Race Reporter’s Notebook: What I Saw at the Games

Lisa Schell Events, Results & Recaps, The Inland Paddler Leave a Comment

This year’s Pacific Paddle Games at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point, CA marked a first for me – the first time I have ever gone to a paddle race as purely a spectator or observer and chronicler. Instead of a race bib, I had a press badge. I noticed some things. Things I might have seen if I’d been racing, but not with the same lens.

Work ethics and Sportsmanship

I landed on the beach Thursday evening, at the Golden Hour in the Golden State. The sun was low in the sky, casting a beautiful bronze sheen over the water and the sand. It was the time when most people would be heading to the bar, or the house, to begin to retire for the evening.  But at Doheny, the water was full of paddlers, getting in all the practice they could before the races began the next day.  Reveling in the awesome waves.  Open competitors shared those waves with the pros.  Yet the atmosphere was light, and fun and everyone seemed excited just to be there.

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That work ethic continued right into the competition.  I saw so many racers, from groms right on up to the pros out there in the water, practicing their turns and race starts right up to the last minute with a dedication that was both intense and determined and that I am not sure I have seen elsewhere.

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Yet, most people  weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Everyone seemed happy to be sharing the water with each other.  Pros were helping open competitors, sharing tips and tricks and offering encouragement and support.

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And smiles. And laughs. Laughs and aloha for each other, even when things didn’t work out the way some had hoped.

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All throughout the event, there were stories of sportsmanship rarely seen in so called mainstream athletics.  Like Connor Baxter, the men’s overall winner, jumping into the water right before his heat to get seaweed out of the way.  Or, like  run-away boards being wrangled by other paddlers after wipe-outs.

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Joes and  Pros

Really, in what other sport does this kind of camaraderie exist, event after event, between the elite and the recreational paddlers? PPG overall winner Candice Appleby attributes it to our shared love and respect for the water. I think she is right.  We’ve said it before, but we are all connected by water.  And that connection is powerful.  That connection is what makes someone like Canadian Olympic powerhouse Larry Cain offer his paddle to an open competitor from Wisconsin whose own blade was damaged on the flight out. Or that makes Appleby stand on the finish line with her cell phone, taking pictures of all the kids coming in from their races.  She says she makes it a point to never miss the grom races, because they are so important to our sport.

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Groms are the bomb

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When I was at the Gorge Paddle Challenge earlier this summer, I saw a level of kids competing that I am not sure I’ve seen previously.  They were legion! And they were intense. And they were incredibly good!  Well, there were about 10 times more of them at the PPG.  The result of large youth paddle programs on the West Coast.  These kids were amazing to watch, and they most certainly are the future of our sport.  I hope this trend continues and can make its way east.  Think about what the world will be like when these kids grow up, having the love of the water instilled in them instead of the fake worlds of screens, and having followed role models like Appleby, Baxter, Zane Schweitzer, Chuck Patterson, Fiona Wylde and others. We can already get a glimpse of that when we look at teenagers like Hood River’s Hannah Hill  and Maui’s Ryan Funk.

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All Breaks are Not Created Equal

I didn’t get in the water above my knees. I grew up on this coast and have a healthy respect for the water and the rules of the lineup. I never learned to surf there, though. And now, some 30 years later, despite my extreme desire to get out on the water, I knew it was beyond my skill level. Especially with so many people on the waves.  But, that’s not to say there weren’t teachable moments for me.  Watching the sets come  in, watching the techniques being used on the water…I learned from observation. I compared and contrasted how the water was moving at Doheny versus at Wrightsville, I am much more determined to improve my surf skills so that next year, I might get more than my toes wet.

Learning from others, even if it’s just talking story over a sushi burrito (yep, that’s a thing!) is one of the most valuable things and events like this give us a rare opportunity to tap into the experiences of our fellow paddlers.  And you’re never too good or accomplished to take advantage of those opportunities.

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I made the mistake of flying back to North Carolina too early.  I missed the final, epic day of competition. I sorely missed not the warm, sunny vibe of Dana Point and Laguna Beach, but my ohana that I left on that beach.   Last night, I sat  in my quiet living room, thinking about what I witnessed this weekend…a community of amazing people giving their hearts and souls to encourage one another to do well and have fun. And I’ve seen it all over – in Wrightsville, on Maui, in Hood River, New Bern, Charleston, and it will definitely be there at Chattajack – a thousand fold.

Being with these people…sharing the water and the waves together….it’s what it’s all about. And it’s why I so hate to see the summer and the season go.  And that too, is the reason why my next race – Chattajack – is so very important and meaningful to me.

See y’all in ‘Nooga, then!