Whitewater kayaker's death illustrates the danger of her sport

Shannon Christy was almost 21 when she started competing in whitewater kayaking. She was going to compete in Great Falls. CBS News

(CBS News) POTOMAC RIVER - Whitewater kayaking is one of the most thrilling and challenging sports. We went to cover one of its premier competitions held in Virginia and a remarkable story took an unexpected turn.

Each summer the Great Falls of the Potomac attract some of the country's best kayakers for an annual race. This year, 23-year-old Shannon Christy came to compete with the men who usually dominate the race.

Shannon was almost 21 when she started competing. She's already run some of the most extreme whitewater on the East Coast, but she's never been here before.

Now she was going to run Great Falls three years later. "I am, hopefully with good lines," Shannon told us at the time. "I think I will."

Did it strike her as overreaching? "I wouldn't say overreaching," she replied. "It would strike me as confident."

Steve Fisher from South Africa is one of the sports biggest stars. "She's a rising star in the kayak scene," he said of Shannon, "and she's just getting to the point where people want to capture what she does."

Before her first run down the falls, Shannon got some pointers from Jason Beakes a six-time winner of the race.

"There's two little ledges right there in the middle -- plop, plop," said Beakes. He warned her to stay away from the deadly chute called "subway."

Shannon Christy was getting some practice in on the water before her first run down Great Falls. CBS News

Shannon's enthusiasm is infectious, but these are class V rapids, an international rating which means extremely difficult and violent with life-threatening hazards.

Two days before the race was to start, our cameras spotted an empty kayak at the bottom of the falls. It was Shannon Christy's. No one saw it happen but somehow she had come out of her kayak, been swept over the "subway" chute and killed -- her body trapped under an avalanche of water.

"You've got tons of water pressure pinning her against a rock," Fisher recalled.

Steve Fisher, a fellow kayaker, was one of the people who retrieved Shannon Christy's body from the falls. CBS News

He led a team into the falls where they risked their own lives to recover her body. Tethered by a rope on one hand and anchored by another from behind, he leaned into the torrent stabbing at the water with first his hand and then a paddle.

"I felt it hit something soft that was not a rock," Fisher remembered. "I said, 'She's here.' I told her, 'I'm going to take you home.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'm going to take you home.'"

He managed to attach a set of slings to Shannon's arm and shoulder. The kayakers heaved with all their strength.

"And suddenly everything gave," said Fisher. "She came right out of the surf."

Shannon Christy was the third kayaker killed by Great Falls since they were first run nearly 40 years ago. This year's race was cancelled and a memorial service held instead. But the lure of the falls remains. As the service ended, the kayakers ran the falls again -- this time for Shannon.

You can see our full report Wednesday night on "60 Minutes Sports" on Showtime. Check your local listings.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.