“At the start of 2021 we were all uncertain as to if we would be able to travel and compete internationally. As a professional athlete, I was wondering if I still had a real job. My job is to compete internationally at the highest level and represent my sponsors equally on the world stage. After a year, 2020, of not competing, but working with my sponsors, keeping campaigns going, relationships healthy and positive, I felt very fortunate to have almost all of my current sponsors still with me, but, I was really aching to compete. To showcase my skills, and to see, was it good to take time off, or did that hinder more than help?
My first opportunity back to competition was the Euro Tour. The Euro Tour is one of the most competitive tours in the sport of Stand Up Paddle Racing and one of the longest. In order to win, you have to compete in at least 5 of the major 4,5, or 6 star races. The first race of the 2021 Euro Tour was in Podersdorf Austria.
I must say, it felt weird getting on an airplane again after being at home for so long. In 2019, I competed in 24 events, which is almost an event every-other week and they were all in different countries around the world. So, that meant a lot of flying and the absence of flying for a year was a nice change, but I hadn’t realized how much of the other aspects of competing that I missed- like traveling, the languages, the conversations, and of course the food.
The day before the first race of the year, the first time I raced in about 18 months, I went for a run to check out the course and loosen my legs after the long flight. I was feeling pretty happy with my paddling, but I had absolutely no way to gauge how well I would do compared to the other paddlers since we hadn’t raced in what felt like forever.
Right before leaving my home town of Hood River, I did a short training block focused entirely on paddling form. I found a new level of my paddling ability by changing just a few things in my stroke to make it more efficient… at least that is what it felt like, that’s what my dad (who is my training partner) said it looked like, and that is what the GPS numbers said. Now it was my time to test it out.
Standing on the start line in Podersdorf, I remember shaking. All those thoughts, will I remember how to race smart? Will I have the strength to push through? These thoughts kept swirling around in my head. I should mention that in 2019, I won the Euro Tour. This was my first time winning the Euro Tour. I had been racing on the tour for 5 years before I won it. At the beginning, the type of races we did in the Euro Tour were the biggest challenges for me. Longer, more grueling races that at the time were more ‘suited’ as many people would say, for the more developed, more physically mature athletes on the tour at the time. After all I was 18 when I started racing the Euro Tour and the women I were competing against were at least mid twenties, and typically in their thirties. So, I understood comments like that, but I learned how to get better at the 18km races and the tour adapted to include a mix of shorter and longer distances.
Then the gun went off, the first race in 18 months was underway. This was a shorter, 6km technical race with about 6 buoy turns per lap in a 5 lap race. On lap one, Espe Barreras and I were neck and neck, foreshadowing our season ahead. The weather on this day was very warm, slightly warmer than I like for racing, but on race day you have to go with what you got. There was a slight breeze, producing a little bump, but these were the types of bumps that are almost more effort to catch than the advantage they gave you. Anyways, heading into the third lap on the upwind leg, Espe and I were still side by side. I decided this was a good time to stretch out my stroke and try to make a gap. I used the stroke I worked on with my Dad, lengthening, a powerful catch, and really engaging my core. Even though it sounds like a slower stroke, my board began to accelerate. I started inching away from Espe and gained the inside of the top corner of the course, rounded in first and pushed it to increase the gap on the long outside leg of the course. From there, I had to hold. Keep pushing, keep looking forward. After rounding the second to last buoy still in first and with a good gap, I knew I had won this race. It was thrilling and honestly very satisfying to cross the line in first after a long time away from racing, but also I was surprised. I didn’t know how this race would go and I didn’t know how the rest of the season was going to go, but in that moment, everything felt right. I knew I was strong and I knew I had the potential to go far.
This season turned into my best SUP Racing Season yet. After Austria, I was feeling confident and happy with my return to SUP Racing. It’s funny, I say ‘my return’, because that is what it felt like, but really we all had a break, a forced break. I was motivated going into the next few races.
The second event on tour was the Ice Race in Thun, Switzerland. I had two plans for this race and was 90% sure I’d race with the first plan, but then the weather changed and I had to adapt my plan, so I went with the second plan. This was an 18km race from Interlocken to Thun. I was in the lead until the 15km mark when I bonked. I hadn’t eaten properly, my blood sugar was dropping slightly and I was slowing down. Espe passed me. I tried to fight back, but I didn’t have anything left in the tank. I finished in second place. It’s always hard to loose a race when you’re in the lead, but I wasn’t really bummed. On the day, I paddled my best, but Espe paddled better. There was a lot to be happy about, especially because this was Espe’s maiden victory on the Euro Tour.
So, now we’re tied in the overall points. She’s had a first and a second and so did I.
After the Ice Race there was one week off of the Euro Tour before the next event, so surprise surprise, I went and raced in another event happening in the south of France that wasn’t part of the tour. I knew a lot of athletes were going to be in attendance plus, one of my closest friends Martin Letourner was the event organizer so I had to go. The Pornichet Paddle Trophee had two races, a 10km distance race and a 2km technical race. To my surprise, I won both races. Crossing the finishing line in first on Saturday and then again on Sunday left me feeling a little dumbfounded. Like, am I really doing this? How am I really doing it? Im not sure, but it’s feeling good!
So, one more Euro Tour race to close out my first month of racing in Europe since the Pandemic, Vendee Gliss. This is one of my all-time favorite races because of the logistics involved. You have to load your board the night before, pick up your race number, attend the safety briefing and then go to bed knowing you’re going to wake up the next morning to a complete adventure. Practically no matter the conditions, you drive 23km out into the Bay of Biscay on military-grade inflatable rib boats at 30knots pounding into the waves and wind. You arrive at a large ocean-going barge that has spent the last 4-6 hours rocking and rolling upwind to deliver you your 14ft Stand Up Paddle Race board. In order to get your race board, the people on the barge throw your board into the water and you have to jump off the rib boat and swim to it. Might I mention the water isn’t too warm. From there, its about a 23km race from the barge back to the beach in St. Jean Du Monts.
Unfortunately the weather wasn’t ideal this year. Very marginal winds, about 10knots max and out of the south west. At the start the wind was more West, which was great for catching bumps. Downwinding is my favorite SUP race discipline, so I used all the bumps to get slightly ahead. From there, it was a long and steady mental race to keep pushing hard and making ground going forward. I was reminded during my performance of the Ice Race in Switzerland that I need to eat more during my races to keep my energy levels strong and my blood sugars in check. I broke down the race into thirds and made sure I ate part of my bar every few kilometers. I had a solid lead ahead of Espe, but if I let up for a few minutes and she had a strong few minutes, I knew I could easily be caught. I used every wind shift to ride as many bumps as I could. Sometimes the wind would disappear and other times it would shift to different directions. I didn’t mind if it was side wind, for me any wind is better than none and it helped me stay focused.
I won this race, making it the 4th win out of five races.
I flew home to Hood River after a month of the road, really happy and proud of my first part of the season back competing. It was more than just competing and winning, it was being reconnected with all of my friends from around the world after international borders had kept us apart for so long. That truly made my heart full.
Life’s pace didn’t slow down over the summer. I ran the Big Winds JET program, teaching 40 kids how to paddle and getting them race-ready for the Gorge Paddle Challenge. I was training SUP and IQ Foiling with a little wing-foiling on the side for some fun. I won the Gorge Paddle Challenge for the 5th time.
At the end of the summer, I flew back to Europe where I had two really big races left- the Prague Paddle Fest and the ICF World Championships in Hungary. I was still in disbelief for how consistent I was at the beginning of the season, so I was curious how Prague was going to go. I felt nervous, but as soon as the race started, I felt even stronger than before. I won this race, paddling a very fast pace, almost consistently 10.2-10.6kmph. That was faster than I’d ever averaged a race before.
Last but most definitely not least was the ICF World Championship. This race counted for points on the Euro Tour, but it crowed this years 2021 SUP World Champions Technical Racing, Distance Racing and Sprint Racing. I decided to focus on the Technical and Distance racing because the schedule was so packed if I competed in all three. I also decided to head straight to the event location and train for two weeks leading up to the world championships. This was a game changer, mentally and physically. By the time race day rolled around, I was feeling as best prepared as I could be in that moment.
The distance race was two 9km laps on Lake Balaton in Balatonfured Hungary. The lake was stunning and from my time preparing for the event, I knew the conditions were variable. I spent my prep time getting used to my boards in all possible conditions and making race plans. I tracked the weather and watched for patters. When I woke up on race morning, I had a good feeling about the day ahead.
Off the start of the Distance Race, I broke ahead in the first 300 meters. Sometimes that is a really bad call, especially in a race that is going to take 2 hours. But, I had an opportunity and I had to give it a go. I put the hammer down, made my gap a little bigger and then settled in. I knew I could paddle the distance, I knew I could paddle strong and I knew I was comfortable on my equipment. Coming into the last buoy before the finish, I could hear the crowd. I could see the finish line and I realized I was about to be the new 2021 SUP World Champion! Crossing that finish line was the most exciting moment of my career yet!
But, it does not end there. I won the SUP Distance World Title on Friday and I had to race again on Sunday in the Technical final. This race was only a five minute race. Just one kilometer long. There was no room for a mistake and my nerves were sky high. I came off the line flying, went wide on the first mark and something happened to the other paddlers on the inside. I heard a splash and I came out of the corner clear. One corner, that was all it took. I was out in front, paddling hard. I was breathing hard, my heart was pumping. A few more buoy turns and then the finish line. Two world titles in three days.
That moment was shocking for me. Almost like a big sense of relief. I had worked so hard to get to this point. I knew I could do it but it was a matter of just putting the paddle in the water and getting it done. What was so incredible was that these two races really felt like a culmination of all of the stand up racing I had ever done. All those moments where this went wrong or that went wrong in the past prepared me to know how to respond and to be successful at the World Championships.
Winning the World Championships meant I had more than enough points to win the Euro Tour. So over one weekend I won the Euro Tour and 2 World Titles.
Truly it was a spectacular season. I went on to win my debut Wing Foil World Tour event in Morocco, winning both the Racing and the Surf-Freestyle titles. After that, I won the US National Championship for IQ Foiling in Florida the following weekend.
I know this blog post was supposed to be just about the Euro Tour, and it mostly was, but I wanted to share a little insignt into what it felt like for me during all of these races. All the nerves of competing happen at the highest level and thats ok. It means youre fired up, you’re excited and you’re ready for whatever is ahead! Go out there and make the most of it!