Black History Month – GB Team’s Layla Al-Riyami

Black History Month – GB Team’s Layla Al-Riyami

As part of Black History month, we caught up with Layla Al-Riyami, a freestyle kayaker who has been to two world championships representing Britain. She is a well accomplished paddler at only 17 year old, with a very bright future ahead of her. Layla is a paddler of colour, making big waves in the freestyle community, so find out lots more about her!

Layla stood next to her home club banner

My name is Layla Al-Riyami, I am 17 years old and I am on the GB team for squirt boating and reserve for freestyle. I live in Essex with my mum (Natasha), my step dad (Steve) and my little brother (Albie). I also spend a lot of time with my dad (Azzam) , my step mum (Estelle) and my baby sister (Nadia). I’m very lucky to have such a big support system around me. I grew up in Colchester and have lived here my entire life. I am half British and half Middle Eastern, with my dad growing up in Lebanon, Syria and Oman, then moving to the UK when he was 16. In my first world championship I came 6th which I was very proud of. I am also currently 2nd in britain after the most recent British Championships. I also recently came 5th in my second world championship which I was so happy with. It was so fun being able to compete with the best squirt boaters in the world.

When and how did you get into kayaking, then freestyle/squirt boating?

I started paddling when I was 11 because my dad took me to Tendering Canoe Club with him on weekends. I didn’t actually like kayaking to start with but then I got better than my dad so I liked it! Then I met Ottilie Robinson-Shaw (a world champion freestyle kayaker) and I thought she was really cool so I wanted to do what she did. I started freestyle when I was about 14 and squirt boating when I was about 16.

What, if any, were the hurdles you faced on this journey?

I found competing in squirt boating was a very big learning curve as there isn’t a junior category. This means I have to compete with very experienced paddlers.

layla, anna and tamsyn at the world championships

Who were the key figures that you looked up to/guided you into paddling?

I find the whole freestyle community pretty inspirational but I think my main inspiration would be Ottilie Robinson-Shaw, I have looked up to her from a young age and I aspire to be as good as her one day. Her attitude to kayaking and her want to improve her paddling and help others improve is inspirational.

How important was your family in your paddling now?

My family is incredibly important to my paddling today. With freestyle kayaking being a self funded sport, they finance everything. I’m also 17 so I can’t drive, this means that they sacrifice a lot of their free time to drive me to Nottingham or other kayaking destinations.

layla all smiles at the 2023 world championships

What do you hope to achieve through paddling ?

I hope to be able to inspire young girls to do more paddling because it’s really fun. I also want to win a world championship for squirt boating and I’d really like to try C1.

Any advice to young women of colour who are wanting to get into paddling?

Just do it! Everyone in the freestyle community is very welcoming and we are all like a big family. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is or your gender or how old you are. If you help make the vibe better on the water and you ask plenty of questions then people will be happy to help you and paddle with you.