Shake Adriene Levknecht's hand and it feels like it's been soaking in ice water for a few hours. The 27-year-old from Greenville, South Carolina, doesn't paddle through snowmelt-produced rapids in the Rocky Mountains too often, but she's no stranger to freezing hands.
When it comes to cold feet, though, Levknecht -- a 5-foot-2 kayaker who grew up on Lake Michigan and learned to paddle at the age of 5 -- has none of it. Whether it's a race, an emergency call in her job as a paramedic, or helping someone in need, she dives right in.
At last month's GoPro Mountain Games in Vail, Colorado, about 40 pro kayakers, including Levknecht among four women, tackled the Steep Creek Championship on Homestake Creek, a narrow, rocky and extremely steep body of whitewater tucked into a deep ravine that starts at around 9,000 feet and drops nearly 500 feet over one mile. Resembling a series of mini waterfalls, the creek's rock ledges have names like Leap of Faith.
In these events, each athlete attempts to paddle from start to finish as fast as possible, many bonking off the rocks like pinballs, and some capsizing when they're spun around and knocked backward over the ledges. When their boats momentarily disappear under the bubbling water and surface bottom up, there is a split second of panic among the spectators. Rescuers lining the creek lunge toward the area with ropes and poles, but then a head and a paddle pop up and everyone takes a deep breath.
Levknecht managed to stay upright and afloat throughout three jostling journeys down the creek in Vail, but finished third. The next day, she shook off her disappointment to compete in the Kayak Freestyle competition -- an event in which athletes are judged on how they maneuver a single wave.
In the pummeling Gore Creek, competitors created series of flips and twists, seemingly defying gravity by propelling their bodies -- half of which were tucked into their kayaks -- into the air. This also didn't go as well as Levknecht hoped; she finished seventh. With the games set to finish with a Downriver Sprint -- a four-mile race down Gore Creek's class II and III rapids, Levknecht wasn't sure she wanted to continue.
"I was feeling pretty broken after Homestake," she says. "Then I woke up and thought, what do I have to lose? I also knew it was my last chance to go all out. So I did."
Levknecht finished the course in 17 minutes, 58.21 seconds, easily winning the race in a field of 15 women. She also won a trials freestyle event down the road in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to earn a spot -- for the third time -- on the U.S. freestyle kayak team. She'll go up against the best kayakers in the world at the 2015 ICF World Championships in August on the Ottawa River in Canada.
Levknecht has never been one to back down from raging waters, even after her close friend -- fellow kayaker Shannon Christy -- died in a kayaking accident on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C., two years ago.
Losing her friend "made me compete harder, work harder," Levknecht says. Christy's death preceded the 2013 ICF World Championships, where Levknecht says she channeled her friend's strength and heart and came away with a bronze medal. "It made me go through pain more. Paddling was healing for me. It kept my mind off of what had happened."
Unlike many of her competitors, Levknecht is not a full-time athlete. She doubles as a paramedic in Greenville and also teaches about the healing power of paddling.
After volunteering for three years, Levknecht recently took a lead staff position at First Descents, an organization that empowers young adult cancer survivors and fighters through free outdoor adventure opportunities. It's a cause close to her heart; when she was 12, she watched her childhood friend struggle with losing her mother to cancer.
"The river naturally teaches people how to deal with their lives better," says Levknecht. "It's a perfect metaphor for getting through cancer ... You're fighting. But when you get to the bottom of a rapid you know you can do it. You know you can fight."
The kayaker refers to her First Descents gig as her "dream job," but her time as a paramedic (she started in the medical field seven years ago as an EMT), while challenging, can be heartwarming, too.
"If it's a hard call, even though it's rewarding, it's still a hard call," she says. "My favorite calls are nonemergencies that bring me to little old ladies who have no one to talk to. We love on them and hear their stories. I'll sit and listen. That's the best part of my job."
All of those experiences have set Levknecht up for deeper goals heading into her third world championships.
"I'm not putting the pressure on myself to worry about what other people think of me or how well I do," she says. "I know that people will still love me for who I am. That's been my M.O. for the year. I want people to remember me for the difference I make."