Maryland native Ashley Nee preparing for first Olympics on U.S. canoe and kayak team

Ashley Nee of Darnestown made the U.S. Olympic team in slalom.

Ashley Nee was 12 the first time she glimpsed the stretch of heated whitewater that would become her second home.

Her eyes welled with frantic tears.

"It's not for me," she recalled saying. "It's too big."

The 26-year-old University of Maryland student grins as she hefts her kayak and descends toward the bubbling rapids at the NRG Dickerson Whitewater Course, where she painstakingly willed herself to become a world-class slalom racer.

Just three weeks ago, Nee learned she was bound for her first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her career has, at times, seemed as unsettled as the whitewater courses she navigates. But finally, she's staring at the culmination.

The weird thing is it might never have happened if not for this power plant, located a few miles from her family's home in Darnestown.

"I grew up right here," she said.

It has to be one of the most unusual training outposts in the American Olympic movement. You pull up to a guardhouse off a nondescript road in the most rural corner of Montgomery County. Clustered inside the gate are several cars with kayaks strapped to the roof, but that's the only hint of the nearby Potomac River.

Then you wind past the towering concrete stacks and the industrial rail line that help the NRG Energy plant generate power for 665,000 homes. And all of a sudden, there it is — a channel of white-capped rapids racing past carefully placed boulders and painted slalom gates.

This stretch exists because the coal-fired Dickerson Generating Station draws water from the Potomac to cool its generators, then discharges the heated water back toward the main river.

A group of elite paddlers first approached Pepco, which owned the plant at the time, during the run-up to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The whitewater events were to be held on a man-made course in Spain, and these forward-thinking athletes suggested that, just maybe, the warm-water outflow channel from the plant would make for a perfect training ground.

Pepco officials agreed to the plan, and the nation had its first artificial whitewater slalom course.

"Twenty-five years later, it's still hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact we built a whitewater course in a power plant," said Dana Chladek, one of several Olympic medalists who've trained at Dickerson.

Almost every U.S. slalom racer of note has used the course, including the four who will go to Rio in August. They all say how fortunate they are that Pepco and subsequently NRG Energy have offered a place to simulate the rigors of Olympic competition at essentially no cost to the athletes.

"I don't think they realize how critical this is for us," said Adam Van Grack, a Bethesda attorney and chairman of USA Canoe/Kayak. "With no government funds, we are inherently dependent on the private sector."

Nee is at the course with two of her teammates — medal contender Michal Smolen of Charlotte, N.C., and three-time Olympian Casey Eichfeld of Drums, Pa. On Saturday, they'll depart for Europe to compete in a pair of World Cup races and continue their preparations for Rio.

But before they go, they give onlookers a demonstration of the power and precision required to pivot a kayak or canoe around dainty poles in the midst of raging whitewater.

These racers must train every part of themselves. They use upper-body strength to anchor their vessels and lower-body torque to steer against the fierce current as they power through races that last about 90 seconds. They almost meld with their boats.

"I like to think of us as aquatic centaurs," said a grinning Eichfeld, who like Nee, grew up on the Dickerson course.

As is the case for so many Olympic sports, whitewater slalom is an anonymous and often solitary pursuit. Many a frigid winter morning, Nee has driven to the Dickerson course with only her coach, Silvan Poberaj, as company. The fog rises from the warm torrent as she loses herself in the waves.

She paddled the course through years of setbacks and near misses as she drew ever closer to her Olympic dream.

"She was more persistent than most of her competitors," Poberaj says. "Even if the success was not visible early."

Nee fell into the sport almost by accident after a buddy urged her to squeeze into a kayak at nearby Valley Mill Camp. Her interest was tepid, but she rolled her vessel fairly naturally. And in a few years, she found her way into the community of high-end paddlers that had developed around Washington.

Nee trained at the Dickerson course and on the Great Falls stretch of the Potomac, about 15 miles upstream of Washington.

But injuries kept her from an honest shot at the 2008 Olympics. And she moved to Hawaii in the months that followed, believing she was ready to give up her paddle. Nee's future wife, Ashley McEwan, nudged her back.

"You know you love it," McEwan told her.

"No, I don't," Nee insisted.

But she did, enough to move back from Hawaii in the dead of a brutal Maryland winter and to keep soldiering on after she narrowly missed the 2012 Olympics.

She was training in Rio last month when a coach told her, matter of factly, that she would be the lone woman on the 2016 U.S. slalom team. On a day crammed with two sessions at the Olympic whitewater course and another gym workout, she didn't have much time to celebrate. A steak dinner had to suffice.

"There really hasn't been that moment of, 'I made it!'" she said. "Because I went right back into training."

And off she goes, back to the waters that terrified her once upon a time.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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Update: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect name for Valley Mill Camp.

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