Medal-Winning Whitewater Kayaker Kirsten V. Brown

Kirsten V. Brown, who learned to kayak as a child, was nationally ranked by the time she was at Sidwell Friends School.
Kirsten V. Brown, who learned to kayak as a child, was nationally ranked by the time she was at Sidwell Friends School. (Family Photo)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Kirsten Venetta Brown, a former world-class whitewater kayaker and a member of the U.S. national team, died Oct. 21 of breast cancer at her home in Washington. She was 43.

Ms. Brown, a native Washingtonian, began kayaking as a child during summer camp and pursued the sport full time from 1989 to 1996, participating in tournaments all over the world. She was the first, and so far the only, African American member of the national canoe and kayak team.

She narrowly missed being a member of the U.S. Olympic team, but she did participate in two world championship competitions and three world cups as a member of the national team. In 1991, she won a bronze medal in the women's team event at the world championships in Yugoslavia. She won a gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1994.

Kayaking was recognized as an Olympic sport in 1972, and from the 1970s to the 1990s, many of its leading athletes came from the Washington region. There are 11 kayaking facilities near the city, and the Potomac River, with its many rapids, is an ideal place to train. During bad weather, top kayakers have permission to practice at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's David Taylor Model Basin at Carderock.

Ms. Brown participated in swimming and dance while growing up and was first exposed to kayaking during childhood visits to Valley Mill Camp in Germantown. She quickly excelled at the vigorous outdoor sport and taught at the camp as a teenager. By the time she was in high school at Sidwell Friends School, she was a nationally ranked kayaker and was working out with Bill Endicott, who coached the national team from 1977 to 1993.

After graduating from Sidwell in 1981, Ms. Brown went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1986. She was a research associate with Arthur Andersen Associates in Washington from 1987 until 1989 before resuming her athletic career.

"It was a very intense, personal, dramatic experience for all of us," Endicott said of competing at such a high level. "She shared our dream, and that's what makes this so difficult. She was part of the quest we all had."

Ms. Brown was named to the national team in 1990. During the winter, she trained with her teammates in Costa Rica, and she also spent extended periods in Great Britain preparing for international events.

She reached her athletic peak in 1991, when she was the third-ranked American woman in her sport and won a bronze medal at the world championships. During the trials for the 1992 Olympics, she hit a gate in the whitewater slalom event, and a mandatory penalty for the infraction caused her to be left off the team.

She continued to place high in other international competitions and was a popular member of the national team, which she left in 1996.

Ms. Brown was conscious of her position as the sole African American in her sport and had written a college thesis on Steve Biko, the black South African anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977 and became a symbol of the black nationalist movement. But kayaking allowed her to concentrate on negotiating the eddies and currents of swift-running water, rather than the complexities of race.

"She was outgoing and was always laughing," Endicott recalled. "I don't think we thought of her as black. She was just another part of the gang."

From 1994 to 1997, when she wasn't training for her sport, Ms. Brown worked as a project specialist with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. After her kayaking career ended at age 33, Ms. Brown began to search for other outlets in life.

She lived in Houston for a few years, working for travel and temporary-help agencies; she designed and made jewelry and pottery; and she developed a strong interest in the environment and questions of philosophy, spirituality and faith. She made several visits to India, staying for a month or more at a time.

Since 1999, she had lived primarily in Washington, working as a store clerk and as a temporary office assistant.

Her marriage to George Michael Fleshman ended in divorce.

Survivors include her parents, Dr. William Brown Jr. and Sarah Robinson Brown of Washington; two sisters, Kecia L. Brown and Dr. Kolette L. Brown, both of Washington; a brother, Karlton W. Brown of Washington; and two grandparents, William Brown Sr. of Homosassa, Fla., and Leona M. Black of Houston.

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