The Ambassador Paddling Hard For Women And Girls

A Bolton Mum making waves
Colin Petch
January 7, 2024

Since we launched Mag North back in March 2022, we’ve met lots of incredible people and organisations doing some of the most inspirational - and important work across the North of England - often with positive impacts reaching far beyond our Mag North patch.

One such individual is Anna Stishova: a Bolton Mum who also happens to be a dedicated and hugely experienced paddle-sport leader. To celebrate kicking off 2024 with our refreshed website - and lots of plans to shout very loudly about some of the amazing people on our doorstep - we first wanted to look back to autumn 2022 and again share with you our article from the time we met up with Anna and one of her groups, on a picture-perfect Sunday morning at High Rid reservoir. 

We’re setting the bar high for 2024…

Mag North was invited along to High Rid Reservoir recently, which is set in an idyllic location beneath the Winter Hill transmitter – and looking out across to the courses of Bolton Golf Club and Regent Park Golf Centre.

The reservoir has acted as a hub for water-based adventure activities since the 1970s - initially as a result of a partnership between North West Water, The Sports Council and Greater Manchester Youth Association.

The existence of this valuable facility within reach of a number of urban and city centres fulfilled North West Water’s social responsibility and education service to the public – so was an early – and often rare example of ‘win-win’ for company and community.

High Rid Reservoir
High Rid Reservoir

Sadly, following the abolition of Greater Manchester County Council in 1986, (an arguably cynical manoeuvre led by the Thatcher government), all funding for adventure sport provision at the site ceased and High Rid was moth-balled for several years.

In 1999, United Utilities (the new owner) approached Lancashire Outdoor Activities Initiatives (LOAI), to establish an outdoor provision with particular focus on water-based activities at the site.

The LOAI is a Registered Charity and was established through a partnership of Lancashire County Council, The Sports Council and various local organisations, stakeholders and trusts.

The central brief of the organisation, (delivered under the banner of its trading arm: The Anderton Centre), relates to encouraging the positive use of the outdoors by all sectors of the community. In practice, this means offering opportunities for participation and access to facilities together with provision of training, advice and support.

The Anderton Centre’s primary role is to operate as a residential and day visit activity centre, with a focus on work with young people and community groups. And from their headquarters on the shores of Lower Rivington Reservoir, the Anderton team and their partners are leading on – and delivering some of the most innovative projects to widen participation in outdoor activities – across the North.

And so it is, that we’re at High Rid, on a cold Sunday lunchtime, beneath a perfect blue autumn sky, to meet Anna Stishova: a Bolton Mum and experienced paddle-sport leader. But Anna isn’t just a paddling Mum. She has an incredible back-story – and is something of a force of nature.

Anna first fell in love with paddle-sports as a teenager in her native Russia. “As a student, I paddled big, foldable expedition kayaks. They were 2-3 seaters, and we would go on trips, paddling and camping in the wild (very different from comfortable UK campsites). I also did a bit of rafting.”

Anna Stishova
Anna Stishova

After a move to London – and focussing on her career as a Gym and Spa Manager, paddling became more difficult to fit in, but when old friends invited her to join a three-week rafting expedition on the River Tyiain Buriatya, Siberia, in summer 2011 – Anna jumped at the chance.

She explains: “The river starts up in the mountains (only a rescue truck driver agreed to take us up there), has rapids of course, and after a long stretch, falls into Baykal Lake. There is lots of unique wildlife, beautiful and frightening. Wolves, bears, blueberries and wild garlic. The water is so clear, you can drink it from the river directly. I guess that trip brought my paddling spark back from childhood.”

On her return to London, with a firm sense of “I’m back” Anna invested in the kit she needed – and her canoe and kayak adventure took off.

While in London Anna had access to regular training at Leaside Canoe Club and also took part in canoe marathons. “I still do not know why. But when I did start paddling again, it was the best decision I made for myself. In the UK, I started my paddling journey as a white-water paddler, and later switched to marathon canoe racing, in a kayak as well. Recently, I had a lower back injury (slipped disc) which made it difficult for me to sit in my K1 (a racing boat), so I was lucky I bought an SUP shortly prior to the diagnosis.

“Paddling started as a hobby and later as a sport. Although I worked in the gyms, I am not a gym person myself and prefer exercising outdoors, like cycling etc. So, the water and the boat became my gym. Kayaking has kept me going through ups and downs of my life for more than 10 years now. It also encourages making new friends and to see new places.”

In 2019 Anna moved to Bolton to start a family: “Then I joined Bolton Canoe Club and now, I paddle at the weekends mostly on Bridgewater Canal or on club trips in the Lake District.”

If you were a Sport Governing Body seeking a representative to promote your message and broaden the appeal of your sport, Anna Stishova is exactly the kind of highly-motivated individual you would want on your side. The British Canoe Union grasped this fact – and Anna – and together they’re now doing excellent things in the North West.

Anna: “There are many benefits of paddling for women. Paddling is very empowering: you learn to be one with nature, it allows you to meditate, to discover your strengths, to share your experiences with others, to inspire. Water has healing powers, so simply pausing on water in your kayak or on SUP and connecting your mind and body with nature and just being in the moment is a good medicine for body and soul. Women nowadays are so busy and have so much on their shoulders, many of us are searching for a place to recharge the batteries, to have a me-time and just switch off for a moment or to refocus onto a challenging physical core activity outdoors. For me, Paddle-sports is an ultimate tool for female wellbeing management.”

Anna is now a member of the Inclusion Advisory Group for British Canoeing. They are currently involved in a piece of work to help create an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for 2022-2026. Anna is also a non-independent IAG member and a #ShePaddles Ambassador.

British Canoeing also recently announced the launch of a new equality, diversity and inclusion initiative; #WePaddleTogether, which aims to bring awareness to British Canoeing’s commitment to improving equality, diversity and inclusion in paddle-sport by listening to and learning from paddlers and wider social conversations.

By now you’re quite possibly visualising a go-getting, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer, adopted Boltonian Super Hero – and you’d be right. But there is yet another element to Anna that will make you wish she was your best friend:

“In the summer I organised a Family Eid Paddle & BBQ event for the Bolton Muslim community with The Anderton Centre, at High Rid. The event was almost booked out within a week, so it was clear there was definitely potential in getting more Muslim women into paddling.” After the Eid Paddle, Anna and the team from The Anderton Centre, along with help from Bolton Canoe Club, created the Muslim Women and Girls Paddling Group.

Historically there has been a lack of positive Muslim female role models in sport – and as a result, low participation rates among Muslim women. The lack of aspiration and guidance has made it difficult for young Muslim women to engage in sport. The BCU, along with other sport governing bodies recognise this – are committed to turning the tide.

There are a number of misconceptions regarding Muslim women participating in sport. Islam promotes good health and fitness for both men and women. However, there are guidelines in relation to personal conduct and modesty within which sports can be practised. For example, modesty is an important principle in Islam, which has implications for the notion of what types of activities and what sort of dress is appropriate for Muslim women participating in sport.

Haifaa Jawad (BA, MA, Baghdad, PhD, Exeter) is an Honorary Senior lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham – and is clear on the way forward: “There must be improved education and training for teachers, coaches, sport administrators, and organisers (both in Muslim and non-Muslim settings) to incorporate greater awareness of faith-based principles. Efforts are required to raise the status of careers in the field, such as in teaching, coaching, and leadership development for women in general and for Muslim women, especially visibly Muslim women.

“Encouragement is needed for the training and retention of interested Muslim women as role models who could influence future generations. There needs to be greater understanding and action from international sports federations to relax dress codes and provide resources to enable Muslim women to participate if, and as, they choose. Similarly, Muslim communities and especially religious leaders need to encourage women to take part in sport and physical activities.”

Why are we talking about Islam specifically? We’re talking about Islam because our visit to High Rid is to meet the Muslim Women and Girls Paddling Group – and see first-hand an example of the most dynamic and inspirational stuff going on at grass-roots level in our communities.

Future Paddle Stars
Future Paddle Stars

There is a final piece to this story that we have deliberately omitted until now. An element that confirms Anna Stishova as one those essential positive role models that we need now more than ever in our communities. It’s only right that we leave the last word to Anna:

“You won’t hear this on the TV or read about it in the newspaper. Maybe because I am a white Muslim, people may not think I did something special, but I did. I broke many barriers and stereotypes and turned many heads. I may not be a stereotypical Muslim woman, but I am a Muslim woman who cares a lot about Paddle-sports and want more women and girls in a hijab to fall in love with this sport and achieve great things in it.”

You can find Anna on Instagram.

The Anderton Centre provides a huge range of adventure activities for a diverse range of groups and individuals.

Bolton Canoe Club are a professional but informal family orientated club – and one of the most highly regarded water-sport organisations in the North.

Savannah, Emily and Rihanna from The Anderton Centre with Anna
Savannah, Emily and Rihanna from The Anderton Centre with Anna

A big THANK YOU to Savannah Mason from the Anderton team for her help with this piece