliffs and mountains in the distance," she said. "The land itself is brown, rocky, sparse and steep, but they make up for that with intensely colored houses and buildings, which are bright and vivid and really very pretty.

"The ocean there is wild," she continued. "The last day of the marathon there were 30-knot winds and five-and-a-half foot waves."

Global warming is a fact of life in Greenland. Hunting has become difficult as warmer weather pushes animals further north.

"It’s a day-to-day reality for them that there’s no ice in the water now and there used to be, and the days are hotter than they used to be," said Sigethy. "The topic [of global warming] comes up fairly often."

She "fell in love" with the people of Greenland and their outlook on life, which is "very collaborative." Sigethy said that during the competition while the women were all in the water waiting for their turn with the harpoon, experienced throwers offered tips to novices and even lent equipment.

"I think that comes from living in a really harsh environment," she said. "You can’t make it alone. At the competition, people were going all out and really wanted to win, but that never meant things got ugly or cutthroat."

THOUGH SIGETHY was well on her way to physical preparation for the competition, finances for the trip were less certain. Airline tickets alone cost $7,000.

"My husband and I kid that it was like buying a car," she joked.

She paid for most of the trip with a credit card, but Sigethy raised a substantial amount with an online gift shop,, where she sold "kayak-inspired artwork" as well as t-shirts, mugs, mousepads and "really anything I could think of," she said. Friends and outdoor sports groups also donated money for the cause. Potomac Paddlesports gave $500.

Her boss said it was money well spent.

"Alison has taken the sport to its highest level," said Pitcher.

"She did a great job as an athlete and ambassador," he said. "It’s a great way to pay homage to the sport of kayaking. … She traced back the sport to its original roots."