Words by Rebecca Parsons
The SUP community knows Natali Zollinger as a talented river athlete and the 2017 GoPro Mountain Games SUP Cross Champion. Her father knows her as "Snakes"—the little girl who drove zigzag tractor lines across their family farm.
The baby of eleven kids, Zollinger grew up on a 25-acre lot in Northern Utah. While other little girls spent their days playing with dolls, Zollinger spent her time working in the fields, helping her family make a living.
"I grew up with a hard work ethic,” said Zollinger. "I had eight brothers and they made me strong."
A magnet to the water, Zollinger splashed around in local ponds, competed on the dive, swim, water polo and rugby teams before eventually discovering the river in college. She was invited on a kayaking trip by a group of local river guides and was instantly hooked. Zollinger dropped out of college and took to the river.
"It was kind of like the college I always wanted," Zollinger says of her days as a river guide. "It teaches you everything you need to know and you apply it. It was exactly the type of education and environment I wanted to be around."
Now 34 years old, Zollinger spent over a decade navigating the waterways of Utah, Arizona and Colorado before wrist and shoulder issues sent her searching for the next adventure. In 2012, the longtime river guide discovered river paddleboarding online and was instantly intrigued. She bought one of Nikki Gregg's SUP fitness videos and reached out to Brittany Parker for advice.
"She was an awesome mentor," Zollinger says of Parker. "She took me in and opened my eyes to the competition world."
Now the two compete regularly, but are also good friends as well as business partners. They founded RVR 2 RVR together, a traveling river clinic geared towards paddlers of all levels. Zollinger provides the whitewater skills and Parker is the surf guru.
While traveling and competing may sound glamorous, being a professional athlete hasn't spared Zollinger the challenges and tragedies of life. The young athlete has already lost three brothers to car accidents. Zollinger does her best to remain on the competitive scene, but has been pulled away from training to support her family. Despite the emotional challenges and struggles that have been thrown at her, Zollinger finds solace on the river.
"The river is a really healing place for me," said Zollinger. "It doesn't stop. There are times when you face your fears and you choose to continue forward, but with the river you have to face that fear and it's pushing you into it whether you're ready or not."
Looking ahead to 2018, Zollinger is ready to face her fears head on. Past injuries have impeded some of her training and progress, so she is taking a step back and focusing on retraining her old patterns and habits. Work and family conflicts have prevented her from putting her full efforts into training, but this year Zollinger is committed to putting her full focus into training and competing. While Zollinger has already experienced a lot of success despite her limited training, she wants to see just how far this sport can take her and have no regrets.
"I've had the cloud nine phase and now I'm having the reality phase," Zollinger says. "I'm all about raising the bar and not just being the bar. I want to raise the whole level of women and push whitewater paddleboarding."