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  • Gig Harbor paddler in a class of her own. By Colin

Master Class

Master Class

The Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing team is nationally renowned. Each year the team sends members to national and international events, and championships and medals always seem to come home with them. While the youth and adult levels, individuals and teams continue to dominate, it’s in the Master’s Class that you find one of the more incredible stories on this team.

It’s the offseason, so Bee Dietz is in the gym three times a week training for the upcoming race season, with her eyes set on another trip to nationals. Bee is a multiple medal winner in the Master’s Class Sprint Kayak series despite not picking up the sport until 2013—and at the age of 75. Having just celebrated her 83rd birthday, Bee is really in a class of her own, often competing against paddlers 30 to 40 years younger than her. Having lived an adventurous life alongside her husband Bob (88), Bee found paddling to be a way to keep active, compete, and also be therapeutic.

Bee developed a spinal condition and after meeting with surgeons was informed that surgery would do her no good and physical therapy would be the only route. “I thought to myself, I would much rather do a sport than go to a clinic,” Bee recalled. About the same time, Bee was taking her granddaughter to paddling practice on Lake Washington. She asked the coach if she could join the team, and he happily obliged. Like anyone learning a new skill, paddling in open water was a challenge for Bee. “They were all so fast. I would stick to the shoreline because it would eventually get dark and someone would have to circle back and come show me the way in,” she said.

While one might think that paddling a sprint kayak would only inflame her spinal condition, a month in Bee was already improved without ever having to step into a clinic. “By the end of the month my back was better, the pain had dissipated, and I felt better,” she said.

The Dietzs have lived in Western Washington for more than 30 years. They moved here from New Jersey for the specific reason of joining the Seattle Mountaineers Backcountry ski club. The couple taught people how to telemark ski and traverse the backcountry of the Cascades. While they don’t hit the backcountry any longer, last winter they were still cruising the slopes of Snoqualmie Pass and cross-country skiing. This winter they plan on snowshoeing as well as they continue to enjoy the outdoor passions that lead them West in the first place.

The Dietzs decided to make Gig Harbor their new home in 2016, and it was again a sport that drove the move. “We moved to Gig Harbor so I could join the team here; that’s absolutely the reason,” laughed Bee. “Bob thought it was crazy to be doing this kind of retirement plan, but we both love it here.”

Bee joined the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Racing Team in 2016 and has been competing ever since. Locally she often competes against women of all ages and at regional and national events the Master’s Class usually starts at age 40 or 45. Outside the challenge of facing off with competitors sometimes half her age, Bee has been battling rheumatoid arthritis since her late 20s. She calls her hands “awful” but says the technique of paddling is such that she can still use them. Between visits to the gym and training on the water, Bee is definitely proud of her physique at 83. “Getting old, it’s wonderful to have strong muscles. I have great abs and biceps, and can’t tell you how nice that is,” she said proudly.

As she prepares for the upcoming season, Bee doesn’t have any set goals. “I just want to go out and paddle as fast as I can for as long as I can and go like hell while I’m doing it,” she laughed. Bee will be competing both as an individual and as a team in a K2 boat with fellow Master 60-year-old Heidi Rowntree. In the tandem event, the person in the front sets the pace and the person in the back paddles strong, according to Bee. They have their eyes set on medaling at national’s this July. Bee will also be doing distance events of 5k and a few up to 10k.

While still immensely active for their age, Bee and Bob say they’ve reached a point to know what they can do safely. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are still in play, but it’s likely they’ve taken their last downhill runs. “We’re so lucky that Bob and I have enjoyed the same sports together since we were young. it’s been such a huge part of our lives,” she explained. Their passion for outdoor recreation is carried on through their children and grandchildren, who love the outdoors, have done kayak competitions, professional Ski Patrol, and taught cross-country ski lessons as well.

For Bee, it’s never focusing on what she might not be able to do but finding life’s next challenge and adventure, something she hopes more people would take up, no matter their age. “If you yearn to do something, just do it,” she said.

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