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By Brooke Sopelsa

Olympian Ashley Nee first encountered a kayak at summer camp when she was 10 years old -- and it was anything but love at first sight.

“I remember looking down at a kayak and saying ‘nah,’ and then my friend forced me,” she recalled.

Nee soon realized she just “loved being out in the water” and stopped playing other sports, so she could focus on her newfound love.

Ashley Nee competes in the Women's K1 during day two of the Canoe/Kayak U.S. National Team Trials at the U.S. National Whitewater on April 9, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

She started “playing with the big dogs” in the sport fairly quickly, making the U.S. national team in 2007 at just 17 years old, but her road to the Olympics was not smooth sailing, so to speak.

A shoulder injury kept the Maryland native out of the 2008 games in Beijing, a turn of events she described as “devastating. So she decided to stop paddling and got a job at Valley Mill Camp in her home state, the same place where she first learned to kayak. It was there that she met her wife.

“That was the best consolation prize you could come up with,” she said.

And it was her wife who eventually convinced Nee to continue to pursue her Olympic dream.

“She had this conversation with me one day. She said ‘You know you love paddling.’ I said ‘No, I'm done,’” Nee explained. The conversation eventually made Nee realize she hadn’t reached her potential and had “unfinished business” to attend to.

A technical tiebreak kept Nee from competing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but she wasn’t deterred by this near miss.

“I decided the day after missing the team that i would train for Rio,” she said.

Ashley Nee of USA practices during a training session at the Olympic Whitewater Stadium on August 3, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Lars Baron / Getty Images

Her hard work and perseverance paid off -- Nee will make her Olympics debut this week in Rio de Janeiro. “Honestly, it was unbelievable,” she said of making Team USA.

“You go through ups and downs. You’re excited and nervous. You kind of realize the nervousness is just excitement,” she added. “It’s really cool to be part of Team USA …. You really do feel all the love coming from home."

Nee is one of more than 40 openly LGBTQ athletes competing in the Rio Games this year, eight of which are from the U.S. She said she never had any reservations about being out publicly.

“I fell in love with my wife, and that was my life,” she said. “You don’t know how many people have a hard time with [coming out] ... Being out there and being yourself is so important.”

“I’m one of [more than] 550 athletes here on the U.S. team, and it doesn’t really matter if you’re tall or short, black or white or gay or straight," she added. "We all come together to be our best selves and to compete at our best.”

When asked what advice she has for aspiring Olympians, Nee was quick to respond.

“Never give up. I know that’s cliche, but every time I went into the Olympic process, I never knew that it would happen, and it’s still hard to believe now," she said. “Persistence pays off. I can tell you that.”

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